Casanova as Character


Not only did Casanova document his life in twelve hefty volumes (an uncompleted project, by the way — he planned future volumes he never got around to writing), he has shown up in dozens of books as a fictionalized version of himself. Writers love to use Casanova as a character, and many of them have done it. The question is, of course, why? When Casanova has told his own story so well and so vividly, and oh so thoroughly, how could someone look at that memoir and think, the story isn’t quite done, is it?

Some have done it better than others, of course. Arthur Schnitzler’s Casanova Returns to Venice is as strange and beautiful as his other novellas, a meditation on home and travel, on identity and regret, centering around 48 hours of Casanova’s life as he returned from exile. It’s a tiny little gem, like all of Casanova’s 12 volumes of airy carbon compressed into its diamond distillation, and Casanova can be proud to serve as inspiration.

Then there are… others. Sandor Marai’s version of Casanova in Casanova in Bolzano feels more like a paper doll version of the man, especially compared to the flesh and blood of his own autobiography. Andrew Miller wrote a novel called Casanova, equally insubstantial. And then, of course, there are the more unfortunate romance novel bodice ripper Casanovas, written by women who do not seem to have read any of Casanova’s own writings. Which is a shame, because Casanova’s circling around the sex act is so much hotter than women explicitly writing about him sticking it in.

We haven’t really gotten to the why yet. It’s the same reason why there are so many books that also use Lord Byron and Richard Francis Burton as characters: because if you tried to write a character like them in a novel, no one would ever believe it. Take Burton for an example. The man spoke 28 languages fluently, was on the expedition that discovered the source of the Nile (although it was only confirmed with another expedition), named mountains, was the first white man to infiltrate Mecca and survive the experience, slept with pretty much everybody, translated the Kama Sutra and gave it to the Western world, and one time he took a spear through the face while traveling in Somalia. Not only did he take a spear through the face, he then had to run who knows how far to his ship docked in the harbor, while carrying this 8 foot long spear, still lodged in his head.

If you tried to write a character like that into a novel, no one would believe you.

And poor Lord Byron, who has been reduced to mostly just his willy. He’s been turned into a vampire in some novels, another romantic hero (romantic in the cheap paperback kind of way, not the… oh never mind) like Casanova, just another dashing, sexy stranger here to take your pants off before he leaves on another adventure. Of course, with Byron, he’s the only one here whose version of his life we’ll never know. So scandalous it was, his friends decided to burn his unpublished memoirs after his death, lest it completely destroy his reputation. (A story superbly told by Doris Langley Moore in her biography The Late Lord Byron.)

But no matter how many times we try to tell Casanova’s story for him, or make that guy from Doctor Who dress up in fancy pants and pretend he has half the steel of the original, none of that erases the power of Casanova’s own telling. You should start here.

Image: Portrait of Sir Richard Francis Burton. That scar you see is from the spear that went through his face.