One day after having all three of us dine with him he left, as he always did, to take a siesta. The Gardela girl, having to go for a lesson, left me alone with Teresa, whom, though I had never flirted with her, I still found attractive. Sitting side by side at asmall table with our backs to the door of the room in which we supposed our patron was sleeping, at a certain turn in the conversation it occured to us in our innocent gaiety to compare the differences between our shapes. We were at the most interesting point of the examination when a violent blow from a cane descended on my neck, followed by another, which would have been followed by yet more if I had not escaped from the hailstorm at top speed by running out of the room.

Innocent gaiety indeed.

Giovanni Casanova was a preacher, a violinist, a secretary, a jailbreaker, an occultist, and a librarian. He was famously a lover, but the reason for that fame lies in his writing. La historie de ma vie wasn’t published until twenty years after his death, and the French edition was butchered by the translator, one Prof. Jean Laforgue. But eventually more faithful translations emerged (the English edition, by Willard Trask, wasn’t published until 1966), and it’s a joy to read. Consider his account of how he lost the patronage of the Grimaldis:

One day after having all three of us dine with him he left, as he always did, to take a siesta. The Gardela girl, having to go for a lesson, left me alone with Teresa, whom, though I had never flirted with her, I still found attractive. Sitting side by side at asmall table with our backs to the door of the room in which we supposed our patron was sleeping, at a certain turn in the conversation it occured to us in our innocent gaiety to compare the differences between our shapes. We were at the most interesting point of the examination when a violent blow from a cane descended on my neck, followed by another, which would have been followed by yet more if I had not escaped from the hailstorm at top speed by running out of the room.

Innocent gaiety indeed. Most scholars doubt that Casanova was being entirely fastidious about the truth for the entirety of the History. (I’m only on the first volume of umpteen, and I’ve already hit at least two points where I can’t suspend my belief, including the tale of how the young Casanova was dunned out of the seminary he was attending; I can’t quite believe that Giovanni’s midnight visit to his friend’s bed was just to talk.) Casanova was no stranger to crafting a tale; his well-written (and flattering) portrayal of his escape from the Leads, a Venetian prison, was a sensation that made briefly made him the talk of Italy; as a largely forgotten librarian, perhaps he wished to, however briefly, inspire such talk again.

Or perhaps it was just the natural urge to tell a story — a good story, not the string of elliptical encounters that constitute real life. The desire to make a myth of one’s life is a strong one. Consider the original subtitle of the wildly entertaining Travels of Baron Munchausen: "The Vice of Lying Properly Exposed"; it is widely claimed (although apparently untrue) that the Travels were written to parody James Bruce‘s accounts of his African adventures, which was universally dismissed as a pack of lies.

Whether you’re Benjamin Franklin or Malcolm X, any sort of memoir prepared for publication is going to provide the temptation to round off the edges of your life, to make the narrative a little more interesting and a little less disjointed. (Think of Ari Fleischer’s little fib about the "credible" threats on Air Force One, apparently designed to assuage the chatter of ninnies who felt that the Commander in Chief should be at his desk while planes fell from the sky onto military targets by making them feel like they were in a bad Harrison Ford movie.) The celebrated realism of Raymond Carver is anything but; Carver just left the edges a little less filed down.

History is not just facts. There is very little controversial, and even less to be learned, in stating that Columbus reached the Americas in 1492. History is narrative — Columbus was a man ahead of his time who discovered America in 1492, having left Italy, where his ideas were laughed at, for a more receptive climate in Spain; Columbus was a genocidal oaf who failed to reach India, almost caused his crew to mutiny, and contributed to the greatest slaughter in Western history. Is Casanova’s History true? I can turn to scholars for that. The millieu of the young rake let loose on an unsuspecting century is true, and that’s what matters. As Casanova writes in his preface, misquoting Pliny the Younger, "If thou hast not done things worthy to be written, at least write things worthy to be read." I don’t know if every word is the gospel truth, but it makes a hell of a story.