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Casanova for Our Time: An Interview with Leo Damrosch

The life of the iconic libertine Giacomo Casanova (1725–1798) has never been told in the depth it deserves. An alluring representative of the Enlightenment’s shadowy underside, Casanova was an aspiring priest, an army officer, a fortune teller, a con man, a magus, a violinist, a mathematician, a Masonic master, an entrepreneur, a diplomat, a gambler, a spy—and the first to tell his own story. With Adventurer, a new biography, Leo Damrosch offers a gripping account of Casanova’s life outside the bounds of moral convictions.

Casanova remains a notorious cultural figure, associated in many people’s minds with the shameless womanizer. Which, if any, of the many details you researched about his life challenged this portrait?

LD: He was a seducer, certainly, but not shameless. He genuinely believed that his encounters with women were always mutually desired, even if they might act reluctant at first. This of course could be described as invincible narcissism: as one modern commentator says, “Each breakup must result in happiness for the other, so that he can preserve all of his self-esteem and lightheartedness.” But he did have one transcendently satisfying love affair that lasted for months and was deeply hurt when his partner decided to ended it.

In the introduction to Adventurer you cite another writer who claims Casanova’s writing makes a rich source for details about daily life in the eighteenth century. Were any of these moments of incidental anthropology surprising to you?

LD: Definitely! I learned a lot about a number of highly defined subcultures that have been studied in depth in recent years. Some examples are: dueling, a code of honor in which one was expected to risk one’s life, as Casanova did on a famous occasion; “adventurers,” from whom I took my title, con men who circulated throughout Europe perpetrating various scams; magic, then still regarded with respect by many educated people (Casanova often presented himself as a magus with occult skills); gambling, in which upper-class people participated eagerly throughout Europe, and from which he and other card sharps made a lot of money; and Freemasonry, regarded at the time as politically subversive and therefore highly secretive, which gave him access to privileged groups everywhere that might otherwise have been closed to him.

You write that Casanova considered himself an Enlightenment man. Can you say a little about how the philosophical currents of his time influenced his behavior?

LD: Though he originally trained for the Catholic priesthood—a promising career for a bright young man without wealth or status—he soon became an agnostic if not atheist, though always respectful of the Church as a foundation of social order. His personal philosophy derived from ancient Epicureanism, according to which we need to reject the taboos of orthodox morality and achieve happiness by doing what comes naturally. People like him were known as libertines, not just for sexual freedom but for free thought as well. One of his most interesting lovers, who fully shared his libertinism, was a Venetian nun who sneaked out of her convent for their assignations—and was at the same time the mistress of the French ambassador to Venice, who later became a cardinal in Rome.

You list several episodes where Casanova’s class position elided any consequences for his actions. What penalties might he have incurred for his more egregious violations if he had been born with a different background?

LD: Actually his class position was always a handicap; he was the son of a pair of actors, a profession that was generally looked down upon. And although he could be an unscrupulous con man, he regarded the social system of his native Venice, which was dominated by a hereditary aristocracy, as simply a con on a large scale. He spent a dreadful year in solitary confinement there for undisclosed charges, one of which was almost certainly presuming to act like a nobleman when he was merely the son of a pair of actors. He refers often to transgressions that were ignored by the authorities if nobles did them, but were punished in someone from lower origins. He traveled widely in Europe and found the same pattern prevailing everywhere he went. His role as a con man was, then, to exploit it from within; another commentator says, “The adventurer fights for liberty, equality, and fraternity, but for himself only. He needs limits so he can exceed them, and a hierarchy in order to climb up it.”

You opted to prepare your own translations for this book. What was it like to not only approach Casanova’s heavily edited and formerly contested primary text, but to express its ideas outside the original language?

LD: It was a challenge I greatly enjoyed: to find effective English equivalents for the French and Italian originals (he wrote in both languages), and also for the many modern commentators in those languages whose work has never been translated. The standard English translation, by Willard Trask, is very good but is now sixty years old, and in my opinion rather dated in a way that loses some of Casanova’s freshness and energy. He was a gifted writer and deserves to be brought to life in English to the best of a translator’s ability. In addition, Trask was working with a still-incomplete manuscript, since the German firm Brockhaus that owned the original would permit no one to look at it (though it was rescued from the allied bombing of Leipzig and carried by bicycle to a bank vault for safety). In 2010 it was finally acquired by the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and since then two magnificent editions in French have made available a great deal of previously unknown drafts and revisions. I am the first writer in English to have made use of these.

How does the process of writing a general interest biography differ from researching an academic monograph?

LD: They differ profoundly. A monograph is addressed principally to fellow experts in a field and needs to show that it has contributed—or even discovered—something “new.” A biography, unless some new trove of source material is found, necessarily builds upon what is already known. The challenge, then, is to try to understand the behavior and motivations of people who lived long ago, often teasing out the implications of ambiguous evidence, and above all to tell a compelling story. I have been fortunate in the trenchant advice of my wife, Joyce Van Dyke, and my editor at Yale, Jennifer Banks, who read each chapter closely and helped me to clarify what was obscure, to expand what needed to be told in more depth, and to get rid of passages that slow down or block the narrative flow—my wife has a marginal note “RIS,” which is her invention for “rock in stream.”

Why read about Casanova now? Why should readers pay attention to this eighteenth-century figure?

LD: For two main reasons. One, as already mentioned, is that he brings an entire culture of the past vividly to life with novelistic skill; Stendhal, who greatly admired Casanova’s History of My Life, was often suspected to have written it. And the other is that his book is one of the world’s greatest autobiographies. We get to know him better, and in more depth, than almost anyone who lived a long time ago.

Leo Damrosch is the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature Emeritus at Harvard University. His many books include The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age and Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, winner of the National Book Critics Circle award and Pulitzer finalist for biography. He lives in Newton, MA.

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