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Giuseppe di Lampedusa and Lucio Piccolo - John de Falbe on The Leopard

The Quiet Sicilian

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I first read Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard while I was in Palermo in 1981, at the age of 18. It was one of those defining reading experiences which are not always easy to explain but which have to do with a deep sense of recognition. Through the alchemy of fictional characters and the way in which they engage with their world, you are taken somewhere (psychologically, morally, emotionally) that you do not usually expect to go, and the journey reveals to you something about yourself and the world you inhabit. You may also recognize with awe that the author has achieved something of extraordinary value. Who is this person, you wonder then, and what did it feel like to create this phenomenon? One does not necessarily expect an answer to the second part of this question in an author’s biography, but if it is there then you may get that fuzzy feeling of awe all over again.

David Gilmour’s biography of Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Last Leopard, was published in 1988. It made a great impression on me, and I have recommended and sold it ever since with confidence. But as the years passed I started to wonder if I wasn’t misled by inexperience. I was young when I read it, and had not then read many other biographies of writers. How would it measure up now? I knew it was out of print because we had bought up the end of the print run, and Mr Horse’s Mouth at Random House told me lately, on enquiry, that however many copies a couple of fancy independent shops might sell over the next few years, it would never find its way back to the shelves of high street shops and therefore – hands were wrung, I swear – a reprint could not reasonably be contemplated. This and the imminent fiftieth anniversary of The Leopard’s first publication were just the incentives needed to drive me crossly, protectively, back to both the novel and the biography of its author. The facts – who Lampedusa was, and what he did – are almost comi

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I first read Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard while I was in Palermo in 1981, at the age of 18. It was one of those defining reading experiences which are not always easy to explain but which have to do with a deep sense of recognition. Through the alchemy of fictional characters and the way in which they engage with their world, you are taken somewhere (psychologically, morally, emotionally) that you do not usually expect to go, and the journey reveals to you something about yourself and the world you inhabit. You may also recognize with awe that the author has achieved something of extraordinary value. Who is this person, you wonder then, and what did it feel like to create this phenomenon? One does not necessarily expect an answer to the second part of this question in an author’s biography, but if it is there then you may get that fuzzy feeling of awe all over again.

David Gilmour’s biography of Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Last Leopard, was published in 1988. It made a great impression on me, and I have recommended and sold it ever since with confidence. But as the years passed I started to wonder if I wasn’t misled by inexperience. I was young when I read it, and had not then read many other biographies of writers. How would it measure up now? I knew it was out of print because we had bought up the end of the print run, and Mr Horse’s Mouth at Random House told me lately, on enquiry, that however many copies a couple of fancy independent shops might sell over the next few years, it would never find its way back to the shelves of high street shops and therefore – hands were wrung, I swear – a reprint could not reasonably be contemplated. This and the imminent fiftieth anniversary of The Leopard’s first publication were just the incentives needed to drive me crossly, protectively, back to both the novel and the biography of its author. The facts – who Lampedusa was, and what he did – are almost comically simple. Born in Palermo in 1896, he was the only son of an old aristocratic family whose patrimony was already much diminished. Cosseted as a child, he soon developed a passion for literature. As Gilmour remarks with some surprise, it seems never to have occurred to Lampedusa that he might work, but he served briefly as a soldier during the First World War and then as a rather testy Red Cross official in Sicily during the Second. Otherwise he read, sat in cafés, occasionally went to cocktail parties which he detested, travelled to England and France from time to time, and also to Latvia. For though he never had children, he married a Baltic baroness called Licy, who was a distinguished psychoanalyst. Until late in the Great War, Licy preferred to stay at her castle in Latvia rather than with her husband in Sicily where she had to compete for his attentions with his over-fond mother. But afterwards, when his palace had been bombed and hers was taken over by the Soviets, they lived together in genteel decay in a draughty, second-division Palermo palazzo with a leaky gas boiler. For a few years he gave informal lessons in literature to a couple of young friends, and in 1955, after being diagnosed with emphysema, started writing ‘pour m’amuser’. He died in July 1957 and his novel The Leopard was published in November the following year. It became the best-selling book in Italian literary history. The subject of Gilmour’s biography spent most of his life on a chair, and if he wasn’t reading then he was groaning at the prospect of his own, and his family’s, extinction. How on earth can such unpromising material be made into a riveting book? The apparent contradiction is undoubtedly part of the book’s anecdotal charm. But it also explains why it is so remarkable, for Gilmour demonstrates that there is in fact no contradiction. Lampedusa’s life was intimately connected to his world. He did not do nothing. There is a temptation to see the dramatic shape supplied by the final writing of his masterpiece as somehow artificial, too good to be true: isn’t it just sentimental retrospective piety that makes us want to make sense of this layabout’s life as a grand preparation? Gilmour shows that it is not. And if Lampedusa had not written The Leopard, what then of the life? It is not enough to say that the question is academic because he did write it: we are forced to recognize the value of the life on its own terms, irrespective of the stupendous posthumous validation. On the last page of the chapter entitled ‘A Baltic Marriage’, we read of a young man who sat beside Lampedusa at the aristocratic club in Palermo and could ‘get nothing from him but monosyllables’. By now, the reader has been treated to a sharp portrait of Lampedusa’s background and early life that is reflected in many respects in The Leopard, but though Gilmour writes beautifully and displays a keen sense of the absurd, we might be forgiven for thinking that if the subject isn’t quite dead yet then he might as well be – were it not for the mysterious phenomenon that we know is to come. Why is Lampedusa different from his contemporaries, whose behaviour he described as ‘the tragic jerking of a class which was watching the end of its own land-owning supremacy, that is, of its own reason for existence and its own social continuity’? An answer begins to surface in the next chapter, ‘The Troubles of Don Giuseppe’. The heading refers to the Lampedusas’ domestic arrangements – Licy’s final departure from Latvia, the destruction of Palazzo Lampedusa, problems with the Red Cross, the death of the prince’s mother. But embedded in it is a brief account of his relationship with his Piccolo cousins, in particular Lucio, with whom Lampedusa had a literary rapport ‘so strong and long-lasting that neither of them bothered to look for other intellectual friends’. But if Lampedusa sometimes seems other worldly, the Piccolos seem positively alien. ‘They not only believed in the existence of spirits but could even sense their presence.’ ‘The manner in which the Piccolos were able to insulate themselves from the horrors of the Second World War’, says Gilmour, after listing the menu for lunch on Easter Sunday 1942, ‘was remarkable.’ It is intriguing that a man described by the art historian Bernard Berenson as ‘bashful, modest, timid, incredibly courteous’ should have felt most comfortable in a nest of nutcases. And as Gilmour starts to describe the prince’s life with Licy after the war, we see him come into his own: ‘once the diffidence had been conquered, he revealed sides to his character which few people would have suspected: pride, original thought, powerful opinions and a bitter, ironic sense of humour’. Licy’s nephew describes visiting the Lampedusas and finding that lunch was non-existent because Licy would still be in bed after working until four in the morning, while Lampedusa would be out of the house, returning later in the afternoon with a few pastries, following his own thoughts and routines. Although deeply conscious that he was a creature of his time and the land of his birth, he was always unusual. The most conspicuous aspect of this was his astonishing learning, which earned him the nickname ‘il mostro’ (‘the monster’) from his Piccolo cousins. But this learning was not the product of formal study, and it was only late in life that Lampedusa found, among young people, some pleasure in sharing it, first in conversations in a café and then, at Licy’s suggestion, during informal literature courses at home. He wrote a thousand pages of notes on English literature from Bede to Graham Greene. ‘Not only had he read and remembered all the novels of Scott,’ writes Gilmour; ‘he knew the plays of the lesser Elizabethan playwrights and the poems of the most minor Restoration poets.’ He was similarly erudite in French literature, and the breadth of his reading in Russian and Spanish (which he read in the original) was also startling. He believed that people could be understood through their literature and their history but also ‘that it was important to investigate everything, not just the large trees in isolation but the undergrowth and flowers as well. They were all part of the great body of literature and contributed to each other’s growth.’ As to The Leopard itself, it seems that what drove him to write it was the spectacle of his cousin Lucio receiving a prize at a literary festival. Lucio had sent his poems out of the blue to the celebrated poet Eugenio Montale, who impulsively invited him to a literary festival at San Pellegrino in Lombardy. Being apprehensive, Lucio asked il mostro to accompany him for moral support. There is a hilarious description of the elderly, unknown Sicilian gentleman turning up and saying nothing. But on his return to Palermo, Lampedusa wrote to an old friend in Brazil, ‘Being mathematically certain that I was no more foolish [than Lucio], I sat down at my desk and wrote a novel.’ The story of the novel’s creation is intensely moving because Lampedusa evidently sensed his vocation in the process of writing. Knowing he was ill, urgency suddenly infused all his activities. He didn’t want to die any more because he had things to do. The preoccupation with his own extinction might once have looked like sluggishness. But he was never mentally sluggish, just solitary and ironic. Despite his illness, he had huge resources of energy to apply to his new project. Someone recently said to me that he thought there was too much lit. crit. at the end of The Last Leopard. Yet the story of The Leopard’s critical reception is of great relevance – not least because it contributed to the novel’s success. The book had originally been turned down by several publishers. Once published, it quickly became a bestseller despite (or because of ) being savaged by many distinguished critics. Besides the Catholics who disapproved of Lampedusa’s pessimism and the Sicilian apologists who didn’t like his portrait of Sicily, there were Marxist historians who attacked what they imagined to be his view of history and influential critics from Italy’s intelligentsia who had spent the years since the Second World War advocating their own rigid interpretations of ‘commitment’, ‘progressiveness’ and ‘experimentation’ in literature. Lampedusa’s beautiful prose and well-drawn characters did not fit the mould. We still have our equivalents of these critics today, and Gilmour’s shrewd account of The Leopard’s reception, and the light it sheds on that novel, are a warning for our own times. It is instructive too to remember, in these days when every book is either trumpeted as a masterpiece or abandoned, that Lampedusa believed that ground-cover literature matters as well as the trees. Whether The Last Leopard is a tree (as I think) or just a flower, it should be read by anyone who loves reading.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 11 © John De Falbe 2006


About the contributor

John De Falbe has been selling books at John Sandoe’s in Chelsea for over 30 years. He is the author of three novels, The Glass Night, The Bequest and Dreaming Iris.

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