In the late 1780s the librarian at the Bohemian castle of Dux, fifty miles from Prague, was trying to finish his autobiography. His employer, Count Joseph Karl von Waldstein, chamberlain to the Emperor, was an amiable man, but in his absence his jealous major- domo Feldkirchner made the librarian’s life a misery. The servants disregarded his orders, the cook served him cold, inedible meals, dogs were encouraged to bark outside his room at night, and during the day a hunting horn with a peculiarly unpleasant tone was sounded at intervals. Everyone in the castle was encouraged to laugh at the elderly man’s over-meticulous manners and old-fashioned dress. All in all, it was remarkable that Giacomo Casanova succeeded in completing his masterpiece – though despite its enormous length it still ends so abruptly that there might have been a few more pages to come.
The Story of My Life is arguably the most honest and self-revelatory autobiography ever written, and also a colourful and highly entertaining picture of eighteenth-century Europe. The detail is extra- ordinary – so vivid and immediate that one might doubt its accuracy. But apart from the fact that Casanova seems to have had almost perfect recall, throughout his life he left packets of notes containing his immediate impressions and reactions to events and personalities with friends dotted throughout Europe, which he collected for his project at Dux. So when he writes of social life in Venice or Fontainebleau, Vienna, Warsaw or Constantinople, St Petersburg or London, we can count on the detail being true to the life of the time; and when he records conversations with Catherine of Russia or Frederick of Prussia, Voltaire, Goethe, Mozart or Benjamin Franklin, it’s with the help of notes made within a few hours of the event, so their voices can reliably be heard.
Casanova’s autobiography in the great modern English translation by Willard Trask runs to 3,700 pages and 6 volumes, so to
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