By Lydia Flem, translated by Catherine
(Farrar, Strauss & Giroux)
Review by Cathleen Myers
Not every man is a legend in his own time but Giacomo Casanova (1724-1798) achieved legendary status well before his death, living long enough to be a "consultant’ on the first production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Soldier, scholar, lawyer, physician, occultist, alchemist, professional violinist, poet, raconteur, classical scholar, political scientist, philosopher, adventurer, and secret agent -Casanova led a life far stranger than fiction - except that most of his adventures appear to be true! One is astonished, reading the story of his amazingly varied career, that he had time for his most famous hobby. And, unlike the autobiographies of most sex symbols, much of Casanova’s Histoire de Ma Vie has been documented.
Mme. Flem’s biography is that rarity - a well-documented study that reads as effortlessly as a bodice ripper! Her style is so lively and readable that you almost forgive her penchant for Freudian analysis (she is, after all, a practicing psychoanalyst as well as the author of several books on Freud and Freudianism) - especially since the details about Casanova’s relationship with his independent mother, the gifted Commedia del Arte star Zanetta Casanova, are so entertaining. Flem’s thesis is that Casanova’s consistent over-achieving was due to his early craving for his beautiful but distant mother’s affection and approval and to his essential insecurity about his working class background and his constant fear of being "found out" as he moved through his many careers - from academia to the theatre from the Courts of Europe to dungeons of the Inquisition - from the courtesans of Venice to the music room of Mozart. A skeptical non-Freudian might point out that this very insecurity was actually a good survival skill for a self-made in the 18th century - as Casanova himself discovered, for example, when his adoptive father - a wealthy and powerful Senator whose life he had saved - was unable to save him from arrest by the Inquisition.
While other biographers of the Legendary Lover have focused on Casanova’s amazing variety of sexual adventures, Flem emphasizes again and again his genuine love and respect for women, his desire for partners who were his intellectual equals as well as his equals in passion, and his always considerate treatment of his "ex’s." And Casanova’s women are a remarkable lot in their own right - ranging from the mysterious Henriette (the great love of his life) to the aging occultist Marquise d’Urfe to the remarkable Bellino/Teresa, the "false castrato!" A pity he was generally too much of a gentleman to kiss and tell!
Flem is not an 18th century historian but her liberal use of primary sources - memoirs, diaries and letters - will delight students of social and cultural history. Indeed, one of Casanova’s professed aims in writing the Memoirs was to document a dying century and from it Flem’s book has culled a wealth of material on period dance, manners, fashion and costuming (Casanova, himself a gifted costumer, looked back nostalgically on his own age, when men were allowed to be peacocks, too).
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