I should rococo

<strong>Casanova

</strong>Ian Kelly

<em>Hodder & Stoughton, 403pp, £20</em>

The brand survives undamaged; even the sexual revisionists have failed to tarnish it. We, the consumers, make our own choice and Giacomo Casanova inspires loyalty. Leave him alone. The boy done good. Astonishing reach, too. Here is the Birmingham University Medical School yearbook 2008, filled with newly minted doctors. What a handsome, happy, diligent and optimistic lot they are. Makes you proud to be human. And here is Dr R Kassamali. Ten years from now, he wants to be "a surgeon in a random third world country, working for Médecins Sans Frontières". His favourite organ? "Liver." (A popular choice among medics.) How would Dr K like to be remembered? As "the one Asian guy the white girls actually fancied" (not my words). And there at the top of the entry is his nickname: "Kassanova".

Casanova would have been proud. Not just that his name has become an affectionate shorthand for a man who loved widely (and quite well), but that it should have crossed from the 18th to the 21st centuries, from Venice to Brum, from Europe to Asia, and, perhaps above all, that his name has alighted, punning, upon a doctor. Casanova, actor, spy, lover, priest, always wanted to be a medical man. That is where he felt his talents really lay, and - given his sharp and voracious intelligence (he was admitted as a Doctor of Laws at Padua aged only 17) - his lack of snobbery except when it came to his own image (when he would put on the dog like nobody's business), his tremendous sociability - unusually, in what was a primarily homosocial world, directed towards men and women alike, and his empathetic yet determined and resourceful nature would have made him a fine physician at a time when the scanty and largely ineffectual (or just plain mistaken) materia medica meant that the most potent thing a doctor could prescribe was himself. Hard to imagine any sickbed not being cheered by the arrival of Casanova.

But using his name as a shorthand for a devout and cheerfully promiscuous lover (in all senses) of women draws us away from the truth. As Ian Kelly's delectable biography makes entirely clear, his sexual adventuring was neither particularly egregious (though he was egregiously good at it) nor particularly predatory (though he did on one occasion offer his membrum virile as the most effective means of delivering an abortifacient).

It wasn't so much that Casanova constructed his world in order to get sex; it was more that the world in which he swam was exuberant, libertine, affective and demonstrative, so sex naturally became one of its great recourses. Looking upon him as some fantastical, driven knobhound has been one of cultural history's larger errors. I am reminded of the late Jeffrey Bernard, who was taken by a friend to see Tosca. Back at the Groucho Club after the show, Jeff was pensive for a while, then said: "You know, I think everyone's rather unfair. I don't think that Scarpia was a bad chap at all. I think he was just a bit cunt-struck."

You could say the same for Casanova. But we have allowed it to overshadow his life, and Kelly does a marvellous - and brilliantly unobtrusive - job of redressing the balance. The subtly witty index offers a précis. Careers? "In the church; diplomatic; in espionage; as fake occultist; fiscal; as gentleman of leisure; for the Inquisition; journalistic; as librarian at Dux castle; military; musical; as secretary to Venetian ambassador in Vienna; silk industry claims." Character? "Compulsion to seduce virgins; depression; final moodiness; frustration and embitterment in Venice; humour; love of performing; opinion in Poland; portrait by de Ligne of his unhappiness in old age; portrayed in Chiari's fiction; positivity in prison; Venetian Inquisition's view of; wit."

Here we have indexed his duels, fatherhood, gambling, illnesses ("childhood nosebleeds") and influences, oddly brief - "the Enlightenment; the theatre; Venice" - but, equally oddly, all we need to know. It may seem otiose to quote from the index, but a good one acts as a sort of metatext both to the book itself and to the reality the book projects; and if you wanted to give a writer or a God the recipe to produce a Casanova, you could hardly do better than the Enlightenment; the theatre; Venice. Go on to read the next entry (life events and periods), and it will become unthinkable that you will not buy the book there and then.

Like Kelly's previous biography of George "Beau" Brummell, Casanova is a treasure-house of life; in this case, as he says, "life in which a paradise in heaven did not preclude the cultivation of earthly paradises for as long or as little as we might be allowed to enjoy them, alive to the realities of art and joy in artifice for those last generations before the Romantics told the world that truth was in Nature and feeling was more vital than style, sentiment or sex".

How we should hate those humourless Romantics with their self-obsession and their awful bloody Nature. Yet how much would we have given to be there at the meeting between Casa nova and Rousseau or, indeed, between Casa nova and the great arse-licker himself, James Boswell. How we would have liked to be in Ismail's gazebo in Constantinople, the two chaps peeping and frotting at Ismail's prearranged tableau of naked, splashing concubines until, overcome, Casanova had to bugger Ismail and then "had to submit to his taking turnabout. It would have been impolite to refuse; I should have shown myself ungrateful, a thing that is not in my nature." How one would have wanted to be present when Casanova was rescued from jumping off the newly built Westminster Bridge by the extravagantly named Sir Wellbore Ellis Agar, who declared that what Casanova needed was "a drink, a woman, beef and Yorkshire pudding". How one would have loved to be there when Frederick the Great mistook Casanova for an hydraulician, and Casanova thought he would have to go along with it and pitch for work. How . . . how endless the list is.

Kelly has set himself a hell of a task. How do you write the life of a man whose life you are writing because he's famous for having written his memoirs? The answer is deceptively simple: use the memoirs as a map to guide you back to the life, and see what emerges. The effect is as though we had gone round the back after the show. Here is Casanova himself, without the make-up and the trick lighting, talking through Kelly's subtle, reticent voice. We can never get away from intertextualism. Kelly's narrative is enacted against the backdrop of half-remembered, half-imagined passages from Casanova's self-soothing memoirs, composed in damp, philistine Bohemia in his knackered, skint old age: the laughter of women, the choirs of Venetian virgins, the drone of the oligarchs, the creak of the Schlafwagen - giant, fur-lined horse-drawn beds on wheels - through the forests, the splashing and giggling as once again he is thrown into a canal to gain access or make his escape.

But these are stage effects. From the murky water of Kelly's deceptively sober prose (any writer who can refer to a "cavalcade of internationalists" commands instant respect as a stylist of some wit), something emerges, scales the leads, opens the bedroom door, moves closer, smiles. It is Casanova. It's good old Jack Newhouse. He's alive. He's alive!