Magazine article The Spectator

Good Conversation Is Essential

Magazine article The Spectator

Good Conversation Is Essential

Article excerpt

HISTORY OF MY LIFE: VOLUMES 1-12

by Giacomo Casanova, translated by Willard R. Trask

Johns Hopkins University Press, L66

The only thing everyone knows about Casanova is that men are occasionally accused of being a real one when their eyes wander across the room at parties. It's a pity that knowledge does not typically extend further, for Giacomo Casanova (1725-98) led one of the most fascinating lives of the 18th century, and left behind 12 volumes of a highly readable History of My Life, a work which Edmund Wilson described, without complete exaggeration, as the most interesting memoir ever written.

If this gem has so long been neglected the reason lies in part in an unfortunate publishing history (the fact that Casanova makes Proust look brief has surely not helped the cause). His memoir did not see the light of day until two decades after his death, only to be published in a number of very inaccurate editions, some of which made the book saucier than it is, some less so. It was not until 1966 that a decent English translation was made by Willard R. Trask; and it has taken until now for a paperback edition to appear.

Casanova's life defies easy summary, but here's a go. He was born in Venice in 1725, and had a miserable childhood: both his parents led precarious lives in the theatre, and took little interest in their son. His father died when he was eight, at which point his beautiful but cold mother sent him off to a boarding-house and took up with a succession of aristocrats and royalty, a career which culminated in an affair with the Prince of Wales.

Casanova grew into a highly intelligent and charismatic young man. He studied at Padua university, and might have had an excellent career in the church or in the law. But he was at heart an adventurer, impatient in his search for the wildest short cuts to the three things he most valued in life - fame, money and women. He set off on travels across Europe, holding down a wide range of jobs, working variously as a librarian, playwright, gambler, lottery organiser, spy, military officer, mining consultant, mathematician, cabalist, police agent and violinist. He experienced wild oscillations in fortune. He was arrested in Venice and sentenced to five years in prison for atheism, but made a James Bond-style midnight escape (thrillingly recounted in his memoirs). …

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