Sunday, February 21, 2010

Casanova’s love ‘diary’

According to newspaper headlines this week, the original handwritten diary of Casanova, one of most infamous rakes in history, has just been bought and donated to France’s national library. The Casanova manuscript may be remarkable and worth every Euro of the Eur7m paid, but a diary it isn’t - it’s a memoir written by Casanova in the latter years of his life.

Casanova was born in Venice in 1725. His parents were actors and travelled a lot so he was looked after by his grandmother. At the age of nine, though, he was placed in a boarding house, and then with a priest, Abbé Gozzi, where he stayed through his teenage years. He graduated in law from the University of Padua and was admitted as an abbé (a low level clergyman) himself. However, his dandyish behaviour, and his chasing after women led to various scandals and to him seeking refuge in a seminary, from where he was expelled before long. He made his way to Rome, where he was employed by a cardinal and met the Pope. More scandals followed, though, which led Casanova to try joining a regiment. His military career did not last long, and he returned to Venice and to employment as a violinist.

A lucky encounter, in which he saved the life of a nobleman, led to Casanova enjoying three years of high living under the nobleman’s patronage. More scandals involving women, then led Casanova to flee Venice, and to travel in Europe for several years, engaging in affairs and courting scandals everywhere he went. In Paris, he introduced the idea of a lottery, a scheme he would keep trying to sell in other cities through his travels.

In Venice once again, he was denounced as a magician and sentenced to five years in prison. A spectacular escape led to more years of travelling and amorous adventures in London, Berlin, St Petersburg, Warsaw among other places. Allowed to return to Venetian territory between 1744 and 1782 he acted as a spy for the Venetian inquisitors of state, and he spent his final years, from 1785 to 1798 in Bohemia as a librarian for Count von Waldstein in the chateau of Dux.

According to Wikipedia (which has a detailed biography), the isolation and boredom of Casanova’s last years enabled him to focus on his Histoire de Ma Vie, ‘without which his fame would have been considerably diminished, if not blotted out entirely’. He began to think about writing his memoirs around 1780, it says, and began in earnest by 1789, as ‘the only remedy to keep from going mad or dying of grief’. The first draft was completed by July 1792, and he spent the next six years revising it.

Here are two paragraphs more from Wikipedia: ‘Uncut, the memoirs ran to twelve volumes, and the abridged American translation runs to nearly 1200 pages. Though his chronology is at times confusing and inaccurate, and many of his tales exaggerated, much of his narrative and many details are corroborated by contemporary writings. He has a good ear for dialogue and writes at length about all classes of society. Casanova, for the most part, is candid about his faults, intentions, and motivations, and shares his successes and failures with good humor. The confession is largely devoid of repentance or remorse. He celebrates the senses with his readers, especially regarding music, food, and women. ‘I have always liked highly seasoned food. . . As for women, I have always found that the one I was in love with smelled good, and the more copious her sweat the sweeter I found it.’ He mentions over 120 adventures with women and girls, with several veiled references to male lovers as well. He describes his duels and conflicts with scoundrels and officials, his entrapments and his escapes, his schemes and plots, his anguish and his sighs of pleasure. He demonstrates convincingly ‘I can say vixi (‘I have lived’)’.

The manuscript of Casanova’s memoirs was held by his relatives until it was sold to F A Brockhaus publishers, and first published in heavily abridged versions in German around 1822, then in French. During World War II, the manuscript survived the allied bombing of Leipzig. The memoirs were heavily pirated through the ages and have been translated into some twenty languages. But not until 1960 was the entire text published in its original language of French.’

Casanova’s original handwritten manuscript, amounting to 3,700 pages, has now been bought for Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) by an anonomous donor at a cost of Eur7m. BnF is planning to exhibit the manuscript and to digitalise it for its online library. The sale made headlines round the world, and, as with the recent headlines about Josef Mengele’s memoirs (see Mengele’s vile ‘diary’), they employed the misnoma ‘diary’.

Here are three headlines from newspapers that should know better:
Casanova’s diary finds home in France - Financial Times
Anonymous buyer pays £4 million for Casanova’s uncensored diaries - The Guardian
Library secures Casanova’s love diary - The Daily Telegraph (Sydney)

Various editions of the memoir can be readon online at Internet Archive, including ‘the first complete and English translation by Arthur Machen’. Wikipedia also has an informative article on the memoir itself.

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