Giacomo Casanova
Giacomo Casanova; drawing by David Levine

Casanova’s Histoire de ma vie is one of the most exhilarating of narratives; it is also one of the most mystifying. Like some enormous bird, the last of its fantastic species, the Histoire comes to us encrusted with scars yet still proudly levitating in a hostile atmosphere, still holding its own against those who would ensnare and bring it down. The scars are the many doubts cast upon the winged monster by biographers and critics. They have had reason to doubt it: the book is a strange bird.

What degree, or what kind, of veracity can be expected of the author of a narrative so full of improbable incidents? Hasn’t Casanova exploited the credulousness of posterity just as in the Histoire itself he admits, indeed boasts, of having exploited that of the Countess D’Urfé when, claiming to possess occult powers and a helpful oracle named Paralis, he undertook to realize her urgent dream of being reborn as a boy? No court of law would fail to discredit him as a witness on the grounds of his own testimony. Again, was old Casanova in fact the author of the Histoire, admittedly a masterpiece of its kind; or was the true author, as someone once suggested, that lover of hoaxes, impersonations, and pseudonyms, Stendhal? And what about the authenticity of the very text of the Histoire? Could authority be granted to any of the several versions in which the work used to circulate, since those versions showed striking differences?

True, there exists and international band of literary detectives called “Casanovites.” They are, and have long been, intent on establishing what one of them, the British writer J. Rives Childs, has called Casanova’s “essential veracity.” But surely this is a question-begging term in itself; and the discouraging result of the Casanovite researches is that by documenting certain of Casanova’s movements and activities, and affixing actual names to several of his heroines (to whom he gave false names or initials), they have incidentally reminded us of the vast reaches of Casanova’s experience that remain unverified and are possibly unverifiable by their very nature. It is one thing to come up with police records or contemporary newspapers proving that Casanova was actually present in a certain city at more or less the same date at which he claims to have been in that city. But it rarely follows that what he claims to have done in that city is established. More frustrating still are the attempted identifications of the several women. There is the French woman whom Casanova calls Henriette; she is one of his most believable heroines; on arriving with Casanova at Geneva, where they are about to part, she memorializes the sad, inevitable event by inscribing with a diamond on the windowpane of their hotel room: “Henriette tu aussi oublieras.” By consulting genealogies and resorting to a good many dubious postulates, the French authority, Charles Samaran, has “identified” Henriette as a certain lady of the Provencal gentry. But since nothing whatever is known about the lady that would connect her with Casanova or afford her a personality, whether or not consonant with Henriette’s personality, the attempted identification remains as fruitless in its results as it is tenuous in its logic.* Yet the Histoire has kept aloft, in however nameless a void. It is still read by thousands in a variety of dubious texts and unconscionable abridgments, although Casanova himself seems to be less of a culture hero to the advanced public at present than he was a quarter of a century ago.

ONE QUITE GRATUITOUS SOURCE of Casanovan mystification has, however, been recently removed, that of the text. We now have the initial installment of an excellent English translation by Willard Trask of the first authentic text of the Histoire ever to be published. The entire text, in the French in which Casanova wrote it, is contained in six sumptuous volumes with notes, a chronology, and a superb 180-page index. These volumes first saw light in Europe during the years 1960-62. The “Edition intégrale,” as it is called, was the jointly executed project of a French firm, the Librarie Plon, and a German firm, F. A. Brockhaus. The ancient Brockhaus company has been in possession of Casanova’s original manuscript ever since it first came into their hands, in 1821, some twenty-three years after Casanova’s death. How the manuscript survived, with only slight damage, the menaces of time, war, thievery, and the malversations of editors is a romance in itself. Considering, however, the fabulous nature of the Histoire, Mr. Trask is to be congratulated for the sobriety with which, in his Introduction, he has told this tale of the manuscript’s adventures. It is also to his credit that he has revealed the mutilations suffered by all previous French texts—and naturally carried over into all translations—without crying up in the expected Madison Avenue manner the advantages of the new text. He doesn’t have to crow; the many examples he gives of the damage wrought on the Histoire by former editors and publishers crow for themselves.


It was one Jean Laforgue, a French professor resident in Germany, to whom the Brockhaus company first entrusted the editing of the manuscript, in the 1820s. Laforgue undertook to correct Casanova’s sometimes unidiomatic French. (Italian, or as he liked to say, Venetian, was of course his native language.) The same editor also bowdlerized the text as he was obliged to do if the Histoire was to be published at all in those years, or for many years to come. Less pardonably, he supplied clarifications and motivations when he thought the action as recounted by Casanova was obscure. Still worse, he toned down Casanova’s anti-Revolutionary sentiments to make them accord with his own more or less Jacobin sentiments. Several decades ago, it became widely known that the existing texts were all largely derived from Laforgue’s and were all consequently unreliable, and that the original manuscript lay virtually out of reach in the Brockhaus vaults. This knowledge naturally discouraged interested scholars. From responsible scholarship Casanova got little attention; and since such scholarship when it is applied to worthwhile subjects often unites with good criticism to revive or keep alive the figures of the past, Casanova, lacking such efforts in his behalf, has tended to recede into a semi-Limbo, having been replaced as an eighteenth-century hero by other figures—Boswell, Horace Walpole, Diderot, Rousseau, even the Marquis de Sade—who have been better researched, documented, textualized, or at least existentialized.

Perhaps Bonamy Dobrée’s short biography (Casanova, New York, 1933) may be taken as a tide-mark in the rise and fall of Casanova’s reputation. For Dobrée’s too brief but shapely and humane book seems to have been the last book of any general interest on Casanova to appear in English. Certain remarks in the author’s Preface suggest that he felt scruples about working from even so up-to-date a text as the Edition la Sirène (Paris, 1924-35). His remarks are an apology in the form of a prophecy. “It is probable that we do not lose much in the rephrasing, and it is equally probable that no completely raw text will ever be published, for Casanova called things by their names, and it is odd that though humanity will accept facts, it is often horrified by words.”

AS PROPHECY Dobrée’s words have proved wrong in all particulars. The “raw text” as now published shows how extensive Laforgue’s “rephrasings” often were. On the other hand, the formerly bowdlerized or excised passages now restored turn out to be sparing in the use of “words”—words for the bodily parts and the sexual processes. And just as Casanova’s style, freed from Laforgue-isms, gains in terseness, so the scenes of sexual encounter, although they may suffer from the coyness of Casanova’s locutions—“charms” for a woman’s breasts and lower body, “my steed” for his own penis—have the advantage of including details that help to individualize the scenes and characterize the women.

In the present Englished volume there are, for example, the episodes at Corfu involving Casanova and the Signora F. On one occasion the two of them are shown “wiping” themselves off: they have engaged in some act of quasicoitus. From this and other related scenes the Signora F. emerges as a rather pitiable captive of her situation: the palace on this island outpost of the Venetian empire, her coldly acquiescent husband, her aging official lover, and the insistent young Casanova, ever the born outsider on the watch for his chance to become an insider. Whether from pride or fear or some excess of self-love the Signora F. is a “tease.” Once she deliberately though briefly exposes her “charms” to the gaping and gasping youth. Viewing the event in retrospect, Casanova writes, with what strikes me as a certain loveliness of feeling and insight: “I see her staring at herself, lost in herself…delighting in her own beauty.”

Such episodes as those concerning the Signora F. frequently involve what appear to be familiar motifs from erotic romance and fabliau. Our suspicions as to their authenticity are thus aroused, and we recall that he had probably read a lot of that literature from the Satyricon to the Decameron and beyond. Yet “life imitates art.” There is a whole mythology of the modern sleeping-car and it is not all myth. Travel is still a great aphrodisiac. In any case, a wealth of intricate circumstance and realistic detail gives at least an imaginative authority to Casanova’s erotic passages. In addition to the Signora F., there is the woman in Rome who, asked by Casonova why she sighs while pulling down her skirts as their carriage halts in front of her palace, replies simply, like Emma Bovary rather than a heroine of erotic romance, “We’re home.”


For Casanova, love-making is always an occasion for the making of a scene. Settings are carefully specified and rendered graphic. The characters are animated by appropriate forms of speech and action, and these may be understated, like the “We’re home,” or amount to a veritable beau geste, like Henriette’s words on the window-pane. Occasionally the scene is Hogarthian or Jan Steenian in its rambunctious scamperings and debris of squalor, Such is the happening in the peasant’s cottage where Casanova and Father Steffano are set upon by two lecherous hags. This is an inversion (love among the lower classes!) of Casanova’s frequently idyllic love scenes. In these idyls the pleasures of intercourse are reflected in the splendor of the surroundings: the well-upholstered rooms, the gardens and colonnades; the luminous sunlight or sudden thunderstorm. In such scenes, it could be said, the blooming Fragonard girl is really possessed amid her draperies on that marble seat under the ornamental urns and elms. Casanova was the brother of a painter and an acquaintance of Raphael, Mengs, Winckelmann, possibly Francesco Guardi.

CASANOVA’S TEMPER is far more histrionic than painterly. That part of his mind we call memory, working on what we assume to have been real events of his past, instantly sets ablaze that part of his mind we call imagination, with the result that those events are converted into the kind of scenes referred to above. This transforming of the stuff of memory into the scenario of theater commences with what he calls his earliest memory. Meanwhile he has maintained that his “organ of memory” developed only with “the beginning of my own existence as a thinking being,” that is, when he was “eight years and four months old.” Casanova’s is the classical conception of the limits of recollection; memory is an organ whose beginnings coincide with those of the faculty of reason (“a thinking being”). For the Rousseau of the Confessions, on the other hand, as for the many subsequent autobiographers in Rousseau’s tradition, memory begins not at some determinate age or date but with some happening. The happening is usually domestic, and often trifling in itself though not generally in its ultimate significance; and as a rule it is traceable to an age earlier than Casanova’s eight years and four months, if it is traceable at all. (Henry James was to maintain that his earliest memory was of seeing the column in the Place Vendôme from a carriage at the age of one!) Rousseau tracks his first memory back to what is apparently an age earlier than seven. His “uninterrupted self-consciousness” began with his father’s reading to him from the library of romances left behind by Rousseau’s dead mother. Often his father would read to him all night long until, “hearing the swallows begin to twitter, he would say, quite ashamed. ‘To bed with us; I am more of a child than yourself.”‘ Rousseau’s recall is merely a glimpse, not a scene, but the glimpse brings child, father, and dead mother, books and twittering birds, into a domestic relationship of the utmost poignancy.

By contrast Casanova’s earliest recollection is a fully though briefly developed narrative that moves between domesticity and melodrama. He stares at his blood “streaming on the floor” from an unquenchable nosebleed. His grandmother transports him by gondola to a witch’s establishment on the island of Murano. There, in a hovel inhabited by a black cat and by several old women speaking a strange dialect, he is submitted to certain magical rites (they include his being locked in a chest) and then sent home with the promise that the bleeding will gradually stop and that he will be visited next night by “a charming lady,” unless he reveals to someone the witch’s mysteries, in which case he will die. He obeys and is rewarded by seeing (“or I thought I saw,” he qualifies) “a dazzlingly beautiful woman come down by the chimney.” The lady presents him with gifts in “several small boxes,” bestows on him a sort of blessing, and vanishes.

This rather alarming fairy-tale incident seems made to order for the Freudian critic: the terrible nosebleed, the chests and boxes, the threat of death, the visionary lady with her gifts. Casanova’s mother was a Venetian actress who gave him as an infant into her mother’s care, was seldom in evidence thereafter, and eventually abandoned him; while his father, also an actor, died only a few months after the nosebleed scene. Manifestly, Casanova’s future as a Great Lover is prefigured in that scene. He will pursue the mysterious maternal charmer all his active life in the various guises of his many loves. Frequently he will seduce or try to seduce women at the expense of husbands and/or brothers, males who often exhibit a dream-like innocence or permissiveness which, as Casanova presents it, savors irresistibly of connivance. Meanwhile he will confess openly to a dread of impotence, thus anticipating a classic Freudian formula for the cause of libertinism. “I have all my life been dominated by the fear that my steed would flinch from beginning another race.” But just as the Freudian’s eyes begin to glint with clairvoyance, Casanova is, by anticipation, right on top of him. He adds: “and I have never found this restraint painful, for the visible pleasure which I gave [to women] always made up four-fifths of mine.” There, complete with the narcissism, you have the whole psychiatric “package”—everything, that is, but the suspicion of “latent homosexuality.” And even this, if you want to see it, is “confirmed” by the frequency and the vigor with which Casanova denies any such propensities on his part, while tolerating them in others just as he tolerates masturbation, lesbianism (among young girls), and, in theory, incest.

AGAIN, ROUSSEAU offers himself for contrast. His “case” is more complicated, his inhibitions deeper, than Casanova’s and he is therefore by turns more revealing and more furtive than the author of the Histoire. And it is interesting to note that their two paths cross, once in connection with the actress-courtesan Giulietta. Casanova’s quarrelsome relations with her are recounted in the present English translation (Volume One, Chapter V). They culminate in her demand that the two of them exchange clothes at a ball, which they do while to her annoyance Casanova stares at her body. Observant as he is of women’s anatomies, their feet, hands, smells (“I have always found that the one I loved smelled good.”), he fails to observe what Rousseau observes, or thinks he observes, when some three years later, himself in Venice, Rousseau is fascinated by the same Giulietta until he discovers that “she had only one nipple” (Confessions, Book VII). Was Rousseau “seeing things”? one wonders. Did he transform his own confessed dread of ordinary sex into a deformity on Giulietta’s part, thus finding a pretext for bringing his advances to a halt? This he promptly does while Giulietta, bewildered and scornful, remarks “Lascia le donne, y studia la matematica.” Rousseau has meanwhile confessed that Giulietta had earlier “put into my wretched head the poison of that ineffable happiness, the desire for which he [Nature] has planted in my heart.” This poisoned happiness, as we know from other passages in Confessions, consists in his associating women with his dead mother to the extent of wanting to be at once loved and punished by them—literally, perhaps, beaten by them. If Rousseau’s inhibitions gave rise to delusions—ultimately to the paranoid conviction that he was the victim of an international conspiracy—they also stimulated his great powers of introspection. And these in turn accounted for the profound novelty of the Confessions in their time and for the immense influence that book exerted on later writers. The Confessions were original in their exceptional feeling for the continuity of the psychic life; the Child is Father of the Man.

Casanova is, or consistently represents himself to be, far more “extroverted” than Rousseau. His histrionic instinct (which Rousseau shared, though intermittently) permits him, perhaps obliges him, to overcome the handicaps of his lowly birth and parentless childhood by the comparatively simple mechanism of playing roles. No sooner is he confirmed as an abate than he creates a sensation, sets “the whole town talking” in a favorite phrase, by his performance as a boy preacher.

Eventually he wears out the possibilities of his clerical character. Half consciously he seeks a replacement for it—and through a typical mingling of will and luck finds the replacement. One of Casanova’s most brilliant moments occurs. Astride a wild horse he rides, or is carried, across the battle lines in central Italy. Proceeding to Bologna he discards his clerical habit for a soldier’s uniform. The uniform is specially tailored to his fanciful design. He is now unmistakeably in costume. And so the masquerade will continue throughout his active life with its peculiar rhythmic alternation of good and bad fortune. There will be a lot of the bad, of sudden descents into the dark night of social obliquity. Once, returning to Venice penniless and friendless he becomes a fiddler in a theater orchestra, joins a gang of delinquents in their wild unprogrammed rebellion against Venetian oppression and hypocrisy, only to bounce abruptly upward once again. He does so by suddenly improvising for himself a new role, that of a physician-necromancer complete with an oracle, the same helpful Paralis. By this maneuver he finds in a credulous old Senator another indulgent “father”—one who, moreover, will hold him in affection and keep him in funds for years to come.

IN EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY LIVES, real and fictional, impersonation in one form or another is a familiar occurrence. So are such related phenomena as pseudonyms, hoaxes, and literary forgeries. By these means the adventurous outsider could take advantage of the social conditions of the time: the deteriorating despotisms of the Continent, the increasingly ambiguous functions of the patronage system. By similar means but for different ends Thomas Chatterton could acquire a “second existence” as the imaginary Middle English author of quaint and lovely verses. The same tendency persisted into the time of Merimée, Stendhal, and Kierkegaard. Nor did its history end with Balzac’s ennobling himself by the addition of a de to his name, as Casanova had done with the “de Seingalt.” Such practices would be revived later in a more sophisticated form by Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde, Yeats, and others. Their “masks” or “personae” would be assumed with no view to deceiving themselves or others. The end, rather, would be the acquisition of an antithetical self or of multiple selves. By thus recreating, as it were, oneself, one would strengthen one’s creative power as applied to thought and art. And so on into our time, when in Black Humor fiction acts of impersonation are, however, exclusively “subjective,” accomplished momentarily and by the magic of alcohol, narcotics, and orgiastic sex.

Casanova is, or represents himself as being, the most “objective” of the classic impersonators in history or fiction. Indirectly but unmistakably he gives a social as well as a psychological explanation of his behavior. He is the forsaken child of actors. But he is also a native of histrionic Venice. There almost every parish has its much frequented theater; the annual Carnival goes on for weeks with a continuous round of spectacles and with crowds of costumed and masked merrymakers. In ordinary times, however, the wearing of masks is permitted only to members of the patriciate and their hangers-on. And Casanova, confided by his dying father to the guardianship of the noble Grimani family, well educated at Padua with their assistance, becomes one of the hangers-on. He thus acquires a position that was not his by birth and that he therefore clings to with conspicuous firmness throughout his career. Meanwhile the ambiguity of his own social status is reflected in the duplicity, as he sees it, of the Venetian oligarchy, which maintains the outward appearance of piety and decorum while in many cases pursuing in private not only the usual pleasures of sex and gambling but the heretical satisfactions of necromancy. Its hypocrisy makes the patriciate fair game for the gifted adventurer, though it by no means guarantees his continued success. For Casanova Venice becomes the model of all aristocratic Europe. The city’s very configuration—the narrow streets, the casini (or hide-outs) of the pleasure-bent patricians, the canals, bridges, islands—and, of course, the convenient gondolas—form a sort of scrambled chessboard where victories can be won by the clever and venturesome player, if only briefly.

CASANOVA’S VENICE is a Venice never painted by the festive Canaletto or the moodier Guardi. Indeed he never really visualizes the city except at one climactic moment: in the course of his now famous escape from the Leads, the prison beneath the lead-plated roof of the Ducal Palace. He and his companion in flight have made their way to the steep palace roof. While the bells of San Marco boom midnight they sit precariously astride the roof-tree wondering what to do next, for Casanova has as usual made careful plans while leaving much to luck. Desperately waiting for luck they gaze about them. On one side is the guarded Palace courtyard, on another the shallow little canal, on another the mountain mass of San Marco’s domes, on still another the Riva pavement, all of them invitations to death or recapture. Beyond the Riva, however, are the Lagoon, the boats, the islands, the mainland, the frontier, freedom. Luck now abruptly, and almost comically, manifests itself in the shape of a ladder left behind on the roof by workmen. After further exertions and perils, the two fugitives simply walk down the grand staircase, proceed out on the Riva, leap into a boat, and are off.

End of the greatest episode in the Histoire. But not of course the end of Casanova or even of his Venetian career. He will return to the labyrinthine city, eventually to serve as a spy for the very Holy Inquisition that formerly imprisoned him. The trouble with being a free spirit is experienced by Casanova long before it is known to André Gide and the heroes of his novels. The free spirit, remaining human, is tempted to demonstrate his freedom. In doing so he commits a gratuitous murder, as Gide’s Lafcadio does, or, like Casanova, he indulges in other forbidden games, thus unwittingly joining the least free of social groupings, the criminal class. Luck, together with his lasting charm and bravado, saves Casanova at last, though not in the way he has expected. Instead of making his fortune once more, he finds refuge with Count Waldstein at Dux in Bohemia, becoming the castle librarian.

Even then, in 1785, he had thirteen years to live. It was no foregone conclusion that he would produce the Histoire and in the Preface be able to make his boast of “Vixi: I have lived” and by way of that book live on in the eternity (figuratively speaking) of literature. Long before he announced that he had “lived,” he was already old, toothless, cantankerous, the almost penniless pensioner of the patient Count, the butt of the servants when the master was absent. He had then tried, and would try again, to reach his ideal audience by other kinds of writing: a mathematical treatise, a five-volume philosophical romance à la Voltaire. All these efforts failed to win him a public except one: his account in published form of a story he had often told viva voce, that of his escape from the Leads.

Related with immense zest, the story had gained for him a multitude of hearers; news of it had preceded him in his travels; so had news of his other exploits and entertainments. He could improvise verse on the instant, quote Horace and Ariosto at length, crown feeble witticism with devastating witticism. It was, in part at least, as a kind of minstrel of the salons that he had made his way among Europe’s dispersed courts and seats of the gentry. From Naples to Petersburg many a duke had been kept awake by his performances—the duke, his wife, his mistress, his wife’s lover, the local archbishop, and the attractive young girl, or preferably pair of girls, listening in the shadows. What Casanova did finally was to resume, by way of the Histoire, the most innocent of his former roles, that of entertainer. Meanwhile the French Revolution had intervened to assist him in his choice, not of a role now but of a vocation. He hated the Revolution and its consequences for the aristocratic society which, generally corrupt, credulous, and bungling though he depicted it in his book, was still “reality” for him. It seems to have been in 1789 or there-abouts that he embarked seriously on the writing of the Histoire, evidently making use of notes composed earlier. With the discovery of his vocation and subject he also discovered, or re-discovered, his ideal body of readers. He wrote, the Preface says, “to provide a most worthy subject for laughter to my well-bred audience, for such is the society which has always shown its friendship for me and which I have always frequented.” Always? The delusion no longer mattered. He goes on to clinch his point. “To write well I have but to imagine that my readers will belong to it [the well-bred society].”

I HAVE IMPLIED that the best test of Casanova’s “veracity” is the quality and the consistency of his imagination as shown in given episodes. A precarious sort of test, I admit, but, with all respect to Casanovite documentation, the only one that so far suggests itself as possible. Judged by this standard, the Constantinople episodes in the present volume are inferior fictions—and no documents have so far been produced to validate those episodes. In certain of them he seems to be inventing at second hand. His models, all based on conventionalized ideas of the Orient, show through. For his conversations with Yussef on comparative manners and morals, the models could be anything from the Lettres Persanes to Rasselas to the Princesse de Babylone. The voyeuristic orgy with the sodomite Ismail (those Turks!) is fancy pornography, perhaps out of the Arabian Nights. The scenes in which Yussef offers Casanova his daughter in marriage and then exposes him to the lust of Yussef’s wife are another matter. Casanova is here indulging without restraint his own erotic-familial fantasies.

What, by this pragmatic test, are the more convincing passages? There will be more of them, I think, in the later volumes than in the present one. Casanova seems to grow up with the progress of his narrative. There will be the passages recounting his first arrival in the Paris of Louis XV, his youthful joy at escaping from the hypocrisy of Venice into the relative candor of French court society. At Paris, characteristically, he heads straight for the place where the “action” is, the Palais Royale, and then on into the drawing rooms of delightful people and, by way of the State lottery, to the attainment of what is to remain his highest point of prosperity. There will be his sentimental journey with the believable Henriette and his increasingly detailed portraits of other individuals. These include an outrageous Irish mercenary soldier and rake, named Morphy, a sort of alter ego whom in his hard way Casanova loves for once (he usually hates his own kind, from Cagliostro to the poor French soldier in Corfu who ventures to impersonate LaRochefoucauld). In the present volume there are marvelous things too: the portrait of Senator Bragadin and his circle of wellbred cranks (all belong to families listed in the Libro d’Oro of Venice for the year 1297); his account, already mentioned, of the fantasy uniform he puts on in Bologna (one thinks of the young cleric in Le Rouge et le noir admiring his mirrored self in what he thinks is the privacy of the vestry); the arm torn from the corpse by Casanova and thrust at his enemy who, waking suddenly in the dark, finds himself clasping a dead hand and—goes mad. The Bellino-Teresa episodes are striking, though padded out with tiresome conversations reminiscent of classical French drama. These episodes owe their grotesque fascination to the remorseless energy, the cruel avidity, with which Casanova pursues the boy-girl and forces her at last to reveal her sex.

In this volume as elsewhere in the Histoire, it is true, the exhiliration of the narrative is qualified by Casanova’s theatrical excesses, his overplaying of scenes, his will to remain on top of every situation and several paces ahead of his reader. As narrator his personality is at once too insistent and too impoverished in complexity of feeling and thought. He lives by a code, that of the man of pleasure; he is the too literal disciple of the materialist Gassendi. The code, like most codes, is inflexible: a dagger in the belt. Only in certain love scenes where in his rapture he attains to a state of parity with the woman, achieves a status which allows him to give as well as take pleasure, and to provide for his women as a gentleman does for his family—or a good son for his mother—only then does he really escape from his histrionic compulsions.

For all his egocentrism and his “insincerity” the Rousseau of the Confessions establishes with the reader an intimacy quite beyond Casanova’s scope. No single character in the Histoire exists as Rousseau’s Mme. de Warens exists, in the intricacy of her relations to herself, to others of her ménage, to her activities, to her house and the surrounding landscape. Nor does any object acquire the luminosity, the precious singularity, of things in the Confessions: the periwinkle in the grass at Chambéri; the walnut tree at Bossey; the bare backsides that a woman accidentally shows to the King of Sardinia when, watching his equipage pass, she tumbles in her excitement; the father who says, “To bed with us, I am more of a child than yourself.” Such things acquire their luminosity, their singularity, because they occur in a rich medium of Time and at once mark its passing and signify its recapture in the memory. For Rousseau Time—Time in the modern sense of a fifth element that conditions our lives at every instant—is again a discovery that later writers will develop. Casanova, on the contrary, is unaware of Time except when, intermittently, someone he has known in the past reappears on the stage of his life to remind him of Time’s passing. Space is Casanova’s medium—the distances between cities, the relation of room to room within houses, the dimensions of the imaginary theater in which he and his creations perform. For intimacy this winged monster of an Histoire substitutes comprehensiveness, variety, the perspective of grandeur. Casanova’s light, as distinct from Rousseau’s, is a magnificent, artificially intensified beam that never was on land, sea, or the candle-lit stag of Venetian theaters.

This Issue

March 9, 1967