As the flickering candlelight painted a moving picture on the decadent and dilapidated walls of the Brody Studios, the event space of an exclusive arts club, writer and actor Ian Kelly stood up to address the audience in attendance at the first literary dinner of the season.
Author of four critically acclaimed biographies, including an in-depth account of the life of Casanova, awarded the “Biography of the Year” by the UK’s The Sunday Times, and along with an impressive career in theatre and film, Ian Kelly is a man with plenty of achievements notched on his bedpost.
Even though he had recently spent many late nights finishing off his latest biography on designer Vivienne Westwood, which was completed that very evening, Kelly’s thespian background shone through as he charmed the audience with his anecdotes on Casanova, the subject of the book he was presenting.
But the Casanova offered to us by Kelly is not the mindless lothario often encountered in popular culture, but rather a polymath who spoke numerous languages, wrote sensually about food, aptly contributed to Da Ponte’s Libretto for Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, and ended his days in the Czech Republic as a humble librarian.
From journalists of the Times Literary Supplement through to the servers present, Kelly’s presence in Budapest captivated the audience as he recounted Casanova’s suicide attempt during his stay in London and juicy snippets from the life of the infamous Venetian. However, it was a surface that was only slightly scratched during the cocktail hour at the lush dinner organised by Anglo-Hungarian event planner Rosie Apponyi, who is famed for her literary salons in London.
The thematic dinner elevated the usual generic book signing and presentation to another level, where the courses followed a thematic progression, this time embodying Casanova’s opinion that women of different hair colours enjoyed different flavour profiles.
The piquant Romano peppers roasted with tomato, basil and anchovy captured the fire desired by redheads, the veal escalope in Marsala wine was said to be a blonde’s favourite and the chocolate and chestnut cake reflected the earthy sweetness of the brunette. Hungarian wine flowed liberally at dinner, keeping in with the evening’s theme, since Casanova was one of the original sources in the trading of Hungarian wine, as The Budapest Times learned from Kelly over coffee the next day.
“I’m besotted with Budapest,” he said. “It’s my first visit to the city. After Rosie Apponyi invited me to the literary salon hosted at Brody House, I remember hearing about the venue from Jeremy Irons who is a big fan of the venue, so that finalised my decision to come.”
Casanova’s name might be synonymous with Venice but Central Europe inspired his travels, and there is even a Budapest connection with history’s most famous lover, since he travelled to the city and stayed at the White Cross Inn near the Central Market Hall. However, it was the Czech Republic where Casanova ended up as a destitute librarian in rural Bohemia in the town of Duchcov.
Casanova’s own memoirs have been controversial to date, with many citing them as creative non-fiction that has been heavily embellished, but Kelly’s research led him to believe otherwise.
“I thought it was time to give him a better context,” he says. “His memoirs were ridiculed as being fantastical but I see no reason to suppose that his sexual adventures were unrealistic. He writes about his own sexual insecurities and disappointment quite candidly, not in the manner of someone bragging about their conquests.
“His memoirs are interesting in that he’s someone who writes about joy from the point of view of depression. His doctor had suggested that he write to overcome his melancholia. In fact, his memoirs are very honest. They read more like a form of therapy, rather than a fictive narrative. Although, there is an element of fiction included in his writing since he wrote with the intention of creating a sensual universe.”
Often dehumanised into a caricature that gets interchanged with Don Juan, the biography of Casanova seeks to bring us the other side of history’s most notorious lover. Ian Kelly approaches Casanova as not only viewing him as a famous lover, but also from the point of view of a social historian and from the perspective of a food writer, two areas Kelly is known for in the literary world.
“One of the most surprising events I discovered in Casanova’s life was his attempted suicide. While he was in London he went to the river with lead weighing down his pockets and plans to jump off a bridge into the Thames. Fortunately he was stopped by the son of a minor MP.
“The other surprising piece in the tapestry of Casanova’s life was that he did not speak until he was five and his family thought he was an imbecile, even though he became a respected linguist and mathematician, mostly through his involvement with the Kabbalah. He also ran the very first state lottery in France.”
Much like the personality he captured in his biography, Kelly is also a man of many talents. A Cambridge graduate with an academic background specialised in the 18th century, and an alumni of the UCLA Film School, his love of writing has been intertwined with his passion for acting and social history since his university days. His credits include acting work on Broadway, the West End, film and TV, not to mention the movie adaptations of his best-selling books.
“The writing and the acting went together,” he told The Budapest Times, “I wrote “Mr. Foote’s Other Leg” [his biography of British dramatist Samuel Foote] in the dressing room of the National Theatre.”
While most of his books are focused on the 18th century, his latest biography on Vivienne Westwood is a bit left field from his usual work.
“Vivienne approached me at the Victoria and Albert museum about two years ago. We got into a discussion about corsets but she also said she was looking for an author for her autobiography, but preferred a social historian to write it. I just finished the book last night [26 February] in Budapest, actually. It’s a very different style, since it reads like a conversation, with two voices in the book, hers and mine. It’s unlike the Casanova biography, since there is more information and access on the subject, not to mention Vivienne was very much involved in the creation of the book.”
Kelly’s bibliography shows a recurring pattern to approach history from alternative points of view, like the dandy Beau Brummel or chef Antonin Careme, and his work on Vivienne Westwood is no different.
“Vivienne Westwood showed how fashion affected the UK, along with her juxtaposition between punk and fashion. Her biography also covers the wider spectrum of her life, like her involvement with activism.”
Even with the Westwood biography finally complete, and a publication date of October in sight, Kelly is already thinking about his next project.
“I’ve been contracted to write a book on William Shakespeare the actor. The current plan for the book is to release it in time for the 400th anniversary of his death. As an actor and a writer, I’m fascinated to view Shakespeare from the point of view of an actor who is also a writer.”
However, his draw to Casanova happened organically, arising from a combination of different inspirations. Stemming from his specialisation of the 18th century, coupled with a more transparent attitude and current resonances with modern culture with the time period, it felt like the right time to write an honest biography.
The project flowed naturally after his book on Beau Brummel, which already covered the subject of sex and the 18th century in depth, and made the perfect predecessor to Casanova. Coupled with Kelly’s discovery of new material on Casanova’s life in Russia while working on a film there, it was the right place and time for the project. Although, spending time in Prague, Russia and Venice researching the book was one extra incentive to push the book.
“Prague felt like home,” he concludes, “I think that’s why I love Budapest so much. It feels familiar to me.”
The literary dinners will continue at Brody Studios once a month, with many other authors, home-grown and from abroad, such as Masha Gessen, Timur Vermes and Philippe Claudel.