Questions and Topics for Discussion
“I should like to be the younger brother to all humanity.”
In a signal encounter with the famous French philosopher and writer Voltaire, Casanova explains that “I amuse myself by studying people as I travel . . . it is fun to study the world while passing through it.” Indeed, Giacomo Casanova de Seingalt, traveller, adventurer, musician, lover, escaped convict, and avid reader, brings to his monumental The Story of My Life(Histoire de ma vie) an explicit relish—and aptitude—for intimate observations on human nature, customs, gastronomy, science, literature, economics, and religion.
These selections serve not only as a catalogue of erotic exploits, for which Casanova’s memoir has gained its notoriety, but also as a gazetteer of important Enlightenment-era locales. Casanova, under various circumstances, travels from decadent Venice (where he was born in 1725) to trendy Paris, artistically rich and morally puritanical Vienna, and wealthy, plague-ridden Constantinople. Indeed, Casanova’s identity as a Venetian provides an interesting counterpoint to his encounters and digressions with various personalities. His travels underscore the richness and diversity of Italian and Continental identity in the eighteenth century.
Throughout his adventures, Casanova is never less than an observant, personable guide. The deftly written sketches of those he encounters—including Catherine the Great of Russia, Pope Clement XIII, Voltaire, and the French dramatist Crebillon—show his formidable intelligence and curiosity. His descriptions of a host of others—including lower dignitaries, actresses and actors, inn-keepers, spies, and commoners—reveal his wit and his desire to unveil the broad scope of the eighteenth-century Continental world.
Indeed, what inevitably charms the reader in Casanova’s wide-ranging memoirs is the author’s natural intelligence and his disinclination to suffer fools gladly. Nonetheless, this intelligence does not prevent Casanova from falling into numerous scrapes, resulting more than once in his being imprisoned or exiled. In such instances, Casanova does not spare himself, acerbically commenting on his own poor judgment, and frequently linking his troubles to his susceptibility to “the allurements of all forms of sensual delight.” The cultivation of such pleasures, Casanova tells us, “was my principle concern throughout my life.” Still, he notes that “I do not know whether it was by my intellect that I have come so far in life, I do know that it is to it alone that I owe all the happiness I enjoy when I am face to face with myself.”
Much of the pleasure Casanova experiences in the later, more subdued portion of his life is derived from remembering his colorful exploits, and threading them together in The Story of My Life. “In recalling the pleasures I enjoyed, I relived them,” he writes in his 1797 Preface. Certainly, Casanova shows a striking ability to reconstruct events and impressions from his “follies of youth.” While the authenticity of some events included in his memoirs is questionable, one suspects that Casanova’s accounts are largely true, and that any deviations that occur are for the sake of literary considerations. Casanova may well have shunned writing a memoir that might “weary the mind . . . without interesting the heart.”
There is something for every reader in The Story of My Life. As Edmund Wilson notes in an essay on Casanova, “Has any novelist or poet ever rendered better than Casanova the passing glory of the personal life—the gaiety, the spontaneity, the generosity of youth; the ups and downs of middle age when our character begins to get us and we are forced to come to terms with it; the dreadful blanks of later years, when what is gone is gone.” Wilson notes, too, the “brilliant variety of characters,” and calls Casanova’s memoirs “one of the most remarkable presentations in literature of one man’s individual life.”
The Story of My Life succeeds, then, as an exploration of eighteenth-century culture, and as a candid account of personal triumph and folly. Formally, it offers a compelling example of the personal memoir where the intimate, public, and historical are woven together into a vibrant tapestry. The rich ensemble of characters, major and minor, who populate Casanova’s memoirs continue, even in the twenty-first century, to fascinate with their paradoxicality. Casanova consorts with nuns who have other lovers, women who masquerade as men, and great intellects who show narrow-minded provincialism. Casanova’s own awareness of the diversity he shows us, combined with his skill as a storyteller, make The Story of My Lifean unforgettable encounter with the possibilities the human condition presents.ABOUT GIACOMO CASANOVA
Giacomo Casanova began writing his memoirs in approximately 1791, in the relative isolation of the Castle of Dux in Bohemia, where he served as the librarian for Josef Karl Emmanuel, Count Waldstein.
The genesis of The Story of My Life may be attributed to a pervasive dissatisfaction Casanova felt with his appointment in a remote corner of Europe. His despair at his inability to return to his native city of Venice also played a role in the construction of his memoirs. It was, Casanova writes, “the sole remedy I believed I possessed to avoid going mad or dying of sorrow.”
Casanova was born in Venice in 1725. Venice at that time was an independent state (Italy would not unite until 1870) and was characterized by a decline in her earlier reputation as a formidable naval presence. Many attribute to this decline the subsequent “libertinism” of the city. Casanova’s parents were actors, and the young Casanova was frequently left in the care of his grandmother after his father died and his mother had to fend for herself as an actress.
Casanova was sent to Padua at the age of nine (1734) to recover from a life-threatening blood ailment. He studied there, and obtained his doctorate at the age of sixteen. Following his departure from Padua, Casanova entered the seminary of St. Cyprian but was expelled. Although he spent some time in the service of a Roman Catholic cardinal, Casanova was expelled from Rome after unsubstantiated claims that he corrupted an underage girl. By 1745 he had abandoned his ecclesiastical career and joined the Italian military. As an officer, Casanova travelled to Corfu and Constantinople. By early 1746, he returned to Venice and began a short career as a violinist at the San Samuele theater.
In 1748-49, Casanova left Venice for a time and travelled to Milan, Parma, Geneva, Prague, and Vienna. He became a Freemason in Lyon in 1750 and travelled to Paris, where he met the dramatist Crebillon, who taught him French. Returning to Venice in 1753, Casanova became involved with a nun, a certain “Madame Murano.”
In 1755, after suffering ruinous gambling losses and participating in various illegitimate dealings, Casanova was denounced by the Venetian State Inquisitors and imprisoned beneath the lead roofs of the Venetian Ducal Palace, in a prison commonly known as “the Leads.” Casanova executed a spectacular escape from the prison in 1756 (later published as The Story of My Escape, Leipzig: 1787) and made his way to Paris. It was in Paris that he gave himself the title “Chevalier de Seingalt.”
In 1760, dogged by financial troubles, Casanova left Paris and travelled to Switzerland, where he met Voltaire. He continued to travel throughout the continent, and in 1764 went to Berlin, where Frederick II offered him a post, which he declined. On a visit to the Baltic city of Riga, Casanova met Catherine of Russia and subsequently moved to Warsaw, from which he was forced to flee, following a scandal-ridden duel with a Polish aristocrat.
Casanova’s reputation preceded him as he travelled throughout the continent, and he was forced in 1767 to seek refuge in Spain. Casanova was permitted to return to Venetian territory between 1774 and 1782, but he spent his final years in the service of Count Waldstein, in Bohemia, where he died in 1798.DISCUSSION QUESTIONSCasanova interacts with many different sectors of eighteenth-century society in his travels. What do these interactions reveal about Casanova’s own sense of identity and self-hood?
What do Casanova’s memoirs reveal about the pursuit of pleasure? What kinds of distinctions does Casanova make about obtaining and experiencing pleasure throughout The Story of My Life?
How does Casanova intersect with—and accept or reject—the Enlightenment era’s passion for the rational?
Casanova quotes, and is inspired by, various texts throughout his life, including Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, classical poets such as Horace, the medieval Dante, and the Psalms. How does Casanova’s literary engagement enlarge our picture of him, and the society he moves in?
Does The Story of My Life live up to Casanova’s own declaration that “It is fun to study the world as you are passing through it”? How is this supported by his various descriptions of people and settings, and his own encounters with adversity?
Does Casanova seem to be a reliable narrator, particularly in his descriptions of his affair with Madame Murano, his escape from the Leads, and his encounter with Voltaire?
What role do Casanova’s amorous encounters play in relation to his non-amorous encounters, in terms of understanding Casanova’s world view? How might Casanova’s erotic adventures serve as a metaphor for eighteenth-century continental culture?
Casanova claimed that he began to write his memoirs to escape from depression. How might this be revealed in the narrative strategies Casanova chooses throughout the memoirs?
How do the various instances of gender subversion enhance (or diminish) our understanding of Casanova’s fascination with the erotic?
In his preface to The Story of My Life, Casanova quotes the classical writer Pliny the Younger (b. 61 AD) who says “If you have not done things worthy of being written about, at least write things worthy of being read.” Does Casanova deliver on this expectation? Why or why not?