New,state-sponsored editions of Casanovas memoirs suggest he has finally become respectable
In the 19th century,if you had wanted to read Casanovas memoirs in the National Library in Paris,the librarian would have told you to go to hell. The librarys edition of this legendary account of 18th-century intrigue,adventure and sex was kept locked up in a secret store for valuable books and pictures contrary to good morals. Even if you did make it to hell and back,the version of the life of Giacomo Girolamo Casanova you would have read was a bowdlerised version of the original manuscript,immured in even darker seclusion by its disapproving German owners. Still,these cleaned-up and abridged accounts of Casanova were scandalous enough to be condemned by the Catholic Church,which put them on its list of banned books.
Today,though,Casanovas Histoire de ma Vie (Story of my Life) is an official French national treasure. Since an anonymous benefactor bought the original manuscript for a reported 7.5 million euros and donated it to the National Library in 2010,librarians have been digitising all 3,700 pages and posting them online. You dont need to go to hell to read the memoirs anymore,but to Gallica,the librarys website; that is,if you can read 18th-century French and Casanovas handwriting. If not,a new four-volume print edition is also being prepared,with the first volume available last week.
At the same time,Casanova,the legendary Venetian seducer,has been the hero of so many films,TV series and novels that many are surprised to find out that he was originally a historical figure,born in Venice in 1725,and not a myth. In Histoire,he takes part in more daring escapes,spy adventures,duels,high-stake gambles and seductions than an 18th-century James Bond. Yet,though the accuracy of some episodes has been disputed,scholars agree that they contain more fact than fiction. Complete books based on the manuscript were first published in French in 1960 and in English in 1966,around the time the Beatles were inventing sex,according to Philip Larkin. The new editions are not milestones of academic countercultural rebellion,but a thoroughly mainstream,state-sponsored project. After more than 250 years of infuriating the authorities and horrifying the public,it seems Casanova conman,Freemason,philanderer and convict has finally become respectable.
But are readers today really more comfortable with Casanovas uncensored adventures than they used to be? And what was so shocking about his story in the first place? Casanovas place on the Vatican index of prohibited books gives us a clue that,while the Histoire certainly includes plenty of love scenes,it wasnt just the sex. This was not a list of common pornography,but of more dangerous heretical writers. Casanova started his career as a priest,considered becoming a monk and spied for the Inquisition. More than a little flexible about his own observance of Catholic laws,he was an enthusiastic supporter of established religion for everyone else. With friends as cynical as Casanova,the Vatican perhaps felt it didnt need enemies.
More importantly,Casanova was writing during a turbulent time in Europe. By the time his memoirs became public,24 years after Casanovas death,the conservative backlash that followed the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars had made the libertine adventurer seem less admirable and more like an embarrassing relic from a cruder century. His cosmopolitanism,writing in French interspersed with Venetian,began to look like a deplorable lack of patriotism or grammar; and his polymath excursions into philosophy,politics,maths and medicine,like an inability to settle down to serious study or work.
If the 19th centurys reactions to Casanova can tell us about its changing values,its revealing that what needs to be changed in the memoirs,for many 21st century screenwriters,is the determined absence of a fairytale ending. Popular culture insists on presenting Casanova as a hopeless romantic whose womanising was really a quest for the one,undeterred by the fact that he never married nor acknowledged any children,or that many of his seductions involved either prostitutes or women from whom he stole money. Readers today might be as blasé as Casanova himself about sex,but the pursuit of sex without affection or respect now makes for uncomfortable reading. In an age where the pursuit of pleasure is mainstream,Casanovas memoirs demonstrate its dark and cynical side just as shockingly as they displayed the less savoury aspects of 19th-century Catholicism. To find the real Casanova,then,might still mean spending time in hell.
Scobie is a writer based in York,UK