As a follow on to an earlier posting here about awards for bad sex writing (11/26/08), I found myself fascinated by Toni Bentley’s captivating review of Ian Kelly’s new biography, Casanova in the Sunday Times Book Review. A biography about a legendary philanderer is not a topic I would ordinarily find compelling, but Bentley goes at her subject with such delight and pleasure it is hard to not get sucked in to this admittedly extraordinary story. How in the world did he get around to doing all that anyway?

Here’s a sampling from her review:

There is risk involved, however, even in just reading about Casanova from your armchair: you are left, inevitably, with the feeling, if you’re a man (I’m guessing here), that you are lazy beyond measure in all things and have missed out entirely on the meaning of woman, which is the meaning of life; and if you are a woman (not guessing here), well, you simply missed out on the greatest lover you will never have and thus also the meaning of life.

While Kelly…is clearly no prude and loves his subject, he does make a few meager attempts…to hitch his wagon to the resurrection idea of Casanova’s being not only misunderstood as a lover but oh so much more. He was a linguist, writer, poet, librettist, philosopher, notary, translator, lawyer, military officer, duelist, gourmand, healer, mathematician, bibliophile, government informer, theater manager, pimp, violinist, matchmaker, cabalist, wit. Whew! All this and the perpetual skirt-chasing, a pursuit Casanova lifted to a high art. Did they simply have more time in the 18th century, or just no TV?…

Casanova’s story is a moving testament, easily overlooked while one is in the thrall of his oversize tale, to the sheer power of the written word. We know of him now only because he wrote it all down…We think it is about the women, but it is really about how Casanova wrote about the women and how he loved them, quite a different thing. “The pleasure I gave,” he said, “made up four-fifths of mine.” Thus, he has attained an immortality even he could hardly have imagined. His name is now a descriptor. He would have been so delighted. Casanova will forever be the arche­type of the boy-man whose overwhelming ardor for women and passionate pursuit of sexual connection symbolize every man’s eternal, always thwarted, attempt to go home.

Bentley makes Casanova fascinating, but Bentley is fascinating as well. She’s a woman of many parts, including a former life as a ballerina with the New York City Ballet and as the recipient of a 2008 Guggenheim award. Digging deeper I found a previous review Bentley wrote of Katha Pollitt’s collection of essays, Learning to Drive. Pollitt, a supremely intelligent and respected writer on politics, contemporary feminism and social issues, has aired her fair share of complaints about those male type people who come into your life and disappoint you again and again. Here is the closing paragraph of Bentley’s review:

Ultimately, a sharp tongue, a quick wit and ample intellect provide a powerful defense but little consolation for women in search of that phantom that is freedom from men and the vulnerability of love. They can trap the rats — with the impunity feminism ordains — but jailers are in prison too.

There’s something snappy and smart about Ms. Bentley, to be sure.

Turning the lens around, here is Charles McGrath reviewing Bentley’s 2004 memoir, The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir:

Every now and then there’s a dirty book so literary, or a literary book so dirty, that it becomes a must read or at least a must-discuss among the sorts of people who would never let themselves be seen hanging around the porn shelf…No less a highbrow than Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, has declared “The Surrender” a “small masterpiece of erotic writing…”

The author is a throwback, in other words. At a time when so much sexual writing aims…to demystify and de-emotionalize sex — to reduce it to a physical and hormonal process not much different from, say, scratching an itch — Ms. Bentley belongs to the old tradition of hyperbole and overwriting, the tradition of Lawrence, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, which sees sex as an avenue to spirituality, to the mystical and sublime.

Whoa Nellie! Bentley, you’re officially on my “to watch” list.

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Toni Bentley (Jamie Rector for The New York Times)

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