From Casanova to Cleo

Well, this is frustrating, but it does happen when you write a book. Sometimes you go down one path in your research before discovering that it’s a dead end.

Then you have a choice: You can somehow finagle it into your book and hope that it works. Journalists do that a lot, because they don’t like admitting (to themselves) that they wasted time searching in the wrong place.

Or you cut your losses, say ‘Oh well’, and keep searching for the perfect and sublime.

That’s what I just decided to do, after much agonizing. As you know from several previous posts, I was reading into the life of Casanova as one of my characters for a particular chapter. He led a fascinating life, but it just doesn’t work in my specific context, at least not perfectly.

I considered replacing him with Mata Hari. (In general, I want more female lives in the book.) Also not a perfect fit.

Now I’m onto Cleopatra.

Con: She’s an “ancient”, as are the protagonists in the book (Hannibal, Fabius and Scipio). So there may be too much of that.

Pro: People love her, she’s fascinating, she’s female, and…. she fits!!!

If you’re trying to figure out what these people have in common and why I need one of them in my book, I’ve dropped a veiled hint here. Feel free to guess.

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When Casanova didn’t find his writer’s voice

By coincidence, I came across a passage in Giacomo Casanova’s memoirs that seems to sum up perfectly the mystery surrounding a writer’s voice that Cheri and I talked about yesterday.

Casanova, a Venetian, was studying French and visiting a teacher three times a week for an entire year. Once, he composed some poetry and showed it to his teacher.

Teacher: Your thought is noble and very poetic; your language is flawless; your verses are good and quite correctly measured; and yet in spite of all that, your octave is bad.

Casanova: How so?

Teacher: I haven’t any idea. What’s lacking is that certain something. Imagine seeing a man whom you find handsome, well-built, pleasing, full of intelligence and wit: in a word, perfect in your severest judgment. A woman arrives, gives the man a look and after considering him well, tells you, as she leaves, that she doesn’t find him at all attractive. ‘But Madame,’ you say, ‘tell me what you don’t like about him.’ ‘I haven’t the vaguest idea,’ she says. You return to this man, look at him more carefully, and you finally realize that he’s a castrato. ‘Ah,’ you say, ‘now I see why that woman didn’t find him to her liking.’ (page 169 here)

Fortunately for Casanova, he discovered that in his primary field of endeavor in life, which was not writing, he had rather enough of that certain something.
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Casanova, aged 11, discovers wit

Giacomo Casanova

Giacomo Casanova

I’m reading The Story of My Life by Giacomo Casanova and arrive at the following event, which took place when the boy was eleven years old.

(And yes, this is part of the bibliography for my book. If you’re trying to figure out why, I leave, for the time being, the subtlest of hints here.)

Casanova was in his home town of Venice, with a group of people having supper. An Englishman, who was communicating with the Italians in Latin, which the educated were able to do in the Enlightenment era, wrote down a couplet for young Casanova to read:

Discite grammatici cur mascula nomina cunnus/Et cur femineum mentula nomen habet.

In English: “Tell us, grammarians, why cunnus (vulva) is masculine and mentula (penis) is feminine.”

Casanova announced that, rather than just translating the phrase, he would prefer to answer the question. So he wrote, in pentameter:

Disce quod a domino nomina servus habet.

In English: “It’s because the slave always bears the name of his master.”

“It was,” he says, “my first literary exploit, and I can say that it was from this moment that my love of the glory conferred upon literature began to germinate, for the applause brought me to the pinnacle of happiness.”

Later that evening, the priest charged with looking after him told him it was a pity that he could not publish the couplet or Casanova’s response.

“Why?”, Casanova asked.

“Because it’s smut. Still, it’s sublime. Let’s go to bed now and speak no more of it. Your response is extraordinary because you know neither the subject nor how to write verse.”

Casanova would catch up very soon.

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Hannibal, Aikido and Casanova

Bear with me, please. I’m trying, right now, to analyze Hannibal’s phenomenal skill at winning battles. And I’m trying to find parallels in other areas of life.

It occurs to me that Hannibal had some things in common with this Aikido Black Belt:

It further occurs to me that Hannibal had his way with the Romans rather as Casanova had his way with about 120 women.

You use the force of the opponent, rather than your own, to win. That seems to be the trick. This may or may not be obvious when looking at battle diagrams of Hannibal’s great victories, such as this one at Cannae:

I’m desperately looking for other examples or refinements of this idea. Any hints will be gratefully received. If you think I’ve gone bananas, please suggest remedies.

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