For the European novel in general and for the Milan publisher Feltrinelli in particular, 1957 and 1958 were two anni mirabiles in a row. First he brought out Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, then Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo. One came from Russia, the other from Sicily—neither of them points on the literary horizon where the next comet was particularly expected at the time. And they were certainly comets: one of a kind, unforeseen, instantly recognizable as amazing—and instantly translated into every conceivable literary language. They have two other things in common: neither is experimental in form, or avant-garde, and both have lasted.
Still, Lampedusa is the stranger prodigy, if only because he was not a writer. He was a reader: he read all the time, compulsively consuming Italian, French, German, Russian, and especially English literature the way he consumed pastry, i.e., with fastidious attention. He was particularly fond of Shakespeare, Keats, Emily Brontë, Leopardi, Stendhal, Proust, and Graham Greene. Except for Russian, he read everything in the original, and he invented two useful categories of writers: fat and thin. The fat “explained all their nuances and left nothing for the reader to deduce”; the thin wrote more concisely and allusively. Racine, Calvin, Laclos, Madame de Lafayette, and Stendhal were thin; La Rochefoucauld and Mallarmé were superthin; Dante, Rabelais, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Balzac, Thomas Mann, and Proust were fat. It makes a good after-dinner game.
As a young man Lampedusa published a few small pieces of literary criticism; but that was a long time before he began work on his novel in 1955. He was nearly sixty then, and he died in 1957 just after it had been turned down by the first publisher he tried. His profession had been being a prince—of Lampedusa, “a largely barren and usually deserted island nearer Africa than Sicily” which his ancestors had sold to the Neapolitan Bourbons in 1840 because they needed the money. Being this particular prince, the last of a ruined line on the brink of extinction, was his predicament, his preoccupation, and his occupation too insofar as he had one besides reading; and he transferred his concerns, with appropriate variations, to the hero of his novel.
The novel is set in 1860, roughly a hundred years before it was written. It begins with the occupation of Sicily by the Piemontese and its incorporation into the new Italy under their rule. There is no plot, but a series of tableaux from the life of Lampedusa’s hero, whom he calls the Prince of Salina, or else the Leopard, because the Salina family crest (and the Tomasi family crest too) has a leopard on it. The first episode falls on the day of Garibaldi’s landing; the penultimate presents the prince’s death; the last is a vignette of his aged unmarried daughters in 1910.
Each chapter is set in a replica of one of the Lampedusa properties which the writer had known as a child. They had all been lost—sold, bombed, or destroyed by earthquake—by the time he wrote, and so he saw them bathed in the light of irreparable nostalgia. Each episode is a rich genre painting, with particular attention paid to dogs, fabrics, and food—especially food, and then especially puddings and desserts. And in all of them the prince does a lot of melancholy reflecting. Often angry, sometimes compassionate, always disillusioned and pessimistic, he broods about Sicily, about aristocracy, and about human behavior and destiny. His thoughts in the first two categories amount to prophecies of how things would look to Lampedusa in his own day; while in the last chapter, the three priest-ridden old ladies with their collection of phony religious relics represent an interim stage of decline.
David Gilmour’s biography is a pleasure to read even though his prose style is less distinguished than his subject’s was. He is sympathetic, perceptive, informative, fastidious without being affected, and ironical (Lampedusa would have liked that). He leaves out sex altogether, but one can guess what it was and wasn’t. The text stops just short of two hundred pages and presents a striking portrait of an unfamiliar kind of man in an unfamiliar world. And one doesn’t have to rely on Gilmour’s words alone: the amateur photographs of people and places are weird, touching, and telling, too. Lampedusa’s own ungainly image keeps drawing one back to corroborate that such an incongruous assembly of expressions—helplessness, malice, and self-deprecation—can squeeze onto one face.
Gilmour is particularly good on Lampedusa’s antecedents and milieu. A branch of the Tomasi family from the Italian mainland settled in Sicily in the sixteenth century; a hundred years later they acquired the princedom of Lampedusa. By that time “there were princedoms in a population of about a million.” Being a Sicilian prince wasn’t such a big deal, perhaps, but it mattered in Sicily even after the Second World War: “Noble titles had officially been abolished after the establishment of the Republic in 1946, but many people continued—and continue today—to use them. In fact titles seem to have proliferated since their abolition. According to Luigi Barzini, writing in the late sixties, there were then about ten times as many titles in use as there had been during the monarchy.” Lampedusa himself took titles seriously. He was childless and there were no Tomasi children in the next generation; he would have been the last prince; so shortly before he died he legally adopted a favorite young cousin as his son.
Lampedusa believed in aristocracy. He made his Leopard an arrogant nobleman, so when he came to expound his own views on the subject, he artfully gave them to a humbler character to air. Padre Pirrone is the Salina family chaplain, a Jesuit of peasant origins. He believes in degree because that is how God made the world. He is also a scientist—a mathematician and astronomer—and so he believes in aristocracy on quasi-Mendelian grounds: aristocrats are genuinely “different” because they have been bred to be. They can’t help having different priorities. They can even be seen as having reached a higher stage of spiritual evolution because, being used to worldly goods, they do not attach too much value to them. Besides, they give employment and shelter to others. Their besetting sins are anger and mockery, but they behave well in adversity and don’t whine. The Leopard himself never doubts his superiority; and he is soft on snobs, or anyway on what he defines as “passive” snobs. “Snobbery,” he says, “is the opposite of envy.” He is also able to feel superior to his own class, most of whom are neither intelligent nor intellectual, because he is an astronomer who wins a prize from the Sorbonne. One of Lampedusa’s own ancestors had been an astronomer too, but he won no prizes.
The young cousin whom Lampedusa adopted was called Gioacchino Lanza. He met David Gilmour in London in 1987, provided him with material for his biography, and had him to stay in the house in Palermo where Giuseppe Lampedusa had lived the last ten years of his life. The old prince had been born Giuseppe Tomasi in 1896. Two weeks later, his two-year-old sister died of diphtheria. There were no more children, and his mother cossetted him even more than was normal for a Sicilian mother of her generation.
Nearly all the later members of the Lampedusa family combined financial incompetence with a total lack of interest in even attempting to make money. Giuseppe’s uncle Pietro, who as Marquess of Torretta pursued a successful diplomatic career, used to boast that he was the first Lampedusa to work.
Giuseppe’s father wanted him to follow his uncle’s career; so he forced him to study law instead of literature, as he would have liked. The war interrupted his reluctant university career, and
the post-war years were for him a period of disillusionment and physical illness. He spent several months in bed, suffering from nervous exhaustion and from a combination of nightmares and insomnia that plagued him for the rest of his life…. It seems that even at this early stage he had decided neither to follow any formal profession nor to make any attempt to earn himself a living.
An image begins to form of Lampedusa as a cross between Proust and Oblomov with an extra dash of taciturnity and pessimism. It was a Maistrean kind of pessimism, based on a belief in original sin (Gilmour tells us that in one version of The Leopard the Prince of Salina on his deathbed reflects that “The only real sin is original sin.” Human nature seemed despicable or at best pitiable; so attempts to reform it or to improve the human condition must be either naive or hypocritical. Lampedusa—and the Leopard—despised liberalism and progressive ideas; but while not originally hostile to Mussolini, Lampedusa was soon put off by his theatricality. He himself was the opposite of theatrical: embarrassingly shy, and in company normally speechless.
In the Twenties he traveled a good deal in Europe, and especially in England, where his diplomatic uncle was the Italian ambassador. The ambassadress had been married before to a Baltic baron and had two daughters by him. One had contracted a mariage blanc to another Baltic baron, a homosexual who made no difficulties when, seven years after first meeting her in 1925, Lampedusa wanted to marry his wife. She was known as Licy, practiced as a Freudian analyst, and was thirtyseven years old. Lampedusa was thirty-six. Their common interest in literature brought them together: there were not many intellectual women—or indeed men, for that matter—to be met in Lampedusa’s circle. Gilmour does not speculate about the marriage, but it sounds unusual. Licy lived mainly in her family schloss near Riga and practiced her career, while Lampedusa was chiefly in Palermo.
A photograph like a still from a prewar film comedy shows the ménage in procession during one of Licy’s visits: first comes a small, urgent dog; then Licy, tall, fat, and smug, a European Margaret Dumont with a big turban and an expression of serene complacency; and finally Lampedusa hurrying after them, apologetic, even slightly furtive, as he carries what looks like a parcel of sweets. The dog is important: “The Lampedusas were members of the ‘National League for the Defence of the Dog’ and the health of their own pets was one of their major preoccupations.” Most of their acquaintance thought the princess dominated the prince; Gilmour believes they were fond of each other and that: “Licy was a formidable woman of whom her husband was a little afraid, but his character was also a powerful one and the relationship between them was more equal than outsiders guessed.”
The Tomasi family was impoverished and at loggerheads, its affairs in disarray: the inheritance was impossibly divided and Lampedusa hated dealing with such matters. He also hated Sicilian society which was provincial, ill-educated, frivolous, and smug. Sometimes he attended its parties from a sense of duty, and then he probably felt like the Prince of Salina attending a ball: “All those people filling the reception rooms, all those plain women, all those stupid men; those complacent creatures of both genders were of his blood, they were himself: they alone spoke his language, only with them could he feel at ease.” He spent his days wandering from café to bookshop to patisserie, then on to another café or to his club or to the cinema, which he enjoyed. He might share a table with others, but hardly ever spoke.
In 1943 the Lampedusa palace in Palermo was destroyed by American bombs. The prince never got over the loss. A few months afterward Licy fled from Latvia before the Russian advance and eventually the couple settled into a large signorile house in a run-down part of Palermo. Their marriage was as semi-detached as ever. Licy chose to practice in Rome where she became vice-president of the Italian Society of Psychoanalysts. Lampedusa continued on his solitary daily round. “His life changed at the beginning of the fifties when Gioacchino Lanza and Francesco Agnello began to visit him to talk about literature and history.” and Lampedusa found his tongue. Besides being his cousin, Lanza was “charming and intelligent, he had a mocking sense of humour which greatly appealed to the older man,” who bestowed the same qualities on the Leopard’s adopted nephew Tancredi. In fact, Tancredi has all the aristocratic virtues: dash, beauty, charm, coolness. The novel gives off a little puff of warmth every time he appears, and the Leopard takes the young man’s rich, low-born, but dazzlingly beautiful bride to his heart. When Lanza himself acquired a fiancée, Lampedusa seems quickly to have grown fond of her or at least to persuade himself, perhaps for dynastic reasons, that he was; anyway, he was soon giving her lessons in literature.
For the literary conversations in cafés had turned into formal courses in literature which were held in Lampedusa’s house. The pupils were Lanza, Agnello, a student called Francesco Orlando, and from time to time other young friends of Lanza’s. Lampedusa instructed them in French, Spanish, Russian, and German literature, but English was his favorite subject and his Letterature Inglese has just been published in two fat volumes starting with Chaucer and ending with Graham Greene.* The method is rather oldfashioned: biographical, anecdotal, with very little attention to literary form or technique, but full of drama, empathy, and enthusiasm. He was, after all, talking to beginners and wanting to arouse their enthusiasm. So the four-page chapter on the Brontës, for example, is called “The Brontë Miracle” and begins with his own visit to Haworth: he describes the little two-story house with its treeless garden surrounded by hedges struggling to survive the terrible wind. He doesn’t seem to have noticed the adjoining churchyard full of Brontë graves, and he says they were too poor to employ a servant whereas one knows they had their Tabby. When he gets to Wuthering Heights he begins to soar:
A novel such as had never been written before, such as will never be written again. It has been compared to King Lear. But in fact it is not Shakespare that Emily reminds one of, it is Freud; a Freud whose lack of prejudice and tragic disillusion are combined with the greatest, the purest artistic talent. It is a dark tale of hatred, sadism, and repressed passion, told in a taut and sparkling style that breathes a savage purity amid the tragic events. With this novel, the romantic roman, if you will forgive the pun, has reached its zenith: Borel’s werewolves and Godwin’s monsters are as nothing. I have just reread it: the impression it first made on me of veiled grandeur, of searing pain, was stronger than ever. Consumptive Emily must have spent many feverish nights listening to the wind howling. In this book, which belongs in the highest category of masterpiece, she traveled deep down into the human soul, and so, of course, she landed in hell.
As for the young men, Lampedusa treated them according to their rank; “Gioacchino Lanza, for example, was a member of one of Sicily’s greatest families and therefore treated as an equal although he was thirty-seven years younger than Lampedusa. Francesco Agnello…belonged to the minor nobility and therefore had to put up with a certain amount of condescension. As for Francesco Orlando, who came from a middle-class professional family, he was addressed by his surname and treated in an overbearing way despite the fact that his greatuncle had been prime minister of Italy.”
Until Lanza and his friends came into his life, Lampedusa’s chief—almost his only—literary crony had been an eccentric cousin of his own age called Lucio Piccolo. Both of them were athletes of literary knowledge, and their conversation was full of quotations and allusions. Piccolo lived with his sisters in a beautiful family villa near Messina and practiced poetry and spiritualism. Their food was exceptionally delicious, and Lampedusa loved staying with them. In 1954 Piccolo was invited to a literary conference at San Pellegrino. Such an event was out of his experience, and he asked Lampedusa to keep him company. When Piccolo actually won a prize, Lampedusa decided that he could do it too. He returned to Palermo, began Il Gattopardo, and worked at it throughout 1955. In 1956 it was sent to the publisher Mondadori, who took a long time to turn it down. Meanwhile Lampedusa wrote a short story called “Lighea.” The following year he died of lung cancer without knowing that Feltrinelli was about to accept his novel. “The tragedy of Lampedusa was the coincidence of his physical decadence with his brief period of artistic creativity.”
The Prince of Salina is taller, more imposing, sexier, and braver than the Prince of Lampedusa, but just as pessimistic and cynical about human nature in general and about backward, obtuse, hopeless Sicily in particular. If he seems less melancholy, it is only because superficially his life is more glamorous. Lampedusa endowed him with all the things he himself had lost or never had: great properties all over Sicily, hordes of servants, general deference, and a large family. But he was still prone to depression:
These early morning fantasies were the worst thing that could happen to a man in his middle age; and though the Prince knew that they would vanish in the course of the day’s business, they caused him acute suffering because by now he was sufficiently experienced to understand that they left a sediment of grief in the bottom of the soul which would finish by being the true cause of his death.
December 5, 1991