Tim Duggan reviews 'Casanova' by Lydia Flem.

Published November 26, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

In the era of sports-world lotharios like Wilt Chamberlain (who claims to have had sex with more than 20,000 women) and Dennis Rodman (who may yet surpass that total), it is slightly shocking to discover that Giacomo Casanova, the famously irascible Italian lover, boasted of a mere 132 seductions. His legend -- enhanced by the recent republication of his 12-volume memoir, which runs some 4,000 pages -- seems to be yet another example of how style will always triumph over statistics.

Casanova was a man of many guises -- author, actor, priest, soldier, spy, banker, physician and translator. In "Casanova: The Man Who Really Loved Women," Lydia Flem, a Belgian psychoanalyst and critic, wants to add the word "feminist" to this list. The author of two previous books on Freud, Flem glowingly outlines Casanova's life in 18th century Venice in an effort to prove that he is not only one of history's most valiant and colorful characters but also one of its most misunderstood.

The facts of Casanova's life are fairly straightforward. When he was barely a year old, his actress mother abandoned him to the care of his grandmother while she traveled to London to perform. He saw his father die when he was 8. Surely, as Flem reveals, one answer to his nomadic, pleasure-seeking life was that he was forever searching for the parental comfort that was taken from him at a young age. Casanova's search for an identity of his own was a preoccupation, and admitting he was the son of a pair of actors never got him far. He invented a noble lineage for himself and later went by the self-styled name of Chevalier de Seingalt.

Casanova experienced his first sexual encounter at age 11, when he was sent to a seminary to study for the priesthood. (His seducer was a priest's sister, Bettina.) Later, when he returned home to Venice, still in his priestly garb, he fell into bed with two sisters at the same time. Learning the ropes at a young age clearly prepared him for his bizarre, often comical, escapades later in life. His greatest love, Henriette, was a cross-dresser who passed herself off as a castrato. And at one point, he makes love to and nearly marries the daughter of one of his exes -- who turns out to be his own daughter. But for all his adventurousness, as Flem notes, don't expect vivid descriptions and steamy details from reading Casanova's memoirs. Draped in proper 18th century euphemism, often with an ecumenical touch, he prefers to reveal how he "conquered the ebony fleece," "got close to the altar frieze" and "performed the gentle sacrifice."

Rather than viewing Casanova traditionally, as a characteristic womanizer, Flem sees him as a sentimental, noble gentleman; a lover of life who wants to share his happiness and indulge his intellectual and literary tastes with women. This may well be true, but Flem stretches it a bit far in likening him to a proto-feminist. "There is not a trace of misogyny in Casanova," she claims. "Women are his masters. The feminine so fascinates him that he would like to merge with it." That's hard to imagine in a man who called the independence of women a "source of great evil" and said he'd rather die than give up his manhood.

Casanova wasn't merely a macho seducer, though. In his struggle with time and the specter of old age, he eventually resigns himself to spending the final years of his life working as a librarian in a Bohemian castle, where he devotes 13 hours a day crafting his memoirs. It is in writing -- and thinking, imagining and remembering -- that he now finds the deepest pleasure; always with the thought that the words that make up his life will secure him both happiness and long-lived fame. Upon reading an excerpt of Casanova's manuscript, a contemporary urged him to publish it before his death (which he steadfastly refused to do), raving, "One-third ... made me laugh, one-third gave me an erection, one-third gave me food for thought." In an odd way, it seems a fittingly quantified response to a man who led a life that was, by any record, immeasurably full.

By Tim Duggan

Tim Duggan is a writer who lives in New York.

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