In an angry footnote to his "Discourse on the Customs of the Italians", written inthe philosopher poet Giacomo Leopardi complains: "No wg casanova how remarkable a man may be, no matter how independent, how forthright, how stubborn, in his behaviour and opinions and judgments of whatever kind, yet, if he live in society, his thoughts and actions are truly his own only to the smallest degree. In almost every way he is determined and modified by others, even those for whom he has little or no respect.
Isn't this infuriating? No one could have been more stubbornly independent than Giacomo Casanova, more remarkable and resourceful, but The Duel is the story of how his apparently free spirit is fatally hijacked by the opinions of a resentful ballerina, the crass insults of a drunken Polish officer and the absurdity of a society that demands that in certain circumstances a man behave in a manner at once suicidal and punishable by death.
Sebald's evident enthusiasm persuaded me to buy the book.
It begins in Kafkaesque fashion. For no apparent reason, Casanova is arrested at dawn and imprisoned in a stifling, rat-infested cell beneath the roof of the Doges Palace. Languishing here for months, he has no way of knowing whether he is to be released next week, next month, or never.
He is afraid he will go mad.
After a year of frustration and false starts, he dreams up wg casanova most daring and complicated of escapes - few works of fiction can compete - and as the book closes he is fleeing north through the Alps to Austria and Munich. How strange then, to open The Duel and find Casanova picking up his story with the regret that he ever bothered to leave his cell.
It seems he was shortly to be released. He could have returned to his familiar life in Venice. For if a man is inevitably conditioned by those around him, better, Casanova feels, as do most Italians, if those people are his own people.
Now he is an outlaw, liable to immediate arrest on return. Throughout the book, the author refers to himself in third person as "the Venetian", as if, being exiled, he had somehow been estranged from himself, yet is still most determined by the city and culture that gave him birth.
Casanova may regret escape and exile but the reader does not. The Duel proceeds wg casanova a splendidly cheeky of the adventurer's travels through the capitals of northern Europe. Never have so many courts and kings been so quickly caricatured and dismissed. Expelled from his own society, the Venetian is free to see every other for what it is, absurd.
For dear life
Again and again the long, sonorous sentences, the product, it would seem, of a lofty civilisation, end in a lash of corrosive wit. Again and again the object of ridicule is a figure of authority, a king, even the Pope. These are only the s, but the revolution is in the air. Just because she is the queen! How crazy that people respect me because I wear a fancy medal awarded to me for no other reason than that I once kissed the holy pontiff's sacred toes.
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Aren't people stupid? Convinced of his superiority, our Venetian toes society's line, eating up court freebies beside princes and ladies, perfectly aware that the emperor has no clothes, but with no intention at all of "undeceiving the deceived". Absurdity is fun. Then, in Warsaw, an Italian ballerina comes to town.
Casanova admires her, but he admires another just as much. Actually, and rather out of character, he isn't paying a great deal of attention. Is this something to do with "a certain medicine", he is taking? The dancer, no doubt aware of his reputation, is angry. Meanwhile, one of her more attentive admirers is General Braniscki, a man whom Casanova mocks as having "learned to shed his enemies' blood without hatred, to take revenge without anger, to kill without discourtesy, to prefer honour, which is an imaginary thing, to life, which is the only real asset a man wg casanova.
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Fatal pride. All too soon, it will be the insulted Venetian who will be risking his life as he challenges this pompous Pole to a duel for the sake of honour. Wg casanova remarkable thing about Casanova is that not only did he have a bewilderingly eventful life, not only was he a thinker of wide reading and great shrewdness, but he also knew how to tell a tale as well as the cleverest of novelists; knew, above all, how to wring out of it the maximum tension and irony.
Both the Venetian and the reader have been beautifully set up in the opening s of this book. We thought we had seen through all society's self-regarding theatre.
We thought we were immune. Until, in the space of a few lines, here we are enthralled by one of the most grotesque and artificial rituals ever devised: two men back to back in the snow, loaded pistols in their hands, everything at stake, all because of a woman now entirely forgotten and indeed never again mentioned throughout the book.
Public opinion may be a matter of no substance, observed Schopenhauer, yet if everybody else foolishly pays attention to it, then you will have to do likewise. For it conditions your whole existence. Especially if you depend on your charm and social graces to scrounge a living through the courts of Europe. Such, more or less, is the Venetian's reasoning when he decides to challenge the man who has insulted him.
Casanova in bohemia
A loss of reputation would be a loss of earning power. Yet as the two combatants warm to their madness, as they become extravagantly deferential to each other in a delirium of mutual admiration - what crazy courage we are showing!
More than years after Casanova, discussing The Varieties of Religious Experiencethe psychologist William James suggested that risking one's life could give you a sense of sacred transport. He quotes a certain General Skobelev: " I am crazy for it, I love it, I adore it.
I run after danger as one runs after women Well, who ran after women more than Casanova? Here is the key.
The Venetian may merely be responding to society's absurd notions of honour when he challenges his opponent. He hadn't planned to do this. It is a loss of independence. But once he engages, the absurd duel gives this jaded, disillusioned man a sense of meaning that even young ballerinas are no longer capable of providing.
Curiously, it also forges a new and very intimate society: between the Venetian and his opponent, and between this 18th-century adventurer and ourselves. We all share the disturbing awareness that, precisely because it is our most precious asset, there comes a time when life must be risked. For dear life. Sometimes, our most precious asset wg casanova worth sacrificing.
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Tim Parks on Casanova's The Duel. Buy The Duel at Amazon. Topics Books Classics. Reuse this content.