IN LUCIA'S EYES

A Novel

By Authur Japin

Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer

Knopf. 235 pp. $24

Next to Wilt Chamberlain's 20,000 sexual conquests, Giacomo Casanova's 122 sound downright prudish. But give the guy a break; this was in Ye Olden Days when everybody moved slower. They didn't have electricity or salad spinners. Besides, Casanova wasn't trying to rack up points; he was pursuing "amorous adventure."

He must have been charming, although he wasn't always a gentleman. His memoir didn't appear in a reliable English translation for an extraordinarily long time (in the 1960s), but even when he was alive (1725-1798), he had no qualms about kissing and telling. Sometimes, he even got women in the mood by regaling them with stories of previous exploits. (Guys: Don't try this at home.) Histoire de ma vie, one of the most detailed and outrageously entertaining records of 18th-century life, describes a series of seductions that cast him as devilishly crafty and boundlessly appreciative. It's a joyous counterpoint to that other great autobiography by an 18th-century rake, Ben Franklin, who complained about the "expense and great inconvenience" of "low women that fell in my way." Nobody inconvenienced Casanova by falling in his way; he was always shaking the tree. Add to this impressive track record, his travels all over Europe, a few stints in jail, his work as a spy, gambler, poet, lawyer, financier, musician, doctor, playwright and magician, his acquaintance with royalty, popes and philosophers, and you've got yourself The Man.

How clever then of Dutch writer Arthur Japin to write a novel about The One Who Got Away. His inspiration for In Lucia's Eyes comes from a small but formative experience when Casanova was a promising 16-year-old law student on vacation in Pasiano, Italy. He fell desperately in love with a 14-year-old servant girl named Lucia. "She was an angel," Casanova wrote, "destined to become the victim of the first libertine who should undertake to seduce her." With tremendous effort, he resolved to preserve her chastity -- no, really. They just cuddled night after night, despite her passionate entreaties, until he returned to Venice to complete his studies, promising to return for her in the spring.

Alas, when he came back to Pasiano, he discovered the bitter fruit of his noble restraint: Lucia had gotten pregnant by a disreputable courier and run away with him. "This fatal event caused me to adopt a new system," Casanova noted ominously, "which in after years I carried sometimes rather too far." Indeed.

Remarkably, Casanova ran into Lucia 17 years later in Holland, but by then she was a wasted woman, working as a prostitute. It's a dark moment in Histoire de ma vie, as much for Lucia's desperate circumstances as for Casanova's superficial response, but Japin seizes on this unlikely rendezvous and transforms it into a complex examination of thwarted love. In Lucia's Eyes retells these events in Casanova's memoir entirely from Lucia's point of view. Her story doesn't bounce along from one giddy orgasm to another the way Casanova's does, but it's just as packed with the color of 18th-century life, and, in David Colmer's translation, Lucia's slightly arch voice throbs with as much searching intelligence as sexual passion.

Most of the events and some of the dialogue are taken right from Histoire de ma vie, but Japin has imagined a crucial new explanation for Lucia's flight from Pasiano: The "disreputable courier" was just a canard to throw young Casanova off the truth: Lucia was never unfaithful during his absence; she contracted smallpox and survived with such hideous facial scars that she ran away to spare him the humiliation of rejecting her -- or living with her.

From this invention, seamlessly woven into the details of Casanova's memoir, Japin provides an enthralling story of an ugly young woman in a culture that values women exclusively for their beauty. She can usually find work only at the bottom of the prostitution ladder, but the tragic gap between her true nature and her hideous visage forces her to step back from the world, even from her own body, and become a deeply circumspect, analytical person. Later, she falls upon the practice of wearing a veil, the novel's central motif, and discovers that, by covering herself, she can reveal herself, taking control of how others see her by keeping them from seeing her at all.

In a series of believable turns, Japin draws her through the period's philosophical revolutions. At one point, she works as a nude model in a surgeon's anatomy lessons, which allows her to learn not only about the human body but also about radically new concepts of the nature of man. At another point, she becomes the personal secretary to an iconoclastic countess with enough money to pursue her wide intellectual interests, which brings Lucia into contact with the Romantics and new ideas about science and intuition that are burning across Europe.

Lucia tells us of all these adventures in retrospect during a remarkable few weeks in 1758 in Holland, where she has settled into a comfortable position as an elegant and successful courtesan. A mutual friend introduces her to an international financier whom she recognizes as her first and only love. Casanova, however, cannot recognize her because she never removes the veil that is the key to her freedom and her allure. Enchanted, he tries to seduce her with his usual wit and animal magnetism, but Lucia rebuffs him as too cynical and cavalier. "Put me to the test yourself, madame," he pleads. "Give me the benefit of your love. Allow me to win you and see whether it pleases."

What follows over the next few weeks is a marvelous reversal of hunter and prey, with a soupcon of Dangerous Liaisons, as the world's most successful lover is lured in by a woman still desperately in love with him. What makes In Lucia's Eyes so fascinating is its melding of disparate veins: It's a painful story that arrives at profound insights about the nature of love, but it's spiked with bodice-ripper suspense and humor; it's an intensely private testimony of one woman's peculiar survival, but it's laced with a fascinating survey of 18th-century intellectual history. Brace yourself with all the skepticism you want, you'll still be seduced. *

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.