August 12, 2011

Illuminations: The Difficulty of Being Casanova


Portrait of Giacomo Casanova by his brother. From the Title Page of Illuminations for The Duel by Casanova.

With the release of The Duel x5, Melville House is launching a new digital innovation, HybridBooks, which combines the concept of a digitally enhanced eBook with the printed book. For more information on HybridBooks please click here.

Throughout August we will be posting samples from the Illuminations — additional material that will appear exclusively in the first releases in our Hybrid Books series. So sharpen your sword, keep your powder dry and get ready for a month of dueling history, lore and technique. That’s right. Dueling technique…

The age-old maxim that warns, “Not to hate the player, but to hate the game” has never applied more to any historical figure than to Giacomo Casanova. Accepted, that is not an age-old maxim but it is apropos to the response that Giacomo Casanova’s writings have received ever since their first publication.

Andre Malraux once remarked that “The writer who writes straight is the architect of history” and who better exemplifies such a statement than Casanova. Casanova, famous for his Memoirs, was perhaps the greatest chronicler of his age and he did so by discussing what at the time was considered pornographic.

It is impossible to recommend any English person to read this book; but the representation of the state of society, especially at Venice about the middle of the eighteenth century, is most extraordinary. Even to the reader, to whom the social condition of Paris under Louis XV is nothing new, the cynicism of corruption described as having been universal at Venice seems almost past belief. No doubt this Giacomo Casanova was a most worthless and profligate scoundrel; and it is to be expected that the account given by such a man of any society in which he had lived, would paint it under its worst aspect. Nevertheless, after all reasonable allowance has been made on this score, it is impossible to doubt that, with the exception perhaps of the latter times of the Roman Empire, the world has never seen so grossly corrupt a society as that of Venice at the time spoken of. It must be admitted, too, that the unblushing narrative of abominations of all sorts, which Casanova has put forth as the story of his life, has very much the air of being a truthful story.

—from Littell’s Living Age, Fourth Series. 1871.

Even as the translation of his work found itself against the staunchest of English prudery, Casanova still was able to get the occasional kind word out of his critics. Perhaps for no other reason than that his writing was undeniable and, at its core, exciting. By the end of the 19th century Arthur Machen‘s then brand new translation of Casanova’s Memoirs was still meeting resistance. Yet banned, this time around critics were more willing to talk about Casanova without having to worry about too many religious nuances.

It is a thousand pities that so bright, humorous, and interesting a book has been by common consent relegated to the category of “top-shelf literature,” although it is certainly difficult to say that such a judgment has not some grounds of justification. Perhaps one day it may be possible to sift some of the grain from the chaff, and give readers at large a chance of making acquaintance with that lively, warm-blooded, and sympathetic adventurer, who has left us a picture of himself worthy to be set beside those of Pepys and Cellini. In the meantime, one has endeavored to show that to rank Casanova solely with the Sadists would be as unfair to him as to the “Arabian Nights” or Rabelais. A frank revelation of a human life, and a panorama of the Europe of Louis XV and Frederick the Great, of Fox and Voltaire, are surely worth saving from neglect. Even now one may predict that those strong-minded persons who will venture upon the volumes, in which so much that is good is mixed up with so much that is not for edification, will rise from their pages, if not with respect, yet with a sneaking kindness and a good deal of gratitude for their accomplished and good-for-nothing author.

—from The English Illustrated Magazine, March 1896.

Well, so the compliments were still underhanded but the progress is worth noting.

But such slanders are not the only thing you’ll find in the Illuminations of Casanova’s tale. The subject of The Duel by Casanova is actually based off of an occurrence from his own life, which is startlingly similar. Within the Illuminations for Casanova’s The Duel we have included the entire story of the duel from his Memoirs. Also included in the Illuminations is an article by Arthur Symonds discussing his discovery of the fictionalized version (the book we have published) of his infamous duel. The above critical selections are also given in full as well as commentary by the psychologist, Henry Havelock-Ellis.

Add these together with The Duelist’s Supplement and you well over two-hundred pages of additional reading in the Illuminations for Casanova’s The Duel. Truly, added value.

Tomorrow we move on from Casanova and delve into the Illuminations for Anton Chekhov‘s The Duel.