Monday, June 27, 2005

Casanova and the good life

Relatively few words in the English language have their origins in some personage from history. One such is casanova, a word now used to describe a smooth-talking pursuer of women or a philanderer, which derives directly from the name of the eighteenth-century Italian adventurer Giacomo Casanova, one of the most legendary lovers of all time.

But while Casanova's name has entered our general vocabulary for good, this fact has also worked to the disadvantage of his memory, because it obscures his many wider achievements. As Tim Parks writes in his introduction to Casanova's book The Duel, Casanova was also 'an adventurer, man-about-many-towns, indefatigable name-dropper, crack shot, amateur theologian, skilled diplomat …and (what makes us aware of all these qualities) a fine writer.' This was a man who, during his lifetime, served in the army, worked undercover as a spy, was jailed after falling foul of the authorities, escaped jail and fled Italy, and for many years lived an itinerant life travelling all over Europe writing plays, translating other authors, and playing the violin. And of course there were the ladies.

The Duel, which has been recently published in a new translation by the Hesperus Press, provides ample evidence of just what a good writer Casanova was. The book is about a famous duel that Casanova was once forced to fight with a Polish count, but we need not concentrate on the particulars of that matter here. Casanova was in his fifties when he wrote the book, and his colourful and peripatetic life had endowed him with a rich stock of opinions on human nature.

For instance, Casanova says he believes a man is truly wise when, "happy with what he knows, and always willing to learn from those who have more experience than he, he will allow everyone to believe what he wants to, and he will not try to force the truth on those who are recalcitrant. […] Men are by nature such that they cannot bring themselves to learn anything from those who wish to force instruction on them." And we hear the dashing adventurer speaking in these lines: "'I cannot' is heard too often on the lips of mortals: it is very seldom on the lips of a man who really wishes to do something."

It would be foolish to speculate whether, if Casanova had lived in the twenty-first century instead of the eighteenth, he would have been a blogger. But, given what we know of his nature, it is certainly possible to surmise what his feelings would have been had he attended yesterday's Mumbai blogger meet (even if he would had to be content with coffee instead of wine):

Excellent food, good wine, and the good company of friends who are well chosen and above all well-disposed, compose a nourishment which raises a healthy man to the highest degree of perfection of which he is capable.[…] There is no man or woman who, after a choice meal, is not more attractive, more eloquent, more animated, more courteous, more judicious and more self-possessed, full of fine thoughts and unusual ideas which are capable of providing honourable and legitimate pleasures to this wretched human race, which, left to itself, is an inexhaustible fount of unhappiness, boredom, and troublesome disagreements.

And more provocatively he continues:

And so, just as bodily health comes from good food, there is no doubt that spiritual peace derives from it also, since that [spiritual peace] cannot have any other impulse than those it receives from physical impressions.

Would you agree with that, dear reader - that good food brings not just bodily but also spiritual peace?

After Casanova's death in 1798, just as his name passed into the English language and kept his memory alive for future generations, so he began to take birth again and again as a character in fiction - for instance in the Hungarian novelist Sandor Marai's terrific novel Casanova in Bolzano, published in English translation only last year. I wrote an essay on Marai's Casanova for the San Francisco Chronicle, and it can be found here.

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