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Thursday, 13 February 2014

Very nice... but is it true?

Casanova's escape from the Leads prison is the stuff of legend. Passing secret messages between prisoners, tunnelling out of cells, improvised lamps... it's all very compelling. But is any of it actually true?

Much of what we know about Casanova's life comes from his memoirs, primarily Story of My Life. It's fair to say that he's not the most reliable narrator. With regard to Story of My Escape, sceptics have long maintained that he probably just bribed his way out, and this has even made it on to the Wikipedia entry that mentions the adventure. Several readers of my translation have already got in touch to ask to what extent his account is reliable. Is this one story that's just a little too good to be true?

Perhaps. But this much we know.

Casanova escaped from the Leads. That much is certain. He was not simply released, and he wasn't pardoned until 1774.

While in prison he did, however, have the support and friendship of Count Bragadin, his former patron, and Casanova mentions receiving food and clothes from this powerful man at this time. Bragadin was himself a former member of the State Inquisition and we can assume that he would certainly have known which strings to pull, and which people to bribe in order to spring the libertine from his cell. The problem is, there really doesn't seem to be any evidence for this.

We do have evidence, though, that the cell ceilings needed to be repaired after Casanova's escape was discovered, which at least partially corroborates Story of My Escape's account of events.

Not only this, but there's the view from the roof. Casanova explores the roof thoroughly over the course of a couple of hours. And he reports its details extremely accurately. Seriously, fire up Google Earth and take a look. It's all there, the domes of Saint Mark's Basilica, the dormer windows (which I translated as 'skylight' for readability, possibly something I'll change in any future edition of the book), even the gutter, and if you're an obsessed translator you can even trace Casanova's journey around the roof.

It's circumstantial perhaps, but to my mind it's all pretty clear. He had to have been up there.

And if we accept that he was on the roof, and we accept the physical evidence that the ceiling of his cell had to be repaired, the reasonable conclusion is that Casanova's account of his escape is broadly true.

Perhaps bribery played a part. Perhaps his improvised tools were smuggled into him. His gaoler clearly knew about his lamp (in a prison where artificial light was forbidden to prisoners) but did nothing. One of his cellmates even suggests that it was common knowledge that Bragadin had promised to pay the gaoler a huge sum in the event of Casanova's escape. It's very possible, even likely, that his escape attempt was facilitated, with or without his direct knowledge. We'll never know for sure.

Giacomo Casanova is an unreliable narrator. For me, though, this unreliability is visible more in his stream of consciousness than in the physical details of his adventure. Though his foreword professes humility and a love for the city of his birth, and mentions that his conduct 'needed correction', Casanova's stay in the Leads did little to alter his unique nature, as his subsequent travels around Europe reveal. His decision to publish the story, though framed charmingly as an attempt to relieve himself of the burden of having to describe the adventure to friends, was very clearly an attempt to cash in on the celebrity and notoriety that the exploit brought him.

At several points, Casanova also protests that he has no idea why he was arrested and imprisoned, as he can think of no crime he had committed. This is disingenuous in the extreme, as his exploits at the time had included not only the possession of the 'forbidden' books of magic that he alludes to in Story of My Escape, but peccadilloes including exhuming a corpse to play a practical joke on a fellow Venetian. That's the reasoning behind my blurb: "Imprisoned for a crime he probably committed. The question is, which one?"

Perhaps surprisingly, the only detail of Casanova's escape from the Leads that really turns out to be questionable is the Venetian myth that after his escape he enjoyed a cup of coffee in Saint Mark's Square before making his getaway by gondola. You can only assume that this flourish would have appealed to Casanova, who was not averse to perpetuating his own legend, but his account makes no mention of it, instead he heads straight to the gondolas (and later even threatens to murder his co-escapee when Father Balbi nips off for a hot chocolate).

Story of My Escape. Truth? Fantasy? A mixture of the two? Read the translation, available here, and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014


A couple of weeks ago, I won a short story competition, which was nice. I'd have posted about it sooner, but Story of My Escape has been occupying a lot of my attention lately.

Anyway, yes, New Year's Resolution won's first ever competition with 100 words of fictional fun.

I also came in third place with a second entry of mine, entitled, appropriately enough, New Year's Resolution 2.0. At the time I entered the competition, I actually preferred the second effort, but with hindsight, I think I'm happy that it was the first one which became the overall winner.

Meanwhile, I'm delighted with the reaction to Story of My Escape. Reviews are slowly beginning to pop up here and there, and I'm receiving lovely emails and Facebook messages from people about it. Funnily enough, the paperback is outselling the e-book quite dramatically. Good job, paper!

Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Story of my Escape - available at last in English!

After several years of translations, revisions, disappointments and rethinks, my translation of Giacomo Casanova's 1788 memoir Histoire de ma Fuite is finally available to buy in both digital and paperback formats.

Locked up for 15 months without trial, the 30 year old Casanova employs all his cunning and ruthlessness to escape from the Leads prison - a group of cells high in the lead-lined roof of the Doge's Palace in St Mark's Square, Venice.

There will be several posts over the coming weeks as I talk about various aspects of creating this book. Thanks must go in the first instance to Adam Whiteley for producing such a magnificent cover, however!

The Story of my Escape can be found on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback here. Other digital formats coming soon.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

My Escape

A final draft of my Casanova translation is now being pored over by a crack team of people who like reading stuff and finding mistakes in it.

I've rethought the cover after I had lunch with a friend over the weekend, and told him about using my Mr Puff portrait. He treated me to a very long pause, at the end of which we'd both decided there must be a better way forward.

The scale of this project being a bit weightier than Something Nice (the ebook of which took one morning to compile, before taking the cover photo in a pub garden in the afternoon), and Killing Me Softly (I woke up one Saturday morning and decided to publish it. It was all signed off with Amazon before lunchtime), I suspect I'll have time to do things like cover reveals and stuff like that, and whip up a frenzy of pre-release excitement. How terribly jolly.

Watch this space. Things are Happening.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Casanova - The Story of my Escape

A few years ago now I translated Casanova's account of his own escape from the Leads prison in Venice in 1756. In the 18th Century, the book was a huge hit throughout Europe, but was never published in English (Later, I gather that Arthur Machen translated the work, but this does not seem to have been widely available).

Clocking in at around 60,000 words, the book is a blend of action, suspense and philosophy, as Giacomo Casanova battles loneliness, depression, disease, madness, and the four walls of his prison cell high in the Doge's Palace in St Mark's Square. Simply, it has bestseller written all over it, and I can't understand why it's been snubbed by anglophone publishers for so long.

My translation was considered seriously by two publishers, who I shall not name here. One eventually turned it down as it didn't quite fit their range or schedule. Another offered me a contract, from which I walked away, which turned out to be a very wise move by all accounts.

Now I'm preparing to publish this work on Kindle, with a paperback edition to follow if it should prove successful. Just one problem: the cover.

As the work feels so modern in many ways, I decided early on that I wanted a photographic cover, and of course I have no budget to visit Venice and snap Casanova's cell myself, or to set up a shoot with a model, costume and appropriate set. Friends and family have offered me holiday photos of St Mark's Square, and some of the photos are really good - it's just that the Doge's Palace looks bloody horrible in pictures, to be honest. Given that it's in, you know, Venice, it's a nasty squat oblong of a building. And everyone was suggesting Canaletto, but then we're drifting from the point that it's not really a book about Venice, it's about a guy locked in a lead-lined cell. Casanova touches on many subjects in his writing, but it never stops being about him.

And then last night I had an interesting thought... This is a contemporary portrait of Casanova:

And this is yours truly, playing Mr Puff in a charity production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Critic last Summer:

It's not going to win any awards for historical accuracy, of course, but I think we have a suspect...

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Andrew Lawston... is behind you!

Sanity Clause is Coming. The sequel to Fringeworks's 2012 debut Ain't No Sanity Clause should be hitting Amazon any day now. And it will include my short story Pantocrime, previously entitled, for reasons that I no longer even remember (but which I suspect were inspired by drunken desperation an hour before deadline) Full Pastry Jacket.

Pantocrime was originally submitted for Ain't No Sanity Clause, but didn't quite make the cut. It was, however, held over for the second collection.

I had a bit of trouble coming up with anything to meet the brief: maniacs and serial killers with a Christmas twist, or words to that effect. Without naming names, I'd just read an irredeemably crap e-book which featured a "12 Days of Christmas" serial killer, and it had depressed me with its awfulness.

But I was excited by the ideas behind Fringeworks, and their ethos of encouraging new writers to pitch for increasingly bizarre themed anthologies. I knew Adrian Middleton a bit from my university days, and had worked with him when I submitted Pierrot le Who to charity anthology Shelf Life. I wanted to be involved.

One day, I sat at the back of a rehearsal for an amateur dramatics pantomime I was appearing in. The rehearsal was dragging, as they sometimes do, and I was thinking, in a fairly grumpy state of mind: "I don't know, how can I think of a decent Christmas-themed horror story when I'm stuck in this church hall with a bunch of nutcases rehearsing a pantomime? HANG ON..."

Getting involved in community theatre has been a fantastic experience for me over the last five years or so. I've made some great friends, hugely diverse in terms of their ages, backgrounds, etc, and sometimes, very occasionally, people stop me in the street or approach me in cafes and tell me I'm brilliant. That never gets old, and anyone who pretends otherwise is a lying bastard. But it must be said, it can all be a little intense, and I'm struggling to think of anyone who hasn't... well, gone a bit nuts at some point, basically. Juggling a full-time job and acting in the evenings brings challenges that much better professional actors never really have to face. You are effectively working fourteen hour days at least, and then getting blind drunk into the bargain.

So almost everyone has had some sort of meltdown. We yell, we sulk, we gossip, we behave atrociously, really. So, what if...? A story was born, and just needed me to write it down and sprinkle it with absurdity.

Pantocrime was born from these thoughts, and it contains a few cheeky lines which my fellow actors might recognise. But really it's a tribute both to panto, and to amateur theatre, a crazy, wonderful world which I'm sure will make a proper novel, one day.

A link will appear to Sanity Clause is Coming the very moment it goes live. I hope you'll take a look.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Killing Me Softly? An Examination of the Depiction of Violence in the Early Films of Jean-Luc Godard (1960-1967)

It's been a long and strange year, but after many false starts and broken promises, I present my second book.

Jean-Luc Godard's early films - right up to the pivotal Weekend (1967) were determined to prove the old adage that all you need to make a movie is "a girl and a gun". Whether in crime thrillers like the era-defining A Bout de Souffle (1960) or philosophical science-fiction masterworks like Alphaville (1965), the Nouvelle Vague auteur alternates between romance, philosophy, and action.

Many of the violent acts that appear in Godard's early films seem 'muted' in some way, however, prompting this exhaustive study of the director's techniques for depicting violence. Gunshots and car crashes happen off-screen, bottles are smashed silently on victims' skulls, and fistfights are played for comic effect.

This academic but accessible book, by film scholar, linguist and actor Andrew Lawston, explores three possible explanations for Godard's singular approach to the depiction of violence. First, that on his notoriously tight budgets, he just couldn't afford the special effects and shooting time needed to film action sequences in the way he might have wished. The second possibility is that he was worried about his films being censored. Third, could there have been a conscious artistic reason for understating the considerable violence in his films?

Working with close reference to films including A Bout de Souffle, Vivre Sa Vie, Alphaville, Pierrot le Fou, Weekend and Le M├ępris, Killing me Softly is a challenging academic study of the early work of one of the world's greatest living directors.

It is available in Kindle edition from and