An incident only fleetingly described in Giacomo Casanova’s voluminous Memoirs is deftly expanded in this intriguing second novel from the Dutch former actor and author.
As he did in his justly praised debut historical The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi (2000), Japin expertly assembles carefully researched materials to depict the itinerant life of the eponymous Lucia—the daughter of a wealthy Italian family’s servants, and the one woman who may have overmatched the Great Lover himself. In a rambling tale narrated by Lucia herself, we learn of her brief engagement (at age 14) to 17-year-old seminarian Giacomo; the disfigurement by smallpox that sent her fleeing from her lover and from the only home she had known; and her varied adventures as a housemaid, physician’s anatomical model, companion and de facto protégé to the learned bluestocking known as Zélide, prostitute, and eventually one of Amsterdam’s most notorious and successful courtesans. In the latter incarnation, she is Galathée de Pompignac (the surname borrowed from the beloved childhood tutor), a mistress of the arts of love who conceals her ravaged face behind a veil—to spectacularly successful effect (“Since putting on the veil, I have lived as if reborn”). When “Gala” encounters the now-notorious Casanova again, she engages his wits as well as his lust, issuing a challenge (reminiscent of Laclos’s classic Les liaisons dangereuses) that simultaneously heightens their present intimacy and assures their eventual incompatibility. Japin’s Lucia is a formidably learned and strong-willed woman, whose power of reasoning and conversational eloquence consistently fascinate. But the novel’s surface brilliance becomes intermittently oppressive: It feels a bit too much like a gorgeously articulated stunt to be fully convincing. Nevertheless, the period detail Japin has mastered, and his rich portrayal of an embattled, resourceful woman’s exterior and inner worlds make this ever so slightly remote tale very much worth reading.
An entertainment that’s also an enlightenment.