Wednesday 16 December 2020

Casanova by Ian Kelly at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

 Ian Kelly came to the Dr Johnson House to meet the Reading Circle in December 2018 for a conversation about his book Mr Foote’s Other Leg. It being 2020, he needed to join us online this time to talk about Casanova.

We started with a question from Ian: having finished the book, what did we make of Casanova himself? Some were surprised at how much more there was to him than his reputation suggested; others felt disappointed that he lived his life in a permanent state of adolescence and that it was almost a shame had had to live so after his glory days. Some thought he was a vile parasite; others that he was a creature of his time. Almost certainly a good dinner guest. All of these reactions can easily be justified by the text and by a life so dense with event that it boggles the mind.

Casanova wrote about own life, of course, in the twelve volume Histoire de ma vie, started on recommendations of his doctor to combat his melancholy. This ‘Dance to the Music of Time meets l’Encyclop├ędie,’ as Kelly described it, was written for itself rather than for publication and is a relentless accumulation of people, places, schemes and adventures. The impressiveness of Ian Kelly’s biography is that it manages to wrestle this unwieldy beast together with historical commentary and context into a fast-paced and absorbing 400 pages.

The book is structured into five acts, with an intermezzo between each. It’s in these intermezzi that we meet Casanova the food writer, his sensuality (and memory) for food matching the energy he puts into other bodily reminiscences. Oysters in the eighteenth century were a cheap street food (remember Johnson buying them for his cat Hodge?). It may be thanks to Casanova that they became known as potent aphrodisiacs. We also learnt that people in Venice often had their pasta with sugar and cinnamon, that it was possible to get macaroni in St Petersburg, and that it was important to travel with a stove. Another intermezzo deals with Casanova the traveller, who as well as a stove, took with him coffee, Italian herbs and a pot to piss in. The memoirs mention twenty different types of vehicle and the various irritations and intimacies possible in each. There’s another intermezzo about the Cabbala in which Casanova had a great interest. But Kelly said he’d mainly included this section at the insistence of his publisher, Madonna being into Cabbala at the time. This section, he mentioned modestly, can be skipped.

An unskippable intermezzo is the one about sex, a subject that can’t be ignored in any work about Casanova. While not exactly chaste, Casanova is relatively restrained considering his name is now synonymous with libertinism. The memoirs catalogue 120 different sexual partners, far fewer, Ian pointed out than Byron’s sexual encounters in his two years in Venice. One of the differences between Casanova’s handling in the subject is that he was nakedly honest, and frequently honestly naked. He shares the distinction of being one of few writers of the period to mention premature ejaculation and erectile disfunction. He also has to be one of the few writers to have ever talked about a faked male ejaculation. In part, his reputation for sex is derived from the way his memoirs leaked out into the world, as abridged selections on the most erotic passages for private consumption at a time where his other adventures and achievements had been forgotten.

But what of the five Acts of the biography? We have Casanova as the son of an actress in an intrinsically theatrical city, learning which masks to wear when. We see him gain confidence, lose innocence, win friends and lovers and get arrested by the Venetian Inquisition, far more invested in enforcing class- than religious orthodoxy. Then we have Casanova go to France, become one of the drivers behind the French lottery, as well as in-house wizard to a wealthy French widow. He takes up spying duties and when things wobble in France, goes to London, Brunswick, St Petersburg, Lisbon - each time making new friends, involving himself in elaborate love affairs and trying to set up further lotteries. When he was allowed to return to Venice, it finally looked like he was settling down. But his sharp pen had him needing to run away and his breathless life of travel restarted, until he found himself in old age, trapped in the weary town of Dux as librarian. Here he wrote a number of works, including his memoirs and a sci-fi novel and here it was he died aged 73 in 1798.

Casanova met many people over the course of his roving life. His memoirs offer pen-portraits of Catherine the Great and Voltaire. But did he really meet Dr Johnson in London, the Reading Circle wanted to know? It’s possible: Casanova briefly notes meeting him near St Paul’s Cathedral and talking about the word ‘committee’. But there’s no reference to this in the Life of Johnson. And in his private journals, Boswell only once notes meeting Casanova. It was 1764, the year after he’d met Johnson, and Boswell is distinctly dismissive of the man whose name he renders in German: ‘I dined at Rufin's, where Nehaus, an Italian, wanted to shine as a great philosopher, and accordingly doubted of his existence and of everything else. I thought him a blockhead.’

Having read Boswell’s London Journey together we could see some definite links between Boswell and Casanova, from their accumulation of famous encounters (both, for example, met Voltaire) to their notorious sexual appetites. Boswell, however, usually felt ashamed of his sexual encounters, whereas Casanova implies most of his were delightfully pleasant affairs: he remained good friends with many former lovers. It’s also interesting that one of the men would obtain literary immortality with a book about himself, while the other found it with a book about a friend.

We talked long after our allotted time. We were intrigued to hear that 12% of the population of Casanova’s Venice were courtesans and the possibility that Casanova touched up Da Ponte’s libretto of Don Giovanni.  Finally, we wanted to know whether Ian Kelly felt he had done with his subject when the book has ended: well, Casanova certainly hadn’t done with him. An exhibition about him was inspired directly by the book, although it needed modification in America in the light of Me Too: the original title Casanova: The Seduction of Europe had to be changed to Casanova’s Europe: Art, Pleasure and Power in the 18th Century. Some of Ian’s revelations inadvertently led to shocked Italian headlines. And beyond this, he even found himself persuaded to write a scenario for Northern Ballet’s 2017 Casanova

Both the evening and the book were very enjoyable, crammed full of ideas and a fair bit of laughter. A comment by a book festival attendee could have applied to us: we were all ‘titivated’.

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