Vol. 9 No. 17 · 1 October 1987

David Gilmour writes about the fiction of Lampedusa and Sciascia

2710 words

Two of the finest works of post-war Sicilian fiction were published in Italy in 1958: Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard and Leonardo Sciascia’s Sicilian Uncles, a collection of three (in subsequent editions four) stories dealing with themes from Sicily’s history and experience of foreign intervention which had also interested Lampedusa.* Sciascia, however, did not see any connection between the two books. In a review of Lampedusa’s novel he accused the dead prince of having had a ‘congenital and sublime indifference’ towards the peasants and of sharing his protagonist’s view of them as ants. Unlike Verga, who could not finish La Duchessa di Leyra because he was unable to manage aristocratic dialogue, Lampedusa could not make the poor talk because he knew nothing about them. Even worse, he understood little about Sicilian history. It was absurd, according to Sciascia, for Lampedusa’s Don Fabrizio to talk about Sicilians in the days of the ‘Muslim imams’ as if their character had hardly changed over the subsequent millennium – a perfectly reasonable point, though one that came oddly from Sciascia, who in a contemporary essay on Pirandello was writing: ‘Undoubtedly the inhabitants of the island of Sicily began to behave like Sicilians after the Arab conquest.’

In an article on Verga in 1960, Sciascia repeated his allegation that Lampedusa and Pirandello had written historical novels without having had much ‘idea about history’, and a few years later he said he could not understand why Visconti had wanted to make a film of The Leopard. Surely, he argued, Visconti’s views on modern Sicilian history (like Sciascia’s at the time) were closer to the optimistic interpretation put forward by Rosario Romeo in Il Risorgimento in Sicilia? Later still, in an article on the poet Lucio Piccolo, Sciascia accused Lampedusa of tampering with historical events: between Piccolo and Lampedusa (who were first cousins), he concluded, ‘there is the difference between good faith and bad faith.’

The impression that Lampedusa and Sciascia were at opposite poles in their views on Sicily was encouraged by various critics. Enrico Falqui, one of The Leopard’s principal detractors, contrasted the pessimistic conservatism of Lampedusa with the ‘enlightened’ approach of Sciascia, while Giancarlo Vigorelli described Sciascia’s The Council of Egypt as ‘the reverse of The Leopard ... perhaps the book that The Leopard could have been and should have been’. But Sciascia himself was beginning to doubt whether he and Lampedusa really were so different. In the late Sixties favourable references to The Leopard began to appear in Sciascia’s articles on Sicily: there was, for example, much to be said for Lampedusa’s view of Sicilian irrationality and for his understanding of the Sicilian ‘sense of death’. Even among his critical remarks in the Piccolo essay, Sciascia had said that ‘we must unfortunately agree’ with the prince that instead of a genuine middle class Sicily had ‘a pack of jackals’ (which is not quite how Lampedusa put it). Don Calogero Sedara, the most unattractive of several unpleasant characters in The Leopard, became exalted as the typical product of that class of 19th-century ‘bourgeois-mafiosi’ which knew only how to devour and destroy. Ten years after the publication of The Leopard, Sciascia admitted that ‘Lampedusa was unfortunately right and we were wrong’ about Sicilian history, and later he applied Lampedusa’s view to the rest of Italy. In The Moro Affair Sciascia wrote ‘that the principle of “changing everything to change nothing” which Lampedusa’s prince saw as a constant in the history of Sicily ... can be seen today as a constant in the history of Italy.’ In 1979 Sciascia even quoted with approval the passage about the Muslim imams which had provoked such derision twenty years earlier.

When asked why he had changed his mind, he replied that various factors had prevented him from appreciating The Leopard at the time of its publication. Shortly before writing his review, he had read an account of the feckless Sicilian noblemen who, after deposing the Bourbon king in 1848, had retracted and begged his forgiveness the year after. Among them was Lampedusa’s great-grandfather, on whom Don Fabrizio was partly based, and this encouraged Sciascia to see the novel as an apology for a worthless class of people. Sciascia was also annoyed by the attitude of many of the Left: recalling someone else’s remark that ‘there is no communist sitting beside a duke who doesn’t feel shivers of pleasure,’ he was irritated by the sight of Palermo’s communists ‘shivering with pleasure’ over The Leopard because it had been written by a prince.

There are of course numerous differences between the works of Sciascia and the solitary novel and various fragments of Lampedusa. Sciascia’s terse style of writing is quite unlike the lyrical, sometimes baroque prose of The Leopard. The angle of vision is also different: Lampedusa has been accused of writing from ‘above’ the people, from the writer’s equivalent of Don Fabrizio’s observatory, while Sciascia remains firmly at street level or sometimes even below it, in the sulphur mines where his family worked. But the similarities are much stronger. The writing of both authors is pervaded by scepticism and pessimism, by aversion to romanticism and melodrama, and by irony and a hatred of humbug; it is not surprising that the favourite novelist of both men was Stendhal. Above all, they share the obsession with their island, its people, its condition and its perennial problems. They were, after all, the only major Sicilian writers since Italian unification who remained there. Verga, De Roberto and Vittorini went to Milan, Pirandello and Capuana spent much of their time in Rome, but Sciascia and Lampedusa stayed in Sicily. Thus they never had to ‘rediscover’ their island, as Vittorini did, and were never to look at it with the sentimental eyes of an exile in the north.

Sebastiano Agliano once described Sicilian history as ‘an uninterrupted succession of desperate impulses and supine submissions, of rapid, brightly-lit moments and zones indeterminably dark’. The impact of these submissions on what Sciascia calls Sicilian ‘insecurity’ (‘the main feature of Sicilian history’) was of great interest to both writers. Lampedusa described the ambiguities of the Sicilian response to foreign invaders ‘who were at once obeyed, soon detested and always misunderstood’. In every invasion since the time of the Greeks, some Sicilian factions have sided with the invaders, hoping that they would bail them out, and in Sicilian Uncles Sciascia gave this trait a modern setting: instead of looking to the Arabs, the Angevins or the Aragonese, Sicilians are placing all their hopes in Stalin or the United States. ‘For over twenty-five years,’ says Don Fabrizio in The Leopard, ‘we’ve been bearing the weight of superb and heterogeneous civilisations, all from outside, none made by ourselves, none that we could call our own ... for two thousand five hundred years we’ve been a colony.’ The exploitation of Sicily by outsiders (including the Italian government) is described more coarsely by a Mafia leader in Sciascia’s The Day of the Owl: ‘Not only men, but entire nations are born cuckolds, cuckolds from olden times, generation after generation.’ Close though he is to Lampedusa’s view that there’s little of Sicilian history that hasn’t been made by foreigners, Sciascia claims that a Sicilian identity has nevertheless been preserved. Yet from his own books it is difficult to see what this consists of, apart from a tendency to irrational behaviour and to seem, during the most obscurantist and intolerant period of Spanish rule, more Spanish than the Spaniards.

If insecurity caused by foreign intervention has been the main feature of Sicilian history, perhaps its chief expression has been the constant changing of appearances and even of sides when the situation seems to demand it. Tancredi’s remark in The Leopard – ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change’ – is in the same spirit as the baron in Sicilian Uncles: ‘If we have to start a revolution, then we’ll all start it ... let’s have a revolution, but the king is still the king.’ Many critics claimed that Tancredi’s dictum embodied Lampedusa’s own philosophy, but they missed the point. Lampedusa and Sciascia both saw the principle ‘as a constant in the history of Sicily’ and put the view into the mouths of their most opportunist characters. And naturally, with such ‘revolutionaries’, there was no chance of a real revolution. Lampedusa was writing about the revolution of 1860 and Sciascia was describing that of 1848, but their attitudes are indistinguishable. Both employ sceptical observers (Don Fabrizio in The Leopard, a priest in the story ‘Forty-Eight’ from Sicilian Uncles) whose judgments are not only almost interchangeable but also represent the real views of their authors. For Lampedusa’s prince, the 1860 revolution ‘would be play-acting; a noisy, romantic play with a few spots of blood on the comic costumes’. And for Sciascia’s priest, 1848 ‘was a way of changing the organist without changing the instrument or the music, and the poor were still there pumping away at the bellows’.

This habit of changing appearances without altering the substance recurs in other stories by Sciascia. In both ‘Antimony’, a very fine story, and Candido, characters are able to make the transition from Fascism to Christian Democracy and even to the Communist Party without any difficulty. These endless superficial changes and constant re-labelling of the same object lead inevitably to falsification of the truth and especially to a falsification of history. ‘Nowhere has truth so short a life as in Sicily,’ wrote Lampedusa, a remark that might have served as an epigraph for Sciascia’s historical novel The Council of Egypt. In this book a corrupt priest who writes an imaginary history gets away with the fraud while an enlightened reformer with rationalist ideals is tortured and killed. Historical truth thus has little chance in an island whose inhabitants are more attracted by a false idea of the past than by a rational view of the future. Sicily is then irredeemable because its aspiring redeemers are always beaten. The Leopard, like some of Sciascia’s books, contains a character from the north who, taking up the burden of reforming Sicily, encounters hate and blame – and also derision. Lampedusa’s cardinal – ‘Like everyone who in those days wanted to change anything in the Sicilian character he soon acquired the reputation of being a fool’ – is matched by several of Sciascia’s figures: the police officer Bellodi in The Day of the Owl who is laughed at because he thinks the Mafia exists; Candido who shows how idealism in Sicily is mistrusted, misconstrued and defeated; Car-acciolo, the great Neapolitan viceroy in The Council of Egypt, who after years of wasted effort left the island with the words: ‘How can any man be a Sicilian?’ No wonder that Sciascia once said that all his ‘works together form one: a Sicilian book which probes the wounds of past and present and develops as the history of the continuous defeat of reason and of those who have been personally overcome and annihilated in that defeat’.

Both writers are almost morbidly fascinated by the irrational behaviour of Sicilians and describe it in similar language. Sciascia’s description of Sicily as ‘a desert where the sands of an irrational tradition bury the trail of any forward-moving spirit’ might have been written by Lampedusa. In The Mystery of Majorana Sciascia illustrated this view by examining the Sicilian attitude to science. For over two thousand years, he concluded, Sicily had not produced a single scientist: it was a place ‘where the absence, if not the rejection of science had become a form of existence’. He then modified this view by admitting that the island had thrown up one or two scientists, though they were not altogether impressive. One ‘endeavoured throughout his life to disprove the theory of relativity without ever succeeding, and honourably admitting defeat, which didn’t stop him from stubbornly continuing to oppose it. An attitude which seems to me typically Sicilian.’ Yet Sciascia’s essay, in a related sense, is also ‘typically Sicilian’. It argues that Majorana, on the verge of making the scientific breakthrough that would lead to atomic weapons, was so horrified by the ethical implications that he faked suicide and disappeared. It is an attractive theory, but there seems to be little evidence for it. Sciascia’s intuition, his ‘feeling’ for the truth, appears insubstantial when opposed by the testimony of a scientist who was a close friend of Majorana.

One of the most striking things about Sciascia’s books is the almost total absence of women. In Lampedusa’s short stories the only important female character is a siren, and in The Leopard the women are less important and less interesting – except for Concetta – than the men. Perhaps these omissions reflect that lack of a positive feminine influence which both writers recognised as a deficiency in Sicilian life. Certainly they recognised its concomitants, a vainglorious boasting about sexual achievement and an obsession with masculine ‘honour’. Lampedusa was dismissive of Sicilian sexual pretensions and believed they masked an inhibited sex life; Sciascia thought this sexual mania was the product of insecurity and claimed that for Sicilians sex is a duty to be completed as quickly and as often as possible. He once quoted the results of a survey conducted by the University of Heidelberg which revealed that German women married to Sicilians received no sexual satisfaction at all – although this was not noticed by their husbands. Lampedusa saw the connection between sex and death – ‘our sensuality is a hankering for oblivion’ – and for Sciascia they are the dominant preoccupations of the Sicilian mind.

Violent death is a persistent feature of Sciascia’s work, particularly his ‘Mafia’ or ‘detective’ novels. To begin with, he gave these books a Sicilian location but later (as in Equal Danger and One Way or Another) withheld nearly all topographical references as if to illustrate the point made by a character in The Day of the Owl: ‘Maybe the whole of Italy is becoming a sort of Sicily ... Scientists say that the palm tree line, that is the climate suitable to the growth of the palm, is moving north ... It’s rising like mercury in a thermometer, this palm tree line, this strong coffee line, this scandal line, rising up throughout Italy’ and has ‘already passed Rome’. Sciascia has always been a courageous opponent of the Mafia and has ridiculed those Sicilians who pretend it does not exist. Yet instead of recounting the crimes of various gangs in Palermo, his books deal with the vast network of corruption that reaches as far as the cabinet in Rome. The ‘detective’ novels are not stories of someone like Maigret or Sherlock Holmes solving complicated crimes: they are tales of helpless police inspectors unable to solve anything because the criminals are protected.

Sciascia is a formidable exposer of hypocrisy. Blunt, moralistic, refusing to compromise or to conform, he attacks a wide range of targets: the Church, the Police, the Christian Democrats, the Communist Party (even though he used to be a councillor in its group in Palermo). He likes to think of himself as ‘a man of letters’ rather than an intellectual, but in fact he is a very ‘committed’ intellectual, a polemicist, who feels bound to comment on any issue he feels strongly about: the poor restoration in Palermo, the slowness of the aid to the victims of the Belice earthquake, the folly of building motorways which no one in Sicily uses, the silence of the pro-Garibaldi historians on the repression in Bronte, the mayor of Palermo who proclaims his opposition to the Mafia but does nothing for his city.

Once he recited Lampedusa’s chronicle of failed attempts to reform Sicily and said: ‘reforms here generally come to nothing, so I don’t see how Sicily can expect a radiant future.’ Like Lampedusa, perhaps like most Sicilians who actually live there, he loves Sicily as much as he hates it, and this adds more bitterness to his pessimism. Referring to the Sicilian dialect, he once asked despairingly: ‘How can one not be a pessimist in a country where the future tense does not exist?’

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