May 5, 1996
Giuseppe Tomasi, Prince of Lampedusa, might well be the patron saint of late bloomers, or at least of late-blooming novelists. Near the end of a solitary life spent in ancient palazzi and among the bookstores and cafes of Palermo, this last scion of an illustrious but ruined Sicilian noble family set down a story he had long meditated: the encounter of feudal Sicily, in the person of one of its last great aristocrats, with the modern world. Published only after its author death in 1957, The Leopard became 20th-century Italy best-selling novel and was speedily admitted into the literary canon (unlike Lampedusa’s ancestor, Giulio Tomasi, Duke of Palma, recently elevated to sainthood by Pope John Paul II after a four-hundred-year canonization process).
Born in 1896, Lampedusa enjoyed an idyllic Belle Epoque childhood. After army service during and following World War I, he abandoned his earlier, half-hearted studies in law and diplomacy. He married a gifted Latvian aristocrat, later Italy’s first woman psychoanalyst; but each was so attached to their own family and ancestral home that until World War II the marriage consisted largely of an affectionate correspondence in French.
Lampedusa’s other great attachment in those years was to his cousin, the poetical Baron Lucio Piccolo. When late in life the Baron made a successful literary debut, the Prince was stimulated to friendly rivalry. “Being mathematically certain that I was no more foolish than Lucio, I sat down at my desk and wrote a novel.” Two years later he was dead. Besides the novel, he left behind a memoir, three stories, and a mass of notes on English and French literature for an informal course he gave some young acquaintances. In this new edition by his biographer, David Gilmour, they form a small but exquisite collection.
“Places of My Infancy” is a tale of two palaces. The Casa Lampedusa occupied a long block on the Via di Lampedusa in Palermo. The little Prince, an only child amid troops of doting relatives and servants, coursed happily along the endless corridors and innumerable rooms. The adult Prince slept in the room where he was born until just before it was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943.
From Palermo, a comically arduous journey across the “lovely, desperately sad landscape of western Sicily” brought the family to their favorite country house, Santa Margharita Belice, the model for Donnafugata in The Leopard. Lampedusa’s vignettes of strolling players, fragrant courtyards, outdoor feasts, eccentric relatives, and local notables are wry, tender, and deliciously sensuous. On his first (and last) hunt, at age ten, he shot two robins. “In spite of my readings of Napoleon’s memoirs ... this horrified me: apparently I only like blood when metamorphosed into printer’s ink. I went straight to my father, to whose orders this slaughter of the Innocents was due, and said that never again would I fire on anyone. . .
“ I held out my smeared hand to my well-loved poodle Tom, who was following me, and I can still see the kind but reproachful wayhe raised half his black lip, as well-brought-up dogs do when they want to show their disgust without offending their masters.”
The gem of the collection is a long story, “The Professor and the Siren.” In The Leopard, the prevailing tone was a gentle (sometimes harsh) sarcasm aimed at the immemorial vanity, ignorance, and greed of Sicilians. “The Siren” is lyrical, a dazzling evocation of classical myth and Sicilian land— and seascape. The narrator, an ingenuous young journalist, frequents the same cafe as a reserved, sardonic elderly professor of Greek. At length the ice is broken, and the professor tells of a youthful dalliance with a mermaid one summer on the remote Sicilian coast. This story within a story is, in more than one sense, enchanting, and its implicit critique of modern life is profound.
Lampedusa’s literature courses must have been a lark, judging from the notes excerpted here. Insight and drollery nip at each other’s heels and tumble over each other. He venerated Shakespeare and adored Falstaff-- “any one of us would give ten years for the privilege of spending an hour with him.” Measure for Measure was his “Subterranean love”: “If someone told me that all the works of Shakespeare must perish except one that I could save, I would first try to kill the monster who had made the suggestion. If I failed, I would then try to kill myself. And if I could not manage even this, well then, eventually I would choose Measure for Measure.
There are also perceptive and amusing observations on “Englishness” (embodied by Isaak Walton, Dr. Johnson, and Chesterton); the category of literary “angels,” preeminently Keats; the “false bonhomie” of Robert Burns (“I advise you not to try wooing a girl without quoting some lines from Burns. There is a singular quality about this poet that will inebriate her to the point of banishing her every notion of personal purity”); and “Jane Austen and the Italians”:
"Jane Austen’s standing in Italy is nil. Some of her novels have indeed been translated, but no one has paid them any attention. The reason is obvious: Jane Austen is l’anti-melodramma the antithesis of opera. Disappointed at finding no daggers, no poisoned cups, none of those horribly explicit passions to which opera has accustomed it, the Italian public probably thinks that nothing happens in her novels. And that, thank goodness, is true."
Stendhal calls forth Lampedusa’s most serious critical efforts, perhaps because their sensibilities are so similar. His analyses of Stendhal’s technique-- of tempo, dialogue, point of view in The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma-- are as rigorous and fine-grained as any academic criticism could be, and vastly more entertaining. His description of Stendhal’s tone-- “a light irony sprinkled over everything”-- is just right, about Lampedusa as well as Stendhal.
Lampedusa seems to me an epitome of southern Italian-ness (except for the vices): instinctive verbal grace, ineffable charm, unconquerable diffidence, irrepressible irony, incurable melancholy and pessimism. An archaic type, clearly, and hardly an exemplar for a digitized world. One can only hope that we won’t soon find him incomprehensible as well as inimitable.