Book review: Adventurer by Leo Damrosch
In this insightful biography, Damrosch argues that 18th century Italian adventurer Giacomo Casanova was a serial ‘abuser’
The Picture Art Collection/Alamy Stock Photo
We tend to think of the 18th century Italian adventurer Giacomo Casanova as an “irresistible rake”, said Laura Freeman in The Times. But according to Leo Damrosch, professor of literature at Harvard, the “charming seducer” wasn’t “that charming at all”. Casanova, he argues in this insightful biography, was a serial “abuser” whose behaviour was disturbing even by the standards of his day.
Most of what we know about Casanova comes from his “hugely priapic autobiography”, Histoire de Ma Vie, which he left behind to be published after his death in 1798, said Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian. He maintained that he never resorted to violence or coercion – and that his enjoyment of sex depended on the enjoyment of his partner – but Damrosch points out how “dodgily self-deceiving” this argument was, given the “brutal power dynamics in play”. Casanova often slept with “very young girls” who were, in effect, prostituted to him by their parents. He refused to wear a condom – or, as he put it, “envelop myself in a dead skin”. One episode in his youth, Damrosch writes, was unquestionably “gang rape”.
Although “appalled” by his subject’s behaviour, Damrosch admits to finding him captivating, said Gregory Dowling in The Wall Street Journal. Casanova travelled all over Europe, and “met everyone”, from serving maids, prostitutes and nuns to “great writers and ruling monarchs”. He recorded these meetings in his autobiography, which he wrote in “lonely old age”, when he was impotent and losing his teeth, and it remains a “remarkable” portrait of the society of his day. The “great virtue” of Damrosch’s book is that, while never losing critical distance, he captures what it was about Casanova – his “vivid presentness” and “eagerness” for life – that makes us want to keep reading about him.
Yale University Press 432pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99
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