Steven Price’s novel take on a classic
Let me put my cards on the table: The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, is one of my all-time favourite books. Years ago, I read The Last Leopard, David Gilmour’s biography of Lampedusa, and the details of his uneventful life remain vivid in my memory. Now comes Steven Price’s new novel, Lampedusa, shortlisted for this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize. As I began reading it, I realized chances were strong that I was either Price’s ideal reader or very much the opposite.
Lampedusa’s life, which stretched from 1896 to 1957, was dauntingly, almost provokingly un-novelistic. Introverted and solitary, the last prince of Lampedusa spent most of his time reading or thinking about his reading. He never lived on his namesake island, south of Sicily, but instead remained where he was born, in Palermo. Other than serving in the Italian army in the First World War, his only job was a stint of a few years as the president of the Red Cross in Sicily. His chief contacts came from the tight familial web of Sicilian aristocrats, especially his strong-willed mother, with whom he mostly lived until her death in 1946. When, in an unusual show of independence, Lampedusa married a Baltic aristocrat and psychoanalyst, Alexandra von Wolff-Stomersee, she fled back to her home in Riga rather than live with her mother-in-law.
After it appeared in 1958, The Leopard became one of the best-selling Italian novels of the twentieth century and was acclaimed internationally as a masterpiece. It also inspired Luchino Visconti’s 1963 film of the same name. But Lampedusa never knew any of that. He had died, at sixty, the year before the novel was published, with his manuscript rejected by two publishers and little hope of any success.
But those are only the facts. Price thickens his portrait of a lost world of privilege and eccentricity with potent details. In the 1950s, when Giuseppe (as Price calls his hero) gives lectures in English literature to two young friends in his Palermo house, the students wear black tie. When he visits a convent under his patronage, the abbess takes him to the cell of one of his relations. Framed on the wall are two letters, one from the nun to the devil, imploring him to relinquish his evil ways and embrace God’s law. The second letter is the devil’s answer, written in a kind of “strange Cyrillic.” The abbess explains, “No one has been able to read it. It is not written in a language known to man.”
As for his withdrawn prince, Price is canny and unflinching:
He was a man who had left middle age the way other men will exit a room, without a thought, as if he might go back at any moment. He was fifty-eight years old. He had smoked every hour of his waking life since the armistice of the first war. . . . Soft-spoken, ironic, he had been mistaken for a good listener all his life though the quality of the light had always interested him more than any confided disgrace.
But, even with a richly drawn world and hero, the question persists: How do you write a novel about a man who did almost nothing but write a novel? I am tempted to answer: slowly, subtly, beautifully. Because that is what Price has done. More to the point, he understands that writing a novel is one of life’s biggest adventures, with its own weird mixture of inspiration, daring, and sheer plod. One day, without warning, Giuseppe finds something in his mind:
It was a man, poised and reticent and powerful, a man vulnerable to sudden beauty, overwhelmed by his own sensuous nature. He would locate this man on the afternoon of Garibaldi’s landing, away from the heat and clatter of rifles, and submerge him instead in the quietude and gloom of a family prayer.
That was the grain of sand around which The Leopard grew, a story of a Sicilian prince caught between loyalty to his remote lands and Garibaldi’s plans for Italian unification, between past and present, between pleasure and duty.
Although Lampedusa will mean more to a reader who knows The Leopard, Price has sketched in the necessary background. And his story is centred on the writer, not his book. For me, as a novelist reading a novel about a man writing a novel, much of Giuseppe’s experience struck a chord. The Leopard invades his life, making its own, peremptory demands. It knows more than he does, and sometimes Giuseppe thinks he overhears it talking to itself. As well as the private world of Giuseppe and his creation, Price has fun with the wider world of writers’ ambitions, rivalries, and — occasionally — their generous impulses.
More intrigued with light than with people, more interested in books than in action, Giuseppe wishes that his life were like a novel, that it had a shape, “a sense of movement, of direction.” When his wife responds that a life is not a book, he thinks,
Perhaps; but it seemed to him now that there were shapes, patterns, echoes in some lives that could nevertheless be drawn out, made sense of, and in this way a kind of insight might be attained. That was what he wanted. It could not be managed in the moment, only later, in just the way a narrative is shaped in a novel, by sifting through and selecting certain threads.
That is, of course, what Price does brilliantly in Lampedusa: tease out the most intriguing threads in his hero’s life. The thickest one is Giuseppe’s mother, a woman marked by successive tragedies, determined to keep her son close, so as not to lose him. In fact, loss is a sizable thread of its own. The novel begins with the shifting sands Giuseppe walks in every morning, and they suggest the losses that run through the book, from Sicilian independence, the old aristocratic order, and the family palazzo down to Giuseppe’s health after decades of smoking.
As he lies dying, Giuseppe thinks that although literature has been his lifelong guide, he has failed “to comprehend its singular truth: to live.” But he is wrong about that. This is a book full of doors, and while some of them close, important ones open too. Licy, as his wife was called, is a life force he chooses more than once. Bold and blunt where Giuseppe is shy and evasive, Licy shocks him — before he has said anything about his attraction to her — by telling him that his mother will not relish losing him to her:
Nothing in Palermitan society had prepared him for such social clarity. With Licy, what ought to be left unspoken was seized and shaken out openly, like a wrinkled shirt. . . . Licy meanwhile stirred her coffee with its tiny spoon, and sipped it pleasantly, and changed the topic, as if a shining door had not just opened onto what might be.
After years in Riga, Licy returns to Palermo during the Second World War. When his mother refuses to leave the ruined family palazzo, Giuseppe must choose between the two women. He decides to live elsewhere with Licy, and his mother dies in the ruin without him. She becomes one more loss, “a second great house,” but he has saved his own life.
There are other doors opened too: forgiveness extended to someone who did the family great harm, the adoption of a young cousin as the son Giuseppe and Licy never had. And, of course, the door that is permanently open: The Leopard. Even if it failed to find a publisher in Giuseppe’s life, he knew he had produced something strong and strange. The same could be said of Lampedusa. Now that I have finished it, calling myself Price’s ideal reader sounds presumptuous. Call me, instead, a profoundly admiring one.