Friday, February 20, 2009


What is Casanova's biographer to do? The retired libertine did the job so well himself in his Histoire de ma vie that no one could possibly improve on his story, just as no one setting out to describe his extraordinarily restless life could have read, travelled or written more than Casanova, or thought more about the business of living than he did, or lived as bravely or as excessively.

The Histoire, which Casanova wrote at the end of his days when he was working as a librarian at Dux Castle in Bohemia, details with such wit, candour and style his peripatetic years as a priest, con-man, cabbalist, violinist, soldier, alchemist, prisoner, fugitive, gambler, intellectual, writer and lover, while inadvertently giving such a vivid picture of mid-18th-century Europe, that not only is there little for anyone to add but due to its sheer bulk - over 3,800 pages, making up 12 volumes - the beleaguered biographer must rather choose what to take away in order to make his own version a reasonable length.

Casanova has baffled and thwarted many of those writers who, while trying to describe and evaluate his experiences, have succeeded only in repeating in edited form the events as he tells them, but in Ian Kelly he has at last found his Boswell. Himself an actor, Kelly is immediately alert to the theatricality of his subject.

Born the illegitimate son of a Venetian actress in a city where it was mandatory to be masked from October to Ash Wednesday, Casanova lived a life shaped by the slipperiness of the masquerade and the playfulness of the theatre. It is as a player of parts on the great European stage that he describes himself in his Histoire.

Accordingly, Kelly shapes his biography around not chapters but dramatic acts and scenes, with refreshing intermezzi where he pauses to discourse, in true Enlightenment fashion, not only on Casanova's involvement in the Cabbala, the 'fusion of Gnosticism, Egyptian mathematics, neo-Platonism, Judaic mysticism and personal revelation' by which he was so mysteriously intrigued; but also on his means of travel (important in terms of sex-on-the-road), his love of food (equal and analogous to his love of women), and his attitude to women (most appreciated when they smelt of cheese).

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