Title: Benedetto Casanova, the Memoirs
Author: Marten Weber
Cover Artist: Adam Bouska
Length: 414 pages
No doubt you have heard of Casanova, the famous womanizer, and maybe you have seen the movie, or read the account of his life. But did you know he may have had a gay brother?
Benedetto, a few years Giacomo’s junior, was pressed into service of the Church to follow the famous lover of women through the courts of Europe. On the way he had amorous adventures with countless men, but, unlike his brother, fell in love and kept alive a romantic relationship with a strapping German soldier over time and distance.
His "memoirs" were discovered only in 1881, when an English traveler rummaging through a private library in Rome found them glued to the pages of a book. They were written in Italian and have never before been published in English. Marten Weber delivers a wonderful "translation" of this challenging text, full of linguistic cunning and his usual talent for breathtaking eroticism.
The set-up of this novel mirrors historical memoirs after the scholars have had a chance to translate, annotate, and comment. The ruse is extremely well done: the book could easily be mistaken for a real memoir, complete with forwards and translator’s notes, and little breaks in the text where “a fragment of a page” has been lost. The style is chatty and a bit rambling – Benedetto more or less follows the course of his life, stopping to make pithy observations of the human condition, the Church, the treatment of men of “his species,” politics, or a fine dish of rhubarb.
His adventures are many—Benedetto is recruited by the Church to follow his more famous brother around, spying on his activities. Italy is not a united nation at this time in history and the Papal States are a political entity, not a philosophical organization. Who allies with whom matters greatly to the Pope’s political sway, and Giacomo is feared to be organizing political upheaval.
The famous womanizer seldom appears on the page with Benedetto, who is having a great time on the Pope’s payroll, although they do interact indirectly, whether it’s chasing through Venice or Benedetto’s secret assistance in springing Giacomo from prison, a good deed that goes completely uncredited, as Giacomo “rewrites history” to take all the credit himself. One can hear the irritation and the pride over the famous brother’s exploits everywhere but with the ladies. He contrasts his brother's sexual escapades disdainfully with his own: relations between men are purer in his eyes for not carrying the baggage of titles, money, social position, or children.
Mirroring Giacomo’s memoirs, Benedetto frequently mentions his exploits with the legion of men who are willing to break with convention—seldom do six pages go by without at least a mention of a handsome shop boy or a willing soldier, although a few of his chosen companions stay with him for months or years, and he is fond of them and their talents. Benedetto claims to love, but conflates it with sex, although he clearly can perceive a more emotional attachment. Anything resembling constancy to one lover, no matter how dear, simply does not happen in this story: he’s far more likely to have a third, or a fourth, man join him and his beloved.
The endless gossip and rubbing elbows with the movers and the shakers of the day comes with catty asides which range from hysterically funny to scathing to revolting, and feel in the style of Samuel Pepys. It’s engaging: we see with the eyes of history but Benedetto just had a conversation, and sometimes his conclusions are entertainingly wrong, such as his dismissal of Handel’s music in favor of Porpora. His observations on daily life run the same range; one feels immersed in the period. Unless...
Where I was less than pleased with the book was the typography of the dialog. The book is very light on dialog, relying instead on exposition, which suits a memoir of the “period.” What little there is uses nothing as mundane as a quote mark, relying instead on dashes to set off the lines. Ignoring modern convention may have been a nod to the eighteenth century, but it is an unpleasant jolt for the reader, and the periodic drops into modern slang break the spell entirely. The French are “touchy-feely,” a prospective partner “shakes his package,” and the reader is forcibly reminded that this is a novel after all. The “translator’s note” at the beginning indicates that this is intentional, but I do not thank the author for it; it feels sloppy.
My reservations aside, this was an enjoyable and amusing read, with a side of education slipped in, and even incorporates a romance, allowing for the proclivities associated with the name “Casanova” which Benedetto possesses in full measure. I think the blurb’s claims of “breathtaking eroticism” are overblown, but it was good fun. 4.25 marbles