Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Susan Swan: What Casanova Told Me

Susan Swan is an established novelist who lives (usually) in Toronto, where she is a professor of Humanities at York University. Her last novel, The Wives of Bath, was a considerable success, being made into the feature film Lost and Delirious; it was also shortlisted for various prizes. Now she has produced a new book: What Casanova Told Me.

Incidentally, and before I forget, if you want to get yourself a nice little hit, write a novel called The Wives of Bath. Susan Swan did it, as above, and Wendy Holden’s book of the same name is currently about number 16 in the UK top 50.

What Casanova Told Me was first published in Canada by Knopf, last autumn, and has recently been brought out by Bloomsbury in New York and London. I read the American edition; this is handsomely produced, with the pages untrimmed on the right-hand side, a device which generates a nice sense of history.

Casanova is, I guess, a household name: the very word denotes someone who chases after women. That is the image which we have inherited from various films (including one from Fellini) and television dramatisations (including two from the BBC). But that portrait is decidedly incomplete.

Giacomo Casanova was a man of the eighteenth century. Born in 1725, he died in 1798. In between he lived the life of an adventurer, travelling widely and meeting many of the famous men and women of his day. We would, I suspect, know little of him, but for the fact that he wrote a twelve-volume set of memoirs.

Opinions vary as to how reliable Casanova’s memoirs are, but they certainly paint a vivid picture of his time. He was present, for instance, at the public execution of Damiens, a man who made the mistake of trying to assassinate the French king, Louis XV. The wretched Damiens was tortured for some hours, in front of an enthusiastic crowd; and on a balcony near to his own vantage point, Casanova witnessed two couples having sex while they watched the entertainment.

And what has Susan Swan made of this man and his memoirs? Well, she has made a highly enjoyable novel out of them. Once again I find myself in the slightly embarrassing position of having to say that I thoroughly enjoyed what is essentially a literary novel; that is embarrassing because I frequently declare how boring they are. But in this case I have an excuse, because What Casanova Told Me is also a romance, in both the old and new senses of the term. It is a romance in the sense that it is a love story, and it is also a romance of the kind referred to by Nathaniel Hawthorne: that is to say, a book in which the author allows herself to take certain liberties with history, while remaining faithful to the truths of the human heart.

There are two intertwined stories in Susan Swan’s novel. There is an eighteenth-century story related by a Puritan American lady called Asked For Adams (niece of the President, no less) in a document which she entitled What Casanova Told Me; and there is the story of Luce Adams, one of Asked For’s twenty-first-century descendants.

At the beginning, Asked For is in Venice with her father, where she meets an ageing Jacob (to use the English version of his name) Casanova; her father dies, and she begins to travel with the man who fascinates her. Meanwhile, in the modern world, Luce Adams undertakes a similar journey with her dead mother’s (lesbian) lover. And that’s really about all you need to know.

I suggest that, in order to enjoy this book, the reader needs to bring a certain background to it. It will help if you have some working knowledge of European history; a taste for Venice; and an awareness that Casanova was very different, in reality, from the crude caricature of many modern representations of him; and if you also possess some sympathy for the concept of the Great Earth Mother, that might also be of assistance. Overall, this may well be a book which will appeal more to women than to men.

Susan Swan is clearly the mistress of her material, and her narrative technique copes effortlessly with moving back and forth, between the journals of the past and the events of the present. The early and central parts of the book perhaps work better than the end, but at no point does the story falter. The novel is beautifully written, without being too clever and pleased with itself. This is an elegant, thoughtful, and classy novel: complex, leisurely, and wonderfully romantic.

Should you wish to know more, you can visit Susan Swan’s own web site, where there are links to other reviews and much more.


Anonymous said...

I'm reading this book now...without any knowledge of Venice or much about Casanova. This book is creeping up the ladder to being one of my top five, next to The Great Gatsby, Ask Me Anything, Atonement, and In Cold Blood. The most rewarding part of this book is making me feel that if I don't understand parts of it, I want to hurry and look it up. I am most grateful that I gave this book a chance!

Anonymous said...

Certain things in the book annoyed me very much. She translates Giacomo as "Jacob". In Italian, Jacob is Iacopo and Giacomo, I believe, would be translated as James.