Of all the improbable characters of the late eighteenth century, Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) is today the most famous by name. He is certainly one of a tiny handful, along with Napoleon and de Sade, to have left a linguistic legacy. But whereas the megalomaniacal Corsican has been reduced to a lowly pastry, and his debauched contemporary to a psychological disorder in the DSM-IV, Casanova has lent his name to nothing less than, well, Casanovas. A restless flaneur of a dozen capital cities and twenty times as many boudoirs, he pulled off Western literature's most spectacular act of self-promotion, guaranteeing himself immortality through a vast memoir written in French and now handsomely republished in English by Johns Hopkins. In History of My Life, he slyly enshrines his expertise in an area where his credentials could not be verified by pusillanimous critics: the bedroom.

Casanova, however, was more wildly protean than his legend would imply. By turns gambler, occultist, amateur diplomat, professional hanger-on, violinist, translator of Homer, mathematician, and director of the French lottery, Casanova prided himself on his dancing and his French accent. But the cantankerous bibliophile of later years never imagined he would christen a thousand eponymous Romeos. If he dreamed of future fame, it was as a courtier, a belletrist, or a superior gossip of the beau monde.

Yet curiously, the reality behind the Casanoving remains almost totally unknown, even to literati. The text he left at death, written while he worked as an embittered old librarian in the service of Count Waldstein at Castle Dux in Bohemia, ran to over four thousand manuscript pages. Thereafter, it followed a checkered history, being published first in an 1822 German translation and then in an inaccurate and moralistically meddling French text of 1826. Not until 1960 did a definitive French version at last appear. This text, in turn, became the basis for the present English translation by Willard R. Trask, which was first published--unfortunately to widespread neglect--by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1966.

"It was brought out in dribs and drabs over a five-year period between 1966 and 1971," explains Douglas Armato, manager of Johns Hopkins's book division. He adds: "And the volumes had a flip-case design, which lent them an air of antiquarian obscurity." Not so with the new edition, which sports a luscious nude stretching across the spines.

Trask's English, reproduced in its entirety from the earlier edition, faithfully adheres to Casanova's elegantly expedient French. Aside from his attempts at fashionably monumental science-fiction novels like his unsuccessful Icosameron of 1788, Casanova was a lucid if occasionally pompous stylist, lacing his text with his adored Horace and Ariosto and often protecting his heroines' identities with initials and asterisks--grammatical equivalents of the famous Venetian mask.

"In the beginning of August 1733," Casanova writes matter-of-factly, "my organ of memory developed." In one of the most spectral episodes of the memoirs, he ponders his earliest recollection, a violent nosebleed associated with his infantile epilepsy. Convinced of his idiocy, his grandmother took him to be cured by a witch on the island of Murano. There the eight-year-old had his first encounter with the female sex, albeit of the supernatural variety. A flirtatious fairy descended from the chimney in the middle of the night dressed in "a huge pannier...with a crown on her head set with a profusion of stones." After an elaborate magic ritual, she kissed him, curing his epilepsy and nosebleeds and arousing his carnal proclivities.

Indeed, when his mother, a traveling actress known as La Zanetta, came to visit him at school in Padua, the ten-year-old Casanova improvised a joke for her in Latin: Discite grammatici cur mascula nomina cunnus et cur femineum mentula nomen habet? Disce quod a domino nomina servus habet. (Tell us, O grammarians, why the male genitals are a female noun and the female parts are masculine? Because, they say, the slave always takes the master's name!) On hearing this, La Zanetta, we are told, proudly bestowed a gold watch upon the young prodigy's teacher.

History of My Life gives us a catty and supple panorama of a European society that eerily prefigures our own. It was a world in the process of disintegration, in which women exhibited sexual boldness--hence innumerable convents filled with middle-class girls recovering from illicit abortions. To his female contemporaries, Casanova seems to have been the ideal companion. Classless and rootless, willing to take seriously both women's sentiments and intellects, he inspired enduring affections.

His correspondence with many of his lovers spanned thirty years and thousands of pages--unfortunately, it's not included in any edition of the memoirs. In the memoirs themselves, these women remain mysteriously elusive: the cross-dressing Henriette; the subversively voluptuous and intellectual nun M** M**; the wounded C** C**; the coldly treacherous Charpillon; the charming Mimi; the courtesan Ancilla, who was made love to by the libertine John Murray as she lay dying of the pox--while Casanova watched. This nightmarish demise the writer chronicles with typical detachment: "It was one of the most striking spectacles I had seen in all my life. The cancer which ate away her nose and half of her beautiful face came up again from her esophagus two months after she believed she was cured of the pox by mercury ointment."

Nevertheless, the amorous episodes are just that, episodes--some of them probably invented with a good deal of novelistic bravura. It is the memoirs' picaresque social sweep that strikes us now rather than its salacious particulars. There is no pornographic prose to speak of. Everything is draped in decorous eighteenth-century euphemism. "'I do not want,' she said with a smile, 'to be bothered with keeping your quintessence from falling on the carpet.'" And then again, sometimes the verbal posies become insipidly matter-of-fact. "I have found," he writes, "that the smell of every woman I love is agreeable to me."

Casanova eventually ran afoul of the state inquisitor Antonio Condulmer, a corrupt womanizer and investor in a theater whose productions Casanova had lambasted in the press. In 1755, on charges of sorcery and subversion, Casanova was imprisoned in the Leads, Venice's infamous prison, from which he made a sensational escape the following year. Predictably, he turned the exploit into a slim book, which earned him some international notoriety.

Thereafter, Casanova became a perpetual and desperate wanderer across the Continent under the sobriquet of Chevalier de Seingalt, always hoping for a reprieve from Venice but never quite obtaining one. He consorted with Voltaire, Rousseau, and Frederick the Great (or so he says), but his forced nomadism seems finally to have worn him down, and he was obliged in his old age to accept the patronage of Waldstein and his gloomily provincial castle--happily for us the impetus for his most impressive feat.

Today, Casanova lives on as a louche noun--one that has about it all the allure of cheap aftershave. But is it possible that he is about to be reborn, not as the immortal lover but as the boulevardier of all boulevardiers and the wiliest bluffer of them all? Lawrence Osborne


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