March 27, 2012

Smithsonian Magazine asks, “Who was Casanova?”


Portrait of Giacomo Casanova by Anton Raphael Mengs.

TODAY ONLY: The Duel by Giacomo Casanova can be had for a mere $6 for the print edition and and $2.99 for the eBook. Both contain the “Illuminations” series.

“Yes, for I like your way of asking, though, in my opinion, a pistol duel is a barbarous affair. I accept, but on the following conditions: You must bring two pistols, charge them in my presence, and give me the choice. If the first shot is a miss, we will fight with swords till the first blood or to the death, whichever you prefer. Call for me at three o?clock, and choose some place where we shall be secure from the law.”

“Very good. You are a good fellow, allow me to embrace you. Give me your word of honor not to say a word about it to anyone, for if you did we should be arrested immediately.”

“You need not be afraid of my talking; the project is too dear to me.”

“Good. Farewell till three o’clock.”

An article in the April issue of Smithsonian magazine celebrates one of literature’s great enigmas: Giacomo Casanova. The above quote is taken from the chapters of Casanova’s Memoirs dealing with his celebrated duel with the Polish Count Branicki. It is the same duel that Casanova would later fictionalize as The Duel, which Melville House published as part of The Duel x5. This “nonfiction” rendering can also be found in our edition. It is available at the back of the print and digital editions, as is a diverse selection of 19th and early 20th century sentiments on this most unique historian.

What is fascinating about Casanova’s mystery is not so much the lack of knowledge about the man, but rather that we lack knowledge despite his greatest literary contribution being a sprawling, tell-all memoir that encompasses the greater portion of his life. How can a man whose autobiography is lauded for its total lack of discretion also remain a fascinating enigma? The answer is that despite being born in 1725, Casanova’s writings are fairly new to scholars.

This is echoed in the article for Smithsonian, which is by Tony Perrotett:

No less improbable than the man’s life is the miraculous survival of the manuscript itself. Casanova bequeathed it on his deathbed to his nephew, whose descendants sold it 22 years later to a German publisher, Friedrich Arnold Brockhaus of Leipzig. For nearly 140 years, the Brockhaus family kept the original under lock and key, while publishing only bowdlerized editions of the memoir, which were then pirated, mangled and mistranslated. The Brockhaus firm limited scholars’ access to the original document, granting some requests but turning down others, including one from the respected Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig.

The manuscript escaped destruction in World War II in a saga worthy of John le Carré. In 1943, a direct hit by an Allied bomb on the Brockhaus offices left it unscathed, so a family member pedaled it on a bicycle across Leipzig to a bank security vault. When the U.S. Army occupied the city in 1945, even Winston Churchill inquired after its fate. Unearthed intact, the manuscript was transferred by American truck to Wiesbaden to be reunited with the German owners. Only in 1960 was the first uncensored edition published, in French. The English edition arrived in 1966, just in time for the sexual revolution—and interest in Casanova has only grown since.

Casanova’s Memoirs sold for $9.6 million in 2010, setting a record for sale price of a manuscript. It is astounding to think that something could be both celebrated and rendered obscure for centuries. Even Casanova’s fiction shared this fate: It wasn’t until 1912 that the early Casanova scholar Arthur Symonds published a short piece on the discovery of Casanova’s fictionalized version of the duel with Branicki (this interesting note can be found in the Illuminations as well). Casanova remains mysterious because his life’s story is relatively new to us.


Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.