Cultural Cohesion, p.41Clive James
Lesser writings aside, History of My Life is Casanova’s main claim to the literary importance that he always dreamed of in the intervals—sometimes lasting for days on end—between chasing skirt. The claim has to be called successful, if with some reluctance. When the first instalment of the hardback edition came out, in 1966, bigwigs of the literary world united to rain hosannas on its editor and translator, Willard R. Trask, for restoring a masterpiece to just pre-eminence after its long history of being bowdlerized, rewritten by interfering hacks, truncated, mistranslated and attacked from the air. (A Second World War bomb through the roof of the Brockhaus office, in Leipzig, almost did to the manuscript what the bomb through the roof of the Eremitani church in Padua did to Mantegna’s frescoes.) Since then, there has been time to think, and wonder whether many of the mandarins who heaped Casanova’s capolavoro with praise ever read it again, or even read in it. For one thing, it isn’t a book for a literal-minded age in which the authenticity of a quotation has to be guaranteed by marking supplied words with square brackets. What about all that dialogue, remembered in detail over the stretch of decades? Did he carry a tape recorder? A limiting judgement would have plenty to go on.
But that’s just it: plenty is what the book has—plenty of everything, even without the sex. There are swindles and scandals, pretensions and inventions, clerics, lyrics and bubbling alembics, sword fights at midnight and complots at the palace, bugs in the bed and bedlam in the tavern, masked balls, balls-ups and shinnying up drainpipes, flummery, mummery and summary executions. All that, as the journalists say, plus a pullulating plankton field of biddable, beddable broads, through which Casanova moves with the single-minded hunger of a straining whale, yet somehow brings the whole populated ocean of eighteenth-century society to phosphorescent life. The book teems. It flows. It does everything but end. Written in his old age, the memoirs, recounting his picaresque manoeuvres almost day by day, could get only so far before he croaked, leaving uncovered his most fascinating and possibly most edifying years—the declining years, when the old magic had finally and forever ceased to work. But the memoirs got far enough to establish a pattern that becomes as predictable to the reader as a flimflam man’s tent show on tour. Casanova checks into the inn, checks out the upmarket talent, screws the pick of the bunch, screws up a business deal and moves on. Roaming the whole of Europe, he penetrates the local high society in each new place, penetrates all the attractive females up to and including the nobility, works some scam to raise funds, blows it and blows town. (The two previous sentences say the same thing with the words changed. Casanova’s prose works the same effect for thousands of pages, the miracle being that it isn’t worked to death.)
To call Casanova’s chef d’oeuvre repetitive is like calling Saint-Simon snobbish or de Sade sadistic. Repetition is what he lived for, especially with beautiful women. Variety had to be serial, or it wasn’t variety. After he had done all the different things with the same woman, he wanted to do all the same things with different women. He could never get enough of them, and there were more of them than even he could envision. Think of it: there was one born every minute! Every second! But the eternal problem with which he faces us is that he didn’t feel like that at the time. He dealt wholesale but he thought retail. Each love affair was the only one that counted for as long as it lasted. Sometimes it lasted only a matter of minutes, but the liaison got the whole of his attention, even if the Inquisition was waiting for him down on the street. He never had one eye on the clock. He had both eyes on his beloved’s face, utterly caught up in the moment when her crisis of ecstasy made her soul his. Anxiety that such a revelation might never come again, as it were, conferred the precious gift of delay. He writes, “I have all my life been dominated by the fear that my steed would flinch from beginning another race; and I never found this restraint painful, for the visible pleasure which I gave always made up four fifths of mine.” Four-fifths is 80 per cent whichever way you slice it: a lot to give away. But then it was by giving that he took. Even in—especially in—bed, he could convince them that it wasn’t about him, it was about them. This was, and remains, a winning formula.
. . .
There were serving maids whom he routinely leaped on just because he bumped into them on the stairs, and there was the occasional faded grande dame he more or less had to satisfy because it was easier than talking his way out of it, but on the whole he never got it on with a woman who he didn’t think, while she lay in his arms, was the woman of his dreams, the one designed to appeal to his imagination by the qualities of her mind and soul as well as the beauty of her body. Women knew that about him just by the way he looked at them. He was a great lover because they knew in advance that he would love them greatly—that he cherished each one’s unique individuality even though he adored them holus-bolus, as a sex, as a race, as an angelic species. The question remains whether Casanova’s infinitely replicated experience of once-in-a-lifetime love has anything to do with love at all. If you believe it hasn’t, he and his book are easily dismissed: they have the same significance as JFK jumping a secretary in the White House elevator and telling a crony a few minutes afterwards that he got into the blonde. If you believe it has, then Casanova is still here, now more than ever haunting the civilized world’s collective consciousness, and the book of his life, for all its mephitic undertow, has the reverberating ring of an awkward truth: this man is the man you would be if you were free to act.
One of the things you would have to be free from, of course, is sexual morality. But to call Casanova free from sexual morality invites a rejoinder: sexual morality was the only kind of morality he had. About sex, he had at least a few principles, which are best examined after one notes the thoroughness with which he lacked them in all other departments. Living always beyond his means and forever running to escape the consequences, in his life as an adventurer, even more than in his loves, he was ready for anything. He made it up as he went along, and it all came true. Even his name was a fabrication: he really was Giacomo Girolamo Casanova, but his title, Chevalier de Seingalt, was one he gave himself. He was born in 1725, into a theatrical family in Venice, and on the social scale of the time show folk ranked not far above grave-diggers. Casanova’s self-election to noble status was in itself a theatrical coup, and his career is best regarded as a succession of vaudeville numbers with nothing to link them except a rapidly falling and rising curtain.
As a boy, he bled easily and was thought mentally backward, but his father was astute enough to secure the patronage of the Grimani family, who staked Casanova to a course at the University of Padua, the idea being that he would have a career in the Church. Casanova graduated—one of the few examples of his properly finishing anything he began—but his entry into Holy Orders was occluded by his entry into the sister of the priest who was giving him instruction. Back in Venice and into bed with two sisters, he started attracting patrons on his own account—a talent that remained with him until the end, although the even more useful talent of keeping his patrons sweet was one he sadly lacked. Offered an ecclesiastical post in the Calabrian province of Martorano, Casanova took one look at the place and called off the deal. He knew he was meant for higher things. In Rome, he met the Pope—big game. Unfortunately, there was some fuss over a woman, and he had to skip town. After a spell in Constantinople brought him nothing but more women, he moved on to Corfu and there added to his handicaps by acquiring a taste for gambling unmatched by any concomitant ability: as a general rule, applicable to his entire lifetime, he could quit gambling only when he was in debt, and dealt with the debt by blowing the scene.
In Venice once more, he scraped a living with a violin, mastered at high speed so that he could join a theatre orchestra. A new patron was so impressed by Casanova’s knowledge of the occult sciences that he considered legally adopting the prodigy into his noble family. Since Casanova’s knowledge of the occult sciences was largely imaginary, there was no reason he could not have gone on expanding it until the
It was 1749, Casanova was twenty-four, and he was on his way, which is to say on the run, seemingly forever. In Lyons, he was a Freemason; in Paris, he wrote plays; in Vienna, he met intolerance of his amatory success. Back to Venice yet again, where he was charged with sorcery and imprisoned in the notorious Leads. His daring escape was the basis of a subsequent book, which earned him some measure of the authorial prestige he always craved. Returning to Paris, he founded a lottery, the proceeds of which he neglected to abscond with—a rare lapse. He later established a silk manufactory there with hopes of success, which his success at getting a titled mistress pregnant soon translated into failure. In Geneva, he met Voltaire. In London, he was presented at court, presented a false bill of exchange, got busted and left with little to show for his stay except a fourth dose of the clap. In Berlin, Frederick the Great thought highly of him, and offered him a post as tutor to the Pomeranian Cadet Corps, but, typically, he aimed higher still, and headed for St. Petersburg and fortune. Catherine the Great offered him nothing.
In Warsaw, he fought a duel. An accusation—it was false, but it jibed with his billing—that he had embezzled the Paris lottery funds caught up with him there. Banished from Poland, he moved on to be expelled from Vienna, mainly because Maria Theresa had heard that he had been expelled from Poland. So on to Paris, in order to be expelled from France. It was as if his mug shot had been put out by Interpol. During a stretch in a Spanish slammer, he wrote a three-volume opus about Venice, probably designed as a sop to the Venetian State Inquisition. If that was his idea, it worked: in 1774, at the age of forty-nine, he got a pardon. The Inquisition got him all the same—not as a victim but as a fink. In this role, as a paid informer, he had regular employment at last. How could he screw it up? He wrote a satire that satirized the wrong patrician, and was banished all over again.
In Vienna, he finally got lucky by ingratiating himself with Count Waldstein, who, in 1785, appointed him librarian of his castle in Bohemia. There, growing old and bored, Casanova began writing his memoirs in 1789, the year of the French Revolution—an event whose significance almost entirely escaped him. He had never been that kind of revolutionary, and by now he wasn’t even a rebel: he had gone legit at long last. But even while he lived out his days in provincial isolation he always dreamed of Venice, where, had he ever returned, he would undoubtedly have accomplished his own ruin all over again. In his last summer alive, two years before the century ended, the Inquisition pardoned him, but it was too late.
It was always too late, or too early, or too something. In a life of opportunism, he took every opportunity to make a shambles of anything he had managed to achieve. Confusion was a compulsion, as if everything had to be tested to the point of destruction, to prove that it wasn’t real. And, in fact, nothing was real, except women. Women were something he could grasp, however briefly, and if you seek the rhythm of Casanova’s mind working—instead of just his feet running away from trouble—it is to what he says about women that you must turn. And one of the first things he says, in the preface to his magnum opus, is proved by the rest of it to be true: “Feeling that I was born for the sex opposite to mine, I have always loved it and done all that I could to make myself loved by it.” Feminists should not seize too quickly on the generalized term “the sex opposite to mine.” The operative words are “to make myself loved.” That’s what he really wanted to do, and that’s what he really did. Women really existed for him. Everything else was a fantasy, even his literary ambitions—except in the case of this one great book, whose greatness, for all the sordid detail of unwashed linen and down-at-heel shoes, depends on making reality fantastic, a dream world like The Thousand and One Nights.
. . .
In the last act of Don Giovanni, Mozart consigns the great lover to Hell. Even today—in fact, today more than ever—this is a conclusion morally satisfactory for the audience, even though some of its members will be committing adultery that very night, and a few of them may have committed it during the intermission. But all of them respect the conventions. The rat had it coming to him. That’s the way we are supposed to feel about the Don and all his confrères in libertinage, with Casanova as the arch exemplar: that for their crime of callously pillaging the emotional life of their helpless victims they deserve punishment, and might even have been visited with it ahead of time, through their never having properly lived. But Lorenzo Da Ponte was not the sole author of the opera’s libretto. His collaborator-cum-technical-adviser was Casanova himself, who knew better—or, at any rate, knew that that’s not all we feel. We also feel envy. When Woody Allen said that he wanted to be reincarnated as Warren Beatty’s fingertips, he was articulating a longing widely felt among men. The moral consensus of today would like to pretend that a Lothario’s deadly charm is no less reprehensible than a paedophile’s sack of candy. But nobody except a pervert envies a pervert. There are few men, no matter how virtuous, who do not envy the seducer.
If the seducer really were a rapist in disguise, he would be easier to condemn. But all too obviously his success depends at least as much on co-operation as on coercion. The virtuous man’s envy is made worse by the consideration that if the virtuous woman takes a holiday from the straight and narrow the seducer is the very man she is likely to choose as an accomplice, just because he is irresponsible, passing through, and won’t be coming back. Among the recently bereaved, the faithful but bored and the businesswomen whose poetry has been insufficiently appreciated, the seducer cruises for his easiest prey: the woman of substance who wants an amorous encounter that doesn’t mean anything. Later on, she can tell us that it didn’t mean anything. But we know very well that at the time it meant everything. The louse got the best of her; he gets the best of all of them.
By the standards of the great lovers in our own century, Casanova didn’t run up all that big a total. (Richard Burton scored at the rate of a Luftwaffe fighter pilot on the Russian front.) But today’s dedicated stick man has the advantage of modern communications. For Casanova, the hunting grounds were days apart by slow coach. Factor that in and you have to marvel at what he achieved. A statistical check of the complete book turns up a figure of a hundred and thirty-two full-scale conquests. The breakdown by nationality reveals him as sowing the seed of a united Europe. Forty-seven Italian women said si. Nineteen French women said oui. Ten Swiss women said si, oui or ja. There were eight German, five English, and ten women from sundry other countries. The total has to be reduced somewhat if you count the twelve sets of doubles as single victories, but doubtless it could be restored and even extended by the tussles that he thought weren’t worth a mention, having taken place too low on the social scale. Nevertheless, twenty-four servant girls are registered as having succumbed, along with, at the top of the range, eighteen gentlewomen and fifteen members of royalty. There were only two nuns, which must have meant that the convents were hard to crack, because nothing inflamed him like spiritual refinement. Nor was he put off by brains (“The older I grew,” he writes in Volume XI, “the more what attached me to women was intelligence”), although he endorsed the assumption, standard in his time, that men were naturally smarter than women and therefore he would never have to face the difficulty of dealing with a woman who mentally outstripped him. Even the divine Henriette, the greatest love of his life, he admired for her accomplishments without ever considering that they might shame him into inferiority. Though disarmingly ready to admit his occasional foolishness, he was confident about his superior mind. In that respect, his mind was commonplace, a point seized on by Arthur Schnitzler in the most interesting work ever inspired by Casanova, the novella Casanovas Heimfahrt (Casanova’s Homecoming).
In Schnitzler’s novella, Casanova, over the hill
Cultural Cohesion by Clive James / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes