I’m a little late with the review of my 6th non-fiction book this year. In my defence, even in this abridged version, Casanova’s ‘History of My Life’ weighs in at well over 1,000 pages. Few autobiographies could sustain such detail, here I’m only too aware of how much was missed out. Casanova didn’t just live for a long time (1725 – 1798) he packed as much into every year as possible. Sometimes of course, this wasn’t practical and there are several chapters that chronicle his various incarcerations, including the 15 months of a five year sentence spend in the ‘Leads’ an infamous Venetian prison. Typically, Casanova made his confinement as eventful as he could, culminating in a daring cross-the-roof-tops escape. Frankly, this ends up feeling like one of his tamer escapades.
The adventures just keep on coming; one of the wonderful things about this Everyman Library edition (translated by Willard R Trask) is that whenever there are omissions from Casanova’s, even longer, original memoir, the editor fills you in. For a typical example, though my version skips ahead in volume 2, from chapter three to chapter seven, I did get to enjoy a summary of what was missed:
‘By way of Corfu Casanova eventually reached Constantinople where he delivered to Monsieur de Bonneval the letters with which he had been charged in Rome by Cardinal Acquviva. Introduced by Bonneval to a number of rich and cultivated Turks, he was propositioned by one and briefly tempted by the prospect of marriage to the daughter of another. Refusing both offers, he set out again for Venice, but found himself waylaid in Corfu by his passion for intrigue, both amorous and financial. Here his luck deserted him once more. Ruined by gambling, abandoned by a new mistress and infected with venereal disease by a celebrated courtesan, he returned to Venice where he found his brother under arrest. Resigning his commission, and undeterred by past disasters, Casanova resolved to set up in business as a professional gambler. He soon lost all his remaining money and found that the only way to earn his living was to play the fiddle. His old adversary and patron, Grimani, procured him a job at the Teatro San Samuele for one scudo per day. The Casanova who had consorted on equal terms with patricians in Venice and ambassadors in Constantinople was now a musical hack – but not for long.’
Just to be clear, these are the incidents that didn’t make it in to the abridged version!
The quotation above does manage to mention some of the recurring ups and downs in Casanova’s life. Frequent amorous adventures, lots of dubious get-rich-quick schemes, dependence on patrons and a willingness to turn his hand to pretty much anything means that life is never stable. The only thread that I’d want to add is Casanova’s success as an eighteenth-century magician/conman. Some of his most audacious swindles involve fake magic, with dramatic props and results. Casanova has an almost 21st century cynicism when it comes to the supernatural, but is more than happy to take advantage of his contemporaries’ credulity.
There is no way I can do justice to such an immense memoir in one blog post. All I can say is that I thoroughly enjoyed it. The chapters flew by and I would feel like an expert in eighteenth-century European politics and celebrities, if only Casanova had been interested in writing more about them. Instead, he devotes at least equal time to his love affairs (I have learned a lot about seducing innocent virgins, experienced nuns, maids, ladies, mothers, daughters and one unexpected eunuch). If you have the time to spare, I do recommend spending it with Casanova, one of the few historical figures who more than lives up to his outrageous reputation.