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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Casanova: philosopher, gambler, lover, priest

Frances Wilson reviews Casanova: Philosopher, Gambler, Lover, Priest by Ian Kelly

What is Casanova's biographer to do? The retired libertine did the job so well himself in his Histoire de ma vie that no one could possibly improve on his story, just as no one setting out to describe his extraordinarily restless life could have read, travelled or written more than Casanova, or thought more about the business of living than he did, or lived as bravely or as excessively.

Casanova preferred his women to smell of cheese

The Histoire, which Casanova wrote at the end of his days when he was working as a librarian at Dux Castle in Bohemia, details with such wit, candour and style his peripatetic years as a priest, con-man, cabbalist, violinist, soldier, alchemist, prisoner, fugitive, gambler, intellectual, writer and lover, while inadvertently giving such a vivid picture of mid-18th-century Europe, that not only is there little for anyone to add but due to its sheer bulk - over 3,800 pages, making up 12 volumes - the beleaguered biographer must rather choose what to take away in order to make his own version a reasonable length.

Casanova has baffled and thwarted many of those writers who, while trying to describe and evaluate his experiences, have succeeded only in repeating in edited form the events as he tells them, but in Ian Kelly he has at last found his Boswell. Himself an actor, Kelly is immediately alert to the theatricality of his subject.

Born the illegitimate son of a Venetian actress in a city where it was mandatory to be masked from October to Ash Wednesday, Casanova lived a life shaped by the slipperiness of the masquerade and the playfulness of the theatre. It is as a player of parts on the great European stage that he describes himself in his Histoire.

Accordingly, Kelly shapes his biography around not chapters but dramatic acts and scenes, with refreshing intermezzi where he pauses to discourse, in true Enlightenment fashion, not only on Casanova's involvement in the Cabbala, the 'fusion of Gnosticism, Egyptian mathematics, neo-Platonism, Judaic mysticism and personal revelation' by which he was so mysteriously intrigued; but also on his means of travel (important in terms of sex-on-the-road), his love of food (equal and analogous to his love of women), and his attitude to women (most appreciated when they smelt of cheese).

To focus on the women. Between the age of 16, when he lost his virginity, and his late forties, when he lost his potency, Casanova slept with around 130 of them, which works out at an average of four a year. This may or may not seem a great deal for a man who never married or stayed in one place for too long, but Kelly argues that Casanova deserves his place in history not because of the quantity of bodies he enjoyed but because of the guilt-free quality of the enjoyment as he describes it in his memoirs. The Histoire 'posited firmly, for the first time in the Western canon, the idea that an understanding of sex - with all its irrationality and destructive potential - is key to an understanding of the self'.

Behind the masks, Casanova's 'self' emerges as a complex affair. His first sexual encounter was with a pair of sisters whom he enjoyed simultaneously; much later he would enjoy his own daughter in the same bed as her mother. While he was uncharacteristically cagey about his genuine homosexual encounters, he was particularly drawn to women who dressed as men - at one point embarking on a dizzying affair with a girl disguised as a castrato disguised as a girl.

The manner of Casanova's affairs suggest that he was busy avoiding pain as much as pursuing pleasure; he behaved, as Wordsworth would say, 'more like a man /Flying from something that he dreads, than one Who sought the thing he loved'. He would become emotionally attached and then sharply detach himself: his need to leave was as strong as his need to love. What is striking is how repetitive his affairs were, as though he were performing the same scene again and again. At one point, years after a liaison with a nun he calls by the pseudonym MM, he meets another nun and he calls her MM too.

An unexpected pleasure is the book's focus on food. Casanova loved eating; 'sex is like eating and eating is like sex', he wrote, and Kelly speculates that he may be the originator of the reputation of oysters as an aphrodisiac. He was born into the 'last great age of Venetian cooking', he liked his macaroni sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, and during his final years, while he mouldered away in Dux Castle, 'A day did not go by', a friend observed, 'that he did not have a quarrel, over his coffee, over his milk, his plate of macaroni on which he insisted…'

Kelly's narrative loses its momentum only once, in his disappointingly flat account of Casanova's spectacular escape over the leads of the Doge's palace, where he was imprisoned for 'a question of religion'. But because this particular scene was Casanova's party piece - even his enemies admitted that he told the story brilliantly - and the crowning achievement of his life, perhaps it is best that the biographer does not steal the show.

Ian Kelly has taken on a tremendous challenge and produced a great blast of a book, packed with energy and information, marinated in sympathy and understanding, and rippling with enthusiasm right down to the final footnote.

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