History of My Life, Volumes 1 & 2
By Giacomo Casanova
Johns Hopkins University Press
630 pages, $21.95
In Casanova’s memoirs, he equates a potential lover to a good book: “Woman is like a book, which, be it good or bad, must begin to please with its title page; if that is not interesting, it does not rouse a desire to be read and that desire is equal in force to the interest the title page inspires.” But the opposite is also true—a good book can be like the best of lovers. It’s a companion, a bedfellow, it engages the most intimate depths of the soul, and it surprises you in the most unusual ways and never ends without satisfying, yet you’re always hungry for more.
What better book, then, to pick up as a Valentine’s Day companion than the life history of the master Giacomo Casanova, such a renowned and frequent lover in his time that his name is now synonymous with the word “lover”. It’s certainly no one-night stand, either. Casanova’s History of My Life spans twelve volumes, over four thousand pages in its entirety. If taken the slow and steady route, it’s a good six-month relationship. As a whirlwind romance he’ll warm your bed through the last of the winter doldrums.
Casanova’s endless account of his lovers and journeys, risky gambles and fast escapes never borders on boring. Volumes one and two of History of My Life only cover his first twenty-one years, but the adventures within them are abundant enough to fill an entire lifetime. Before the age of twenty, Casanova has studied to be a man of the cloth, seduced wives, bedded sisters, joined the Venetian military, and escaped prison more than once. He travels constantly, to Rome, to Constantinople and Corfu and many cities in between, following a path set by fate, one that’s usually rife with lovers. His outlandish escapades are unsurpassed: he seduces women in carriages, gardens, and ships, all in the insatiable pursuit of amour that more often than not (at least by his account) ends with success.
What an attentive lover Casanova must have been to recall each woman he pursued (and there were many) with such exacting detail. The eyes of Theresa, the midnight romps with Nanette and Marta, the blush of the Marchesa with whom he exchanged lines of poetry. Loving women and the more assiduous task of persuading them to love him back come as naturally to Casanova as breathing: “Cultivating whatever gave pleasure to my senses was always the chief business of my life; I have never found any occupation more important. Feeling that I was born for the sex opposite to mine, I have always loved it and done all I could do to make myself loved by it.” And it is his love, his undying devotion, given countless times but with all sincerity, that makes him irresistible to women’s hearts.
Though he’s an undiscriminating lover, Casanova is as unwavering in his devotion as he is inconstant in his choice of bedmates. He enjoys plenty of casual sex but clearly aspires to find lovers with whom he feels a deeper connection. For he acknowledges, “Love is that divine sauce which makes that morsel delicious.” And men, take heed: Casanova more than once shared sisters without making them jealous. Nanette and Marta he seduces together in the same night and then shares their beds many times over. He sleeps with sisters Donna Lucrezia and Donna Angelica while their husband and fiancé respectively, lay peacefully in another room. After a passionate night with his usual lover, Donna Lucrezia, she passes him off to her sister who has spent the past seven hours lying in bed beside them. Donna Angelica embraces him tightly and Donna Lucrezia incites him to pleasure her as well. Donna Lucrezia “was as delighted to see [Donna Angelica] swoon as she was charmed to see that I continued. She wiped away the drops of sweat which dripped from my brow.”
In matters of passion and heartbreak, though less in the latter, Casanova is well-schooled. Be assured fragile souls, that even the finest love comes with its fair share of pain. But the sharper the pain, the sweeter the success: “It is impossible to relish to the full a pleasure which has not been preceded by pain, and pleasure is great only in proportion to the pain suffered.” This is no Venus In Furs-type romance, though, where domination and cruelty goad lovers on. The rising flood of passion that’s yet to be requited is the whip that smites the lover but also heightens its eventual fulfillment.
Casanova’s charm is that he’s a bad boy with a streak of empathy, a renegade who worships the ideal of love, even if he’s a merciless failure in upholding it. He’s the original player long before Andre 3000 came out with The Love Below. Casanova has a healthy dose of ambition, assuredness, and intellect, but he has a heart, and above all, he loves women—and he loves pleasing them even more.
As Casanova confides the details of his life, you can’t help but feel he’s addressing you with the intimacy he would take with a bedroom companion. In his last decade while he put his life on paper, Casanova lived and worked as a castle librarian in Bohemia, a far cry from the volatile days of his youth. His memoirs became a way of reliving his adventures, and dually of immortalizing his incomparable passion and tomfoolery. As readers, in fact, we receive a far juicier account of his endeavors than we would if we were his lovers, his friends, his partners in crime, for, Casanova admits, “The truths which must be left unspoken are far greater in number than the petty truths which are fit for publication.” How lucky we are, then, to be able to curl up in bed with such an intimate and renowned lover, with the best of him lying in our very hands.