by Sonya Chung
I respond to sun, but then I come from Minnesota and had years of being disappointed by northern California with its indeterminate weather and freezing surf. I’m overdetermined for life in Africa. I love the sun bursting up every day of your life like some broken mechanism.
—from Mating, by Norman Rush
In her introduction to Stephen Twilley’s new translation of short works by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, recently released by New York Review of Books Classics, Marina Warner writes of the “sensuous plenitude . . . encrusted and sumptuous” in Il Gattopardo—The Leopard—Lampedusa’s only novel, and the masterpiece for which he is best known. Of “The Professor and the Siren,” the title story of the new collection, Warner writes:
Lampedusa is placing himself as the heir of an imaginative literary legacy running back to the pagan past, when Christian repression and hypocrisy did not exercise their hold but instead life was bathed in a luminous intensity and heightened by guilt-free passion.
I wrote about Il Gattopardo a few years ago and considered what it was that drew me to it—the story of an aging Sicilian nobleman, a dying breed caught between old and new worlds. At that time, I attributed my affinity for both the novel and Luchino Visconti’s well-known film version to the Prince of Salina’s independence of soul—a “certain energy with a tendency toward abstraction, a disposition to seek a shape for life from within himself and not what he could wrest from others.” After reading “The Professor and the Siren,” I see now that it was also the Prince’s lust for life—sensual pleasures, feminine splendor, the sweltering sloth of his wild and rugged Sicily—and his sense of loss with the coming of more pragmatic times that captivated me.
Like the narrator of Norman Rush’s Mating, who was “overdetermined” for life in Africa, you could say that I—product of an evangelical Christian upbringing and Korean heritage of stoic endurance—was overdetermined for Lampedusa. His elevation of natural appetite as an ideal, and his vision for unity between body and spirit in their fullest expressions, radiate from the page. When I read Lampedusa the sun bursts up indeed, thawing all of that deeply seeded “puritanical horror,” as Warner puts it, and reconciling life forces that, as Lampedusa attempts to show us, were never meant to be opposed.
The tragedy of his literary late blooming is now the stuff of legend: Lampedusa, himself the last prince of a noble Sicilian family (Il Gattopardo is based on his great-grandfather), began writing in his later 50s and died of lung cancer at age 60 before Il Gattopardo’s publication. The novel had been rejected by publishers while he was still alive, and thus Lampedusa died under the impression that his art was mere trifling, the failed scribblings of a dilettante.
An earlier translation of “The Professor and the Siren,” entitled “The Professor and the Mermaid” and collected with a short memoir and the opening chapter of a second novel (a sequel to Il Gattopardo that he did not live to write), was published by Pantheon in 1962. The memoir, Places of My Infancy, was written at the prompting of his wife, a psychotherapist; she suggested the project as a way of mourning the loss of his treasured childhood home, which had been destroyed during the 1943 bombing of Palermo.
In his introduction to the 1962 collection, E.M. Forster called “Places of My Infancy” exquisite—perhaps not surprising coming from the author of Howards End. I admit that I found the piece initially off-putting: it puts so much distance between the author and the common reader as we get young Giuseppe’s impressionistic vision of his idyllic, rarefied kingdom:
On the veranda, which was protected from the sun by great curtains of orange cloth swelling and flapping like sails in the sea breeze . . . my mother, Signora Florio (the “divinely lovely” Franca), and others were sitting in cane chairs. In the center of the group sat a very old, very bent lady with an aquiline nose, enwrapped in widow’s weeds which were waving wildly about in the wind. I was brought before her; she said a few words which I did not understand and, bending down even farther, gave me a kiss on the forehead. . . . After this I was taken back to my room, stripped of my finery, re-dressed in more modest garments, and led onto the beach to join the Florio children and others; with them I bathed and we stayed for a long time under a broiling sun playing our favorite game, which was searching in the sand for the pieces of deep red coral occasionally to be found there.
That afternoon it was revealed that the old lady had been Eugénie, ex-Empress of the French, whose yacht was anchored off Favignana.
But to be fair, Lampedusa wrote these reflections for himself only; they were never revised, and he did not intend them for publication. He felt free to recall the fullness of his privilege: “For me childhood is a lost paradise. Everyone was good to me—I was king of the home.” Beginning with the sensory richness and extravagant security of childhood was his way of exploring love and loss, the two most universal experiences.
For some though, it may be hard to resist lacing Lampedusa’s biography with light mockery: “[W]hat on earth was he doing with his life anyway, and why didn’t he get down to writing earlier?” Julian Barnes’s imagined interlocutor posits in a 2010 article in The Guardian. “The non-literary answer: not very much.” What Barnes means by “not very much,” however, is that Lampedusa spent most of his adult life (aside from strolling to Pasticceria del Massimo for breakfast in his tailored English suits then stopping in at Flaccovio booksellers before finally settling in for the day at Café Mazzara) immersing himself in literature—reading, studying, discussing with friends, teaching. By one account he made over 1,000 pages in notes to prepare a year-long English literature course for his nephew and a friend.
Lampedusa’s eventual success at portraying a layered, multi-caste society at a time of great social upheaval is testament to the power of literature to shape the imaginative and emotional capacity of a devoted reader, no matter how sheltered his daily life. Much like Chekhov—who, unlike Lampedusa, did have direct experience of various social strata—Lampedusa’s narrative eye is both convincing and impressive as it roves among each segment of Sicilian society, from royalty to upstart revolutionaries to the new-moneyed precursors of the Mafiosi.
The short story “Joy and the Law,” for example, is a taut gem of a tale whose effects echo Chekhov’s best stories about peasants and functionaries (Gogol’s “The Overcoat” also comes to mind): in the days leading up to Christmas, an unnamed accountant brings home to his family an enormous, fancy loaf of sweet bread, bestowed upon him by his employer. Ramping up to epic proportion the acuteness of aspirational want, Lampedusa portrays the accountant’s fog of self-deceit as a necessity for survival:
[E]uphoria now welling up inside him, rosy and bright . . . What joy for Maria! What a thrill for the children . . . His personal joy was something else entirely, a spiritual joy mixed with pride and tenderness . . . And nothing could have dampened that invigorating sensation . . . nothing, not even the abrupt realization deep in his consciousness that it had come down to a moment of scornful pity for the neediest among the employees. He truly was too poor to permit the weed of pride to sprout where it could not survive.
It is the wife, Maria, who matter-of-factly bursts the accountant’s bubble: she states the obvious, that the pannetone is “nothing but charity,” and deems that it must be sent to a lawyer to whom they owe a token of gratitude. The man must now spend additional money to courier the sweet bread to the lawyer, and on top of that, the package becomes lost. The reader grows as desperate as the accountant, filled with the anguish of futility and injustice. Will the universe so cruelly dash the protagonist’s hopes? the reader wonders. Then, the last lines of the story:
After Epiphany, however, a visiting card arrived: “With warmest thanks and holiday wishes.”
Honor had been preserved.
The reader exhales momentarily, only to realize the bait-and-switch that Lampedusa has so skillfully performed: Honor? When did the story become about honor? When The Law entered, that’s when—in the form of proper social commerce. The cost of this honor was joy, and the story conveys beautifully and tragically the universal right of the human soul to “spiritual happiness mixed with pride and tenderness,” not to mention “a respite from anguish.” Despite his privileged life, Lampedusa did not, it would seem, take such simple joys for granted.
Thus the decision on the part of NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank to collect “Joy and the Law” but not “Places of My Infancy” in this volume results in a different impression of the author from the earlier volume. The new collection effectively counters what Archibald Colquhoun, translator of both the original English-language version of The Leopard and the 1962 Pantheon collection, described as a less-than-full embrace of Lampedusa’s success in its time—
On the members of the new Italian literary establishment the book has had a different impact; it has become a bogey, for the success of Il Gattopardo, so different in outlook from most Italian postwar literature, seems to them a sign of decadence—
as well as a 1998 article in The Economist:
Italian Marxists saw his aristocrat heroes as evidence that the novel was right-wing and its author a man with no sense of progress. Much of the literary Left condemned the novel as worthless because it was neither progressive nor avant-garde.
(I posed the question of curatorial selection to Frank in an email, and he revealed that his intention was simply to collect all of Lampedusa’s short fiction, which meant excluding the memoir.)
Whether or not literary readers today are as concerned with an author’s socio-political outlook as they were in the early 1960’s, there will surely be much in Lampedusa’s short work that appeals to the contemporary reader—for example the way his voracious literary autodidacticism is reflected in the “mashup” quality of “The Professor and the Siren,” which, Warner points out, brings together elements of Greek myth, the poetry of Keats and Dante, Sicilian folklore, and perhaps too Boccaccio and One Thousand and One Nights.
The eponymous professor of the NYRB collection’s centerpiece story is Rosario La Ciura, world-renowned scholar of Greek literature, longtime Sicilian senator, and author of Men and Gods, “recognized as a work of not only great erudition but of authentic poetry.” The narrator is Corbera di Salina, a journalist and, incidentally, sole surviving descendant of Lampedusa’s lusty Prince, il gattopardo. When the professor and the journalist meet, La Ciura is 75 years old and Corbera a young man. The seedy café in Turin that the two misanthropes frequent sets the stage for Lampedusa’s otherworldly tale:
It was a sort of Hades filled with the wan shades of lieutenant colonels, magistrates, and retired professors . . . submerged in a light that was dimmed during the day by the clouds and the arcade outside, during the evenings by the enormous green shades on the chandeliers. . . . It was, in short, a most satisfactory Limbo.
Corbera is the pre-formed, peripheral first-person narrator that readers will recognize—the Nick Carraway, the unnamed narrators of Bolaño’s “Sensini” or Sherwood Anderson’s “The Other Woman.” Over a period of months, the two develop a friendship of sorts—La Ciura rails on subjects ranging from the “rubbish I happen to be reading” to the “squalid aspirations” of young men like Corbera vis-à-vis the female sex; Corbera attempts to speak his mind while also suspecting the great man’s profound unhappiness. One day, the professor summons the younger man to his home, where Corbera sees a photograph of the professor in his youth—“with a bold expression and features of rare beauty . . . The broken-down senator in a dressing gown had been a young god.” Corbera then invites La Ciura to his own apartment, where he serves the old man fresh sea urchins, about which La Ciura had previously ranted:
they are the most beautiful thing you have down there [in Sicily], bloody and cartilaginous, the very image of the female sex, fragrant with salt and seaweed. . . . They’re dangerous as all gifts from the sea are; the sea offers death as well as immortality.
The professor prepares to depart for a conference in Portugal and summons Corbera for a final visit; here we begin our ascent to Lampedusa’s allegorical summit. “I’ll have to speak in a low voice,” La Ciura says, and we appreciate his—and Lampedusa’s—theatricality, as the young journalist and the reader are drawn deeper into both comprehension and mystery. “Important words cannot be bellowed.”
The peak—of La Ciura’s earthly existence, of the story, of all spiritual incarnation, Lampedusa proposes—is one of pure eros: purely sensual, youthful, uncivilized. The professor’s beloved is Lighea, a siren, as much animal as human and monstrously beautiful, serene, insatiably loving. She comes to him one summer in his youth from the Sicilian sea. Their consummation lasts three weeks, and during that time the professor becomes enlightened to true pleasure, “devoid of social resonance, the same that our solitary mountain shepherds experience when they couple with their goats.” La Ciura dares Corbera to be put off by the comparison, such repulsion revealing only that “you’re not capable of performing the necessary transposition from the bestial to the superhuman plane.” Lighea is all body and all spirit, powerfully attuned:
From her immortal limbs flowed such life force that any loss of energy was immediately compensated, increased, in fact . . . She ate nothing that was not alive. I often saw her rise out of the sea, delicate torso sparkling in the sun, teeth tearing into a still-quivering silver fish, blood running down her chin . . .
Not only did she display in the carnal act a cheerfulness and a delicacy altogether contrary to wretched animal lust, but her speech was of a powerful immediacy, the likes of which I have only ever found in a few great poets.
As Marina Warner points out, Lampedusa is not interested in supplanting reason with passion, but rather reclaiming a native unity. “Lampedusa aims to fashion a coincidentia oppositorium at many levels,” she writes. “[S]upernatural and natural, unreal and material, monstrosity and beauty, animal and human, ideal love and lubricious delight.” And this is evident throughout the story in his language: beauty and blood, “insolence” and “detachment,” the professor’s gnarled hands which caress with “regal delicacy” a page in a magazine that bears the image of a Greek statue. When Corbera serves the sea urchins, the professor “consumed them avidly but . . . with a meditative, almost sorrowful air.”
The story’s interests are thus transparent, its purposes straightforward—though, to my mind, no less affecting for it. Lampedusa’s passion for unity of soul and body startles and moves us; in hearing the professor’s tale, Corbera in part lives it and is changed, as are we.
But will the general reader agree? Perhaps it depends on one’s pre-determinations. The narrator of Mating in the above epigraph likens the African sun to a “broken mechanism.” But as they say, one person’s junk is another person’s treasure: “broken” if four distinct seasons is your norm, perfectly functional if you’ve come from extreme cold and gray.
In Lampedusa’s case, we can deduce that his own deepest longings were for what he had known and lost—the magic of his childhood—as well as for what, as he wrote this last story, he had not achieved: transcendence via entry into the pantheon of literary artists. The result, in “The Professor and the Siren,” is a tale at once pessimistic and optimistic: La Ciura can find no worthy pleasure or meaning in earthly life after his experience with Lighea, and yet in the end he joins her, answering her call to the underwater world deep below, “where all is silent calm . . . in the blind, mute palace of formless, eternal waters.”
Light and darkness seem also to color Lampedusa’s literary stature: Il Gattopardo won Italy’s Strega Prize in 1959, two years after his death, and has sold well over 3 million copies worldwide; but we’ll never know what the second novel, Il Gattopardo’s sequel, might have been. The fragment published in both the 1962 and current NYRB collections under the title “The Blind Kittens” does reveal that Lampedusa’s eye continued to focus on Sicilian society and the epic desires of common men. Colquhoun opined on the possibility that Il Gattopardo itself was a kind of lesser preview of the real novel Lampedusa meant to write—would have written—had he started sooner: “Is the novel peaks, in a more or less continuous range, of a vast submerged book that was never completed?”
Broken or functional, incomplete or fully realized, decadent or democratic . . . I am glad for Lampedusa’s sumptuous, if scant, work, so nearly kept from us by both Lampedusa’s late start and publishers’ tastes. And while the professor’s vast book collection “slowly rots” in a university archive following his descent into the sea, Lampedusa’s small body of work bursts up like the sun, reviving those of us primed to respond.
Sonya Chung is the author of the novel Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and founding editor of Bloom.
Sonya Chung’s previous features: Mary Costello’s Immaculate Sadness, Spencer Reece: The Poet’s Tale, From Pamela to Patty: Male Authors and Knowledge of the Female Heart, Experience Required: The Real F-Word, Back & Forth: Reflections on One Year of BLOOM, Nicholson Baker: On Love, Evil, and Old Things, Publisher Spotlight: NYRB Lit in Early Bloom, Sergei Dovlatov: Gravity, Levity, and Love, Paolo Sorrentino: Old is Young, and Late is Late