Adventurer by Leo Damrosch review – a post-MeToo biography of Casanova | Biography books

gIacomo Casanova, that serial seducer of Enlightenment Europe, liked to think of himself as a social service. Whether it’s frolicking in a gondola, or making out with two women at the same time (sisters were good, mothers and daughters even better) or getting along with a girl who pretended to be a castrato (cross-dressing turned him on), he insisted on everyone’s right to experience pleasure. According to Histoire de Ma Vie, the monumental and extremely priapic autobiography he left when he died in 1798, Casanova very rarely resorted to violence or coercion. The worst thing a partner could complain about was a certain post-coital sadness that only lasted until the next sexual encounter arrived to chase it away.

Veteran biographer Leo Damrosch knows how misleading it all sounds. It is difficult to see how a grown man who often slept with very young girls (10 was the legal age of consent) could be read today as anything other than a pedophile. Casanova’s insistence that everything was consensual neglects or overrides the brutal power dynamics at play. While he generally did not sleep with sex workers, he often slept with girls who were prostituted by their parents or their protectors in exchange for favors, promotions, benefits, or even just a big purse. Venereal disease – he refused to use a condom or, as he put it, “wrapped me in dead skin” – was not only a danger but could, on occasion, be weaponized. And when the inevitable happened and Casanova fathered children, he was careful not to have anything to do with them. On one occasion, he ended up sleeping with his daughter Leonilda, who produced a baby boy who was, of course, also his grandson.

There have been many biographies of Casanova before, some of them very good, although they have tended to be theses-driven – psychoanalyst Lydia Flem crafted a Casanova who was a great understanding of women while actor and writer Ian Kelly presented him as a virtuoso performer. on a social stage. Damrosch, a Harvard literary historian, is in turn clear that he is writing a post-MeToo Casanova. At the same time, he also wants us to understand how much history is a precious document for researchers working on the 18th century. It has only recently been available in its entirety and, despite some whimsical elements, bears unprecedented witness to the social, political and intellectual state of mind of the time.

Damrosch’s Casanova is above all a materialist who believes that the world that can be touched and seen is the only one that matters: God, although useful in keeping the hoi polloi in order, played little role in his imagination. If something felt good – a meal, a boob, nice clothes – then it was worth pursuing. However, he was also a strong proponent of the “one-body” sexual model, which assumed that women had exactly the same appetites and drives as men (the idea of ​​them as asexual angels would only take hold in the Victorian era).

More generally, Damrosch shows how the disparate borders of 18th century Europe allowed a career criminal like Casanova to move from one jurisdiction to another, changing his name, appearance and what we would today call his “profile” as he commuted from his native Venice to Naples to Barcelona to London and St Petersburg. As for jobs, he tried his hand at being an apprentice priest, lottery runner, and violinist in an orchestra before ending up as a prisoner serving a five-year prison sentence for the somewhat vague crime of “irreligion.”

At the age of 40, Casanova and his History were running out of steam. After decades of sexual adventures, all of her conquests begin to merge into one. Casanova’s last job was as librarian to Count Waldstein. The nobleman’s castle was located in Bohemia, which looks more promising than it was. The last twelve years of the great seducer’s life were spent in restless celibacy complaining about the local peasantry, which one feels was a far better fate than he deserved.

Adventurer: The Life and Times of Giacomo Casanova is published by Yale (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

Colin L. Johnson