Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Casanova: Actor Lover Priest Spy

Like most people, when I hear the name Casanova, I think of sex. Ian Kelly offers a more rounded view of a fascinating man who has come to be defined by a single facet of his complex life.

Casanova's autobiography, "The History of My Life", offers more than the story of one man's life. It allows us a unique glimpse into the life of people from all walks of life during the eighteenth century. He mingled with prostitutes and kings, actors and bishops, a Tsarina and famous courtesans, nobility and tradesmen. He wrote about all of them, detailing their lives and loves, their triumphs and travails.

He seemed to be in perpetual motion, travelling throughout Europe and into Russia, never living anywhere for more than two years. Even his mode of travel was unique. He used public transportation rather than the private coaches used by most travelers of the day. He hitchhiked and even sailed on slave-galleys. He wrote about it all, a veritable treasure trove of information for historians. He details the inns, apartments, castles and prisons where he stayed or was forced to stay.

He loved food, leaving a record of hundreds of meals, many of which featured dishes that are mentioned nowhere else and would have been lost to history if not for Casanova's writings.

As for his supposedly insatiable sexual appetite, Mr. Kelly rightly points out that his sex life was normal for men who had no fixed address, constantly moving around. More than a few of his contemporaries recorded more numerous encounters than Casanova. Just like modern times, he contracted sexually transmitted diseases over and over. In fact, syphilis may have caused his death. He was apparently bisexual, enjoying encounters with the occasional man, both singly and as part of group sex. Perhaps the most shocking act he committed was the possible incest with one of his daughters leading to the birth of a son that may or may not have been his.

This is an extremely well written book that brings to life both a man and his times. I found it to be totally engrossing for the details it provided of Europe and Russia during the eighteenth century.

Review copy courtesy of Jeremy P. Tarcher

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