Our Man in the Eighteenth Century?

History of My Life

by Giacomo Casanova and Chevalier de Seingalt, translated with an Introduction by Willard R. Trask
Harcourt, 679 pp., $7.50

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…

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