The Leopard at Large
Letters From London and Europe
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Richmond (Surrey): Alma Books 203 pp., £14.99
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa was the last prince of his long and languid line, but soon after his death he became one of the first names in 20th-century Italian letters. The Leopard, his 1958 novel about the last days of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and the first days of a (theoretically) united Kingdom of Italy, is a postwar classic, justly admired for its ironic, melancholic spirit, its mélange of sumptuousness and sadness, its evocation of an old, tired island at the outset of a (supposedly) dynamic, democratic age. As the hapless Bourbons quit the Sicilian stage forever, the novel’s aristocratic protagonist Don Fabrizio raises a quizzical eyebrow at the redshirted reformers whose motivations he distrusts and whose aspirations he holds in contempt. He admires men of action in the abstract, but has a cynical superstition that the very atmosphere of the island is freighted with dust and debilitation—and that this will soon abrade the strident Garibaldians, as everyone else before. He has long sight and admires timeless immensity, symbolized by his hobby of astronomy, and he believes firmly that the Sicily that has “always” been will always be—weighted down by parched soil, Palladian porticoes, rococo gilt, marble-paved churches, ancient accommodations, and ennui. All initiatives are doomed to failure, and only death is in the end victorious. (One thinks of the 15th-century fresco Trionfo della Morte, which engrosses a wall of Palermo’s Palazzo Abattelis, portraying a mounted skeleton on an écorché steed irrupting into a richly rendered garden to decimate its denizens.)
Don Fabrizio’s cultivation, epicureanism, shrewdness, scepticism, and acceptance of his own superannuation are partly prefigured in his creator, and recur throughout this almost overcivilized correspondence.
The collection was first published in Italy in 2006 as Viaggio in Europa; this is the first English translation. Twenty-eight of these letters were sent by Lampedusa to his cousins the Piccolos between 1925 and 1930, while the novelist was travelling in England, France, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. To these have been added letters to two aunts, four sent to Massimo Erede (who had been in a Austro-Hungarian prison camp with him, and later assisted Lampedusa to get some of his essays into print), one sent to Lampedusa by his mother, and one sent to him by his future wife, Alessandra (“Licy”). A larger collection of letters between Lampedusa and Licy is being prepared for publication. There are also some photographs taken by the author in London, which to be frank have more curiosity than artistic value.
The letters to the three Piccolo siblings (brothers Casimiro and Lucio, and their sister, Giovanna) are densely layered, as befits ingenious and accomplished addressees who, according to Lampedusa’s adopted heir, Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi (who edited this volume and wrote its Introduction),
…seemed to live in a magical world made up of cultural and personal allusions, a continual game of nods and winks.
This Tyrrhenian Sea of clique in-jokes, Palermo gossip, nicknames, and third-person writing is at first slightly confusing, but each letter is comprehensively (and usually faultlessly) footnoted.
Perhaps less expectedly, there are also puerile sexual jokes, with the Grand Old Duke of It. Lit. devoting an entire letter to the conceit that he is a vendor of testicles. Gioacchino comments,
The sexual chitchat reflected in fact the habits of a certain social class absorbed in otia, not very sensitive, unmindful of what was happening in the wide world.
It seems harsh to dismiss the Lampedusa of the 20s (he was 29 when these letters commence) as “unmindful” of the world. On the contrary, the letters contain not a few reflections on current events—although these now seem unfortunate, consisting as they do largely of concerned queries about the wellbeing of “Il Duce” (like Garibaldi, a slightly ludicrous man of action), pleased references to fatal assaults on anti-Fascists, and almost Der Stürmer-like ruminations on blameless Jews. Gioacchino himself cites a sentence which shows that the allegedly heedless peregrinator possessed a degree of prescience shared by very few others. Visiting Germany in 1930, Lampedusa is fascinated by her surging vitality, the nationalist resentments, and their obverse—the binge drinking, drug taking, frenetic music and dancing, and the public priapism. After watching with disgust predatory homosexuals picking up “overly elegant and overly shaven lads” in respectable restaurants by sending them notes written on the back of bills, he predicts that
…within ten years they will, I think, send every nation a note, by means of the waiter.
But distasteful politics usually takes a back seat to sensate evocation and observation, imaginative and insightful even if almost completely confined to his social stratum. In 1927, a year of hardship for many Britons, the duke was writing about London’s clubland—the “massive, indestructible, secret,” and selective establishments dotted around Pall Mall and St. James’s, almost literal powerhouses where even still society’s shakers do discreet business over excellent lunches or doze in comfortable chairs—“the same armchair for century after century,” as Lampedusa reported with satisfaction. He notices and admires every detail of these understated places, from architecture—“Portland stone which absorbs smuts and transforms them into amber”— to ambience (“the smell of petrol, of tar, of Havanas—the silence of a sacred wood”), comparing them sardonically with Palermo’s nearest, but not very near, equivalent, the Bellini Club. The London clubs, he says, are like lions or panthers to the Bellini’s “common felix catus,” and the transplanted leopard purrs with contentment as he settles back onto his deep-buttoned leather banquette after demolishing a vast lunch. Lampedusa was always an agglomeration of appetites, physical as much as psychical, leading to his nickname of “The Monster” with which he self-mockingly signs off dispatches—capable of gorging simultaneously on Stendhal and Stilton, Baudelaire and beefsteak. In another letter, he admits with a sort of shrug,
The Monster . . . contains in himself not only an angel, but also a pig—of which he is proud.
Beyond London, Lampedusa enjoys an edited England:
An itinerary devised by himself, with his usual acumen, takes him through the most ancient cities of this glorious island. He has carefully avoided the big cities, the industrial infernos . . . and kept above all to the venerable cathedral cities, to the peaceful seats of learning.
That itinerary—Cambridge, Oxford, Ely, Lincoln, York, Chester, Stratford, and Edinburgh via “the amazing serenity of the English countryside . . . a real pastoral scene from Sir Philip Sidney”—calls constantly to the Monstrous mind admired people and assimilated books.
The confusing corridors of the old Red Lion at Cambridge remind Lampedusa of The Pickwick Papers. (Here, a rare mistake creeps into Gioacchino’s footnotes, when he says the reference is to Mr. Pickwick’s time in prison—in reality, it is to the inn at Ipswich where Pickwick blunders embarrassingly into Miss Witherfield’s bedroom.)
Ely is brooding Cromwell country,
…tragic, impoverished, the birthplace of the proud mother of the great Oliver, with its boundless landscape of wretched marshes beneath a leaden sky, where the divine cathedral stands on its rock, austere and yet maternal offspring of the faith of the Middle Ages, raising a prayer which could not but be well received.
York is the city of “the pale and angry rose” (from Henry VI, Part I), whose famed medieval windows
…continue to make the air enchanted, and every other light that has not passed through their otherworldly colours looks like darkness.
Lampedusa was clearly fixated by Gothic fanes, so unlike the Romanesque basilicas of his South, even dismissing Wren’s St. Paul’s as “papier-mâché.” But swinish urges temper angelic architectural appreciation, as he recounts escorting typists down the hill from the ethereal Lincoln Cathedral to the cinema.
Back in London, he has a perfectly Lampedusan errand to undergo, one which combines aestheticism with strict practicality. He is armed with photographs of a Sèvres tea service belonging to the Piccolos, which they have asked him to have valued. Being a prince, instead of going to an auction house he wanders casually into the world-renowned Wallace Collection to consult its famous director, Sir Frederick Kenyon. Kenyon, unluckily, is away, but his never-named deputy (“the most adorable of all old English gentlemen”) ushers him in at once, asks him to sit on the “faded Savonnerie of an armchair of obvious authenticity,” plies him with cigarettes, and proceeds to deliver a deeply learned disquisition on Sèvres—its origins, composition, manufacture, patterning, patination, authentication, and market trends—and the rapt distinguished visitor is in his element, happily at home among lovely things and antiquarians who are not quite his social equals, in “the honey-sweet hive of his mother London.”
Attending a ball at the French embassy, the lounge leopard lifts mildly malicious eyes from “the contrasting delights of the cardinal-red lobsters and the sky-blue eyes of Belinda” to make catty observations:
Tens of centuries have passed over her body, enveloped in a slim tunic the colour of risotto alla Milanese, and every one has left its mark there: the eighteenth century its powder, the nineteenth its anaemia, the twentieth the deformities brought about by ill-judged sports practiced too late in life.
There is a redolent, ridiculous moment when the current holders of the titles of Bismarck, von Blücher, and Wellington come together by chance —
Diminished and subdued, the national disasters of France kiss bony pomp.
Then it is back to ogling the “silver arms” of Belinda, and an English array of silk-rustling lovelies —
…the Corinnes, the Silvias, the Celias, the Rosalinds materialize, the beautiful women of Yeats, the evanescent apparitions of Adonais, the pallor of Rosetti’s ladies, the fresh grace of Meredith’s heroines.
Then the evening is over, he is out in Mayfair’s night—“For some instants golden hair glimmers through the motor car’s window”—and the Monster pads back solitarily to his hotel.
Loneliness is between the lines in all these letters—evidenced by such clear, dear vignettes, and his scolding when his cousins have been lackadaisical in their letter writing. There is at times almost a kind of desperation for news from home, and we suddenly remember that Lampedusa had suffered what Gioacchino calls “a severe nervous breakdown” in the early 20s. He looks down from a raised train onto nighttime Berlin, and is pierced by painterly “Groβstadt Pathos”—
. . .kilometres of empty streets, flooded with rain, with an endless line of lamps and every now and then a shunting station with a tangle of rails and green, red and white lights . . . the workmen in their leather jackets shining with the rain, and the continual rumble of the trains, and the sublime metropolitan crowd in which every face, for those who take the trouble to look, is a poem of suffering and unease . . . nothing is harder than this city.
But as befits such a sensate sybarite, pathos is also for Lampedusa a “delightful emotion,”which lends point and meaning to the passing mood, moment, era, civilization. In this philosophic wise, he traverses that interdiluvian continent, from Sicily to Scotland and Le Havre to Lithuania, sampling and smiling, observing and aspersing—at once deeply Sicilian and broadly European. His antennae twitch at the ripples of past traumas, the tumult of the present and the powerlessness of politicians, like the halt and hairless senators he watches in Rome—“a veritable forest of crutches and a mountain of surgical trusses”—as they listen obsequiously to man-of-the-moment Mussolini.
Lampedusa’s observations may not be accurate in every detail (Gioacchino: “in [his] correspondence . . . truth is never the highest priority”), but they are always truthful to the character of their author. They also convey perfectly his sense of a congenial continent bootlessly, yet often beautifully, in churn:
I have seen the swans which cleave the velvety waters of the Lake of Love in Bruges; I have seen Piccadilly at midday and Montmartre at midnight; I have seen Michelangelo’s Moses . . . I have walked beneath the centuries-old limes in Windsor and beneath the famous cypresses in Fiesole; I have seen war and the crueller aftermath of war; I have seen Mussolini in his black shirt and young Alice in her court dress; I have eaten cailles truffées au champagne with Lady Vanderbilt and I have starved on the millet of Kriegsgefangen; I have seen the Turners in the Tate Gallery, the Memlings in Bruges and the Raphaels in the Louvre; I know Dante, I love Shakespeare. . . I have been in all sorts of situations and been equal to them all.
Mock heroics—but deeply tinged with melancholy and a zest for love and life imperfectly concealed behind cynical lassitude. Lampedusa may have had faults as a man, but as an epistolist he is more than equal to the task of recalling a closed, charmed Europe that once really existed.
This review appeared in Chronicles in August 2012, and is reproduced with permission. Photo by Derek Turner