What Casanova Told Me

by Susan Swan
ISBN: 0676975763

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A Review of: What Casanova Told Me
by Linda Morra

"The traveler must start his journey with the same fervour he feels when choosing a lover, knowing that a world of possibilities awaits him," writes Susan Swan's Casanova in his "Advice to Travellers". "And if his choice goes awry," he adds, "he must quickly select a fresh destination. Just as the best remedy for heartbreak is a new lover, so it is with travel."
Casanova's observations will have far-reaching consequences for the characters who populate Swan's new novel, What Casanova Told Me, since what he says, as the title suggests, becomes almost far more important than what he does. And he does a great deal: escapes from a Venetian prison, adopts different guises to avoid capture, theorizes about the nature of love, seduces women. But he himself is also seduced by Asked For Adams, the fictionalized niece of the American President, John Adams. Casanova apparently claims in a journal that he lends to Asked For that "I never seduced anyone except unconsciously, always being seduced myself first." She subsequently becomes his travel companion as well as his lover and, during this period, she documents their travels together from Venice, Italy-where they first meet-to Greece and Istanbul. The journal in which she records their meanderings, however, abruptly ends before they reach Istanbul. Approximately two hundred years later, her journal falls into the hands of her distant relative, Luce Adams, as do other of Asked For's personal effects-letters by Casanova himself and another journal, a leather-bound Arabic manuscript of uncertain origin.
Author of such renowned books as The Wives of Bath (1993) and Stupid Boys are Good to Relax With (1996), Swan weaves these two plotlines together in complex ways, demonstrating how matters of the heart may be considerably altered in the process of making journeys. In 1797, Asked For finds herself crossing the Atlantic to accompany her father and her fianc, the unfortunately named Francis Gooch, on business when she first encounters the aging Casanova. He is in Venice in disguise to avoid being captured by the authorities. The events that transpire-the invasion of Napoleon's army in Venice-undermine her father's financial hopes, which are then utterly dashed by a Venetian swindler. The stress he endures by the turn of these events is compounded by his daughter's refusal to promise to marry Gooch, a Yankee farmer whose name is suggestive of his character. Her father is outraged by his daughter's apparent unwillingness to comply and, in an apoplectic fit, he dies, leaving Asked For to fend for herself.
This eighteenth-century plot has a number of correspondences with that of the twentieth-century. Luce, like her ancestor, has crossed the Atlantic initially as a matter of obligation: she has been asked to take attend her mother's funeral service in Crete. She reluctantly agrees in part because, even though she deeply loved her mother, Kitty Adams, she dislikes her mother's lover, Lee Pronski, an initially unpalatable, cynical woman who is planning the service. Luce also dislikes the idea of traveling because she dislikes "the unwanted surprise [which] no traveller is capable of turning to [his] advantage":

"Better to burrow in at home and avoid a disaster like the one that had claimed her mother in Greece. If it hadn't been for the nagging worry that she owed it to her mother and herself to see the island where Kitty had died, she would never have let Lee pay her way to the memorial service in Crete."

Her inclination to avoid travel is a metaphor for her insularity and her refusal to open her heart to emotional growth, to feeling desire, to asking for (with, appropriately, a reference to her ancestor's name) what she wants. Like her ancestor, Luce lacks self-confidence and does not yet believe in her own emotional and sexual prowess. She must learn that desire-for love, for spiritual growth, for sexual fulfillment, for tenderness-is integral to the human experience. The novel is thus partly concerned with showing her emotional and spiritual development. It is also an examination of how Luce must come to terms with her mother's death and with facets of her life that Luce initially has difficulty accepting-namely, her mother's research of ancient feminist rituals in Minoan society and her mother's lover. Feeling supplanted by and resentful of Pronski, she eventually comes to appreciate both her mother's personal decisions and her lover, who, in spite of herself, also finds her affection for Luce growing.
As part of the voyage to Europe, Luce has been asked to deposit her ancestor's journal, Casanova's letters and the untranslated journal in the Sansovinian Library in Venice. She becomes so engrossed with their contents, however, that she reads the documents from beginning to end. The reader thus becomes privy to Casanova's tale. He comes to the reader from a few removes-through Luce, who is reading both Asked For's version of their conversations together and her interpretation of their unfolding relationship. Even at such removes, the beauty and elegance of his language, written and spoken-or rather of Swan's rendering of his correspondence and their conversations-is striking. There are moments, in fact, when reverting back to the twentieth-century plot is almost an intrusion.
Luce is most profoundly affected by Casanova's assertion in an extant letter respecting the importance of mothers and mothering. "Why do we cry out for our mothers at the moment of our death?" he queries and then responds, "Because we need her still, and [we] may travel to the end of our lives before we know this truth." Fortunately, Luce does not travel that far before realizing this herself-she reiterates these very words at her mother's memorial service in acknowledgment of their veracity. Not one to be easily convinced by theories or emotional outbursts from the past, she becomes persuaded by the importance of what Casanova has to tell her about the centrality of mothers.
What he has to tell her also corresponds to her mother's archaeological research about the Minoans, whom she believed to have been a matriarchal society that engaged in the worship of goddesses. In a letter Luce retains, Kitty explains that "[t]he Minoans knew something we've lost, and I want you to have it." In yet another letter to Lee, she elucidates why she wishes to partake in a ritual that involved naming one's female ancestors at a cave in Greece:

"There it was: the link to our lineage and the truth that society hides from us - that women's bodies are the foundation on which human culture rests. All those mothers, going back in time farther than we can remember, nurturing the spark of life."

Understanding the importance of mothers-as foundational to human society and associated with life itself-is what Kitty wanted Luce to understand.
That mothers are also related to desire-for love, for understanding, for human contact-is what Luce eventually learns from Casanova. As Pronski observes, citing the authority of a scholar on the subject, "Casanova saw desire as an expression of a mother's omnipotence." Thus, during her journey to Greece, Luce learns that traveling is not motivated by obligation or duty or even curiosity-it is motivated by the same kind of "fervour" that is involved in "choosing a lover." In Greece, she encounters a scholar, Ender Mecid, who is as important to interpreting the mysterious contents of the Arabic journal as he is to Luce's final stage of emotional development. Luce learns from him almost entirely all that transpires between Casanova and Asked For. She also learns from him-as Swan's novel clearly communicates-that making herself vulnerable to desire and to human contact is utterly worthwhile. As Luce discovers, when she opens herself up to a world of possibilities, the world comes to her.

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