Was There a Gay Casanova? 

By Diane Anderson-Minshall

Originally published on Advocate.com December 22 2011 8:45 PM ET

When
author Marten Weber first read the memoirs of the legendary Italian lothario
Giacomo Casanova, a man whose name is synonymous with seduction, Weber found
himself disgusted at the historical inaccuracies of the books and films that
have since been produced about the guy. “The image of this handsome adventurer
who ‘seduced’ women is a complete fake. He was stupid, untalented, often mean,
selfish, and manipulative. He paid off mothers to have his way with virgin
teenage daughters — he almost exclusively slept with very young girls. He
bought and sold virgin girls as young as 9 to other men, and he swindled his
way into a fortune. How he could ever end up a sort of cultural icon, or being
played by Heath Ledger, is entirely beyond me.”

But he did have a brother,
and from that sprung Weber’s new novel, Benedetto Casanova: The Memoirs (Aquarius Publishing), one of many new books that
reimagine — some with more fictional flourish than others — the lives of LGBT
historical figures. Most notable of them is acclaimed lesbian author Ellis
Avery’s The Last Nude (Riverhead
Books), which is a lush work of historical fiction that imagines a love affair
between bisexual art deco painter Tamara de Lempicka and a young American woman
who serves as muse for her most iconic work, Beautiful Rafaela (a painting that The New York Times called one of the most important nudes of the 20th
century).

Paul Russell’s The
Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov
(Cleis
Press) is a story as moving as Avery’s and one that’s never been told. Nabokov, brother
of the famous author of Lolita,
was arrested for being gay and sent to a German labor camp where he died of
dysentery, exhaustion, and starvation — while Vladimir was in the U.S. becoming
one of the greatest authors of the 20th century. 

Mary Walker Baron’s new
novel, But This Is Different
(Steel Cut Press) is a lesbian eco-philosophical romance that even offers a
solution to the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Amelia Earhart: What if she orchestrated it in
order to live with her equally famous lover without the prying eyes of the
paparazzi?

These “novels based on the
life” of LGBT historical figures let authors like Russell, Avery, Baron, and
Weber right the wrongs of invisibility or fill in the gaps of imagination with
“what ifs.”

While
his book is fiction, Weber says, “My Benedetto is not entirely fictional. In
his memoirs, the historical Casanova mentions that his mother gave away two
newborn children, and that he had no idea what became of them. It was quite
normal in the 18th century to have children raised by strangers, especially
when the family was not financially well off. In 1761, Casanova visits the wife
of his real brother and finds out that their marriage is loveless, because the
brother has no ‘interest’ in the wife. Casanova does not write much about the
incident, and the wife claims that her husband was impotent. There are however
certain indications that he was simply not interested in women, so Casanova may
really have had a gay brother.”

These days, even Homer’s
Iliad is not safe from new interpretations: Madeline Miller’s novel, The
Song of Achilles
(HarperCollins)
brilliantly unmasks the doomed love affair between soldiers Achilles and
Patroclus. The idea, though, wasn’t new, she says: “I stole it from Plato! The
idea that Patroclus and Achilles were lovers is quite old. There’s a lot of
support for their relationship in the text of The Iliad itself, though Homer
never makes it explicit. For me, the most compelling piece of evidence, aside for
the depth of Achilles’ grief, is how he
grieves: Achilles refuses to burn Patroclus’s body, insisting instead on keeping
the corpse in his tent, where he constantly weeps and embraces it —despite the
horrified reactions of those around him. That sense of physical devastation
spoke deeply to me of a true and total intimacy between the two men.”

Don’t
think these authors are just dreaming these stories up either. For his
Casanova, Weber “went through stacks of letters written during that time by
travelers in Italy, and derived from these certain notions about the life of
gay men in the 18th century, even though there was no such thing as a ‘gay
lifestyle’ back then.” Miller studied Latin and Greek for decades; Avery and
Russell both clearly did meticulous research, which is why all these books read
very much like they could be the absolute truth, rare windows into LGBT lives
that we never discovered in those high school history books.

And
sometimes, when one of these literary reinterpretations is good, it transcends
time and place, weaving fact and fiction that links history with contemporary
social issues. “I see the relationship between Tamara and Rafaela as specific
to this time and place,” says Avery of the expat Jazz Age Paris setting of The
Last Nude,

“ which was one in which sexual acts between women seemed both more possible
than in preceding or subsequent decades and one in which the
meaning of those acts was perhaps even more up for grabs than today.”