Villa Lampedusa

Marina Warner

  • The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe di Lampedusa by David Gilmour
    Quartet, 223 pp, £15.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 7043 2564 0

In The Leopard, the prince embraces Angelica at the moment of her engagement to his nephew Tancredi, ‘and he felt as if by those kisses he were taking possession of Sicily once more, of the lovely faithless land which now ... had surrendered to him again, as always to his family, its carnal delights and golden crops.’ Though the prince’s personal powers are never in question in the novel, his creator is mindful, at the moment of that embrace, of his hero as the representative of family and its ancient rights of possession. Lampedusa was not stirred by people as much as by things, by what Sicilian peasants in the stories of his compatriots, Verga and Pirandello, called la roba, a word encompassing everything a man was worth, from the land itself to the least stick and stone on it. For Lampedusa, the monkeys on a painted wall, the sachet of sweet-smelling bran releasing its fragrance into the bath, a set of English razors, or ‘the stony hills and fields of mown corn, yellow as the manes of lions’ were indeed good. From such material detail, rather than any incidents of moment, from the conflict between dispossession and prestige, rather than new loves or old, the character of The Leopard’s originator emerges in David Gilmour’s entertaining and astute biography. There is at times, but only at times, an excess of reserve – caught from his subject’s own fastidiousness?

In the brief, lyrical memoir Lampedusa wrote in 1955, he invoked with unequivocal passion the palazzo in Palermo where he was born – its ballroom, balconies, stables and walls of coloured silk. Like Angelica, the Casa Lampedusa embodied for the writer an earthly paradise that had once been ‘at his disposal’: ‘I loved her with utter abandon, and still love her now ... it will be very painful for me to evoke my dead Beloved ... I was her absolute master ...’ During the heavy Allied bombing of the South of Italy, the quarter of Palermo in which the palace stood was repeatedly hit; Lampedusa was living with cousins to the east, avoiding the air raids. In April, he returned to the city and found the ‘terrible spectacle’ of his Beloved ‘literally razed to the ground’. He gathered up a few things; for three days he did not speak. Later the same year, another bomb flattened the house he had rented on the coast, destroying the possessions he had salvaged. The Villa Lampedusa, the country house near Palermo that was the model for the Villa Salina in the novel, survived the war, briefly became a fashionable nightclub, but is now derelict; his mother’s family palace, at Santa Margherita di Belice – the Donnafugata of the book – was sold in 1925 by her brother, the Socialist deputy Alessandro Tasca to pay his debts. In 1968, the earthquake laid that house in ruins.

David Gilmour has found, however, that Lampedusa exaggerated his losses. He describes how he was able to squeeze at dawn through a gap in the hoardings round the ruined palace, and wander, discovering Lampedusa’s mother’s boudoir just as the author had described it, overlooking the Oratory of Santa Zita. He entered the library: torn pages of favourite authors and wormy index cards from the author’s catalogue lay scattered. Though the palace had been pillaged, letters, diaries and family photographs were still strewn among the debris. This surprising cache, as well as the memories of friends, provided David Gilmour with rich new material for his biography, even though some of the correspondence was ‘banal’ and the snapshots not of people but of things. Lampedusa ended The Leopard with a priest burning the relics hoarded by the Prince’s pious sisters: it’s appropriate that a man who saw himself with proud bitterness as a relic of a lost order, and could find no will to adapt to the new, should himself be retrieved from scraps he could not be bothered to sift, or save, or even burn. Like the prince he created, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa lived ‘watching the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance, without ever making, still less wanting to make, any move towards saving it’.

The Tomasi family arrived in Sicily in the 16th century; they produced a flagellant Duke, much revered, though the official canonisation only took place two years ago, and a mystical nun – Isabella, or Sister Maria Crocifissa. (The rock the devil threw at her was miraculously halted by Catherine of Siena and can be seen in the cathedral of the family’s feudal seat at Palma di Montechiaro.) In the 18th century, a prince of Lampedusa spent so much money on fireworks to celebrate delivery from the plague that the German widow of one of his heirs decided to sell the island of Lampedusa to the English. Rather than suffer such a disaster, the King of the Two Sicilies bought the useless rock for an inflated sum and restored the family fortunes, temporarily. Don Giulio, born in 1815, inspired the figure of the Leopard, though Gilmour discloses sadly that he did not discover two new stars, as the novel claims. He supported the deposition of the Bourbons in 1848, and had to apologise to King Ferdinand when they returned to power the following year. This was a mistake, or an accommodation, of the kind that Lampedusa scorns as the predicament of Sicily, ‘a country of arrangements’, where, in Tancredi’s celebrated phrase, ‘if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ In other ways, this forebear knew his mind: he would alter the date of Easter to suit his travel plans for the household.

When Don Giulio died intestate in 1885, the decline of the Lampedusa set in. Giuseppe, his great-grandson, was still coping with suits and countersuits eighty years later. His own father made up for penury in snobbishness, and threw his uncles out of the second floor apartments in the Casa Lampedusa when in his view they married beneath them; in consequence of these quarrels, his father’s family influenced their only son less than his mother’s, the Filangeri di Cuto, a family who had come to Sicily with the Angevins, and fought in the Crusades. Beatrice, known as Bice, and her four sisters, were educated in a cosmopolitan manner unusual in Southern Italy. Their custom of removing to their lands at Santa Margherita for the summer, like the Leopard in the novel, was more Russian, or even English, than typically Sicilian, and perhaps arose when Beatrice’s grandfather was placed in internal exile by the King: he had taken local mating rituals too far and appeared stark naked in his carriage during the evening passeggiata in Palermo. Lampedusa’s mother was a close friend – perhaps the mistress – of Ignazio Florio, a member of one of the few prospering families on the island, and he may have helped her through lean times. She was an inestimable influence on her son, as David Gilmour makes plain. Giuseppe was born the year her first child, Stefania, died; when Giuseppe joined the infantry in the First World War, she wrote with extravagant protectiveness; afterwards they travelled through Europe together for months at a time. She was clinging because she had first-hand experience of loss: one of her sisters had died under the rubble in the earthquake of 1908 in Messina, and another, Giulia Trigona, was stabbed to death by her lover when she tried to break with him in a hotel in Rome. He then shot himself in the head, but botched it.

When Giuseppe finally decided to marry, at the age of 35, he fired off letter after letter to his mother in tones of extreme agitation. His forebodings were justified: Licy Wolff, née Barbi, with a good mezzo-soprano voice, and formerly married to a Baltic baron, did not take kindly to leaving her Latvian estates for two rooms in her mother-in-law’s house, as Giuseppe tried to persuade her to do. As a practising Freudian, and a member of the Italian Society of Psychoanalysts, she must have felt her husband’s attachment to his mother with special keenness. The couple did not settle down together until the Latvian estate had been sequestrated by the Russians in the Second World War and Beatrice was dead.

The two women do not sound dissimilar – which is to be expected. They were both wilful, impatient, clever and physically imposing, with a strong grasp of the world beyond Sicily; neither of them resemble the giddy, devout or ‘carnal’ women in the novel. Giuseppe met Licy in the Italian Embassy in London, where his uncle – her stepfather – was ambassador, and they walked together to Whitechapel, talking about Shakespeare. His mother had taught him French, and introduced him to Paris; French was the language he used with his wife. Licy also continued what Bice had begun, the adventure of world literature, and their most harmonious times, she recalled after his death, were spent reading to each other from the classics. She taught Giuseppe Russian; they both read in English, French and German; he also learnt Spanish.

David Gilmour does not explore Licy’s own writings and case-studies. At one point in The Leopard, the prince reflects on the ‘turbid and laughing vortex’ into which Tancredi’s and Angelica’s desire was drawing all around them, ‘as psychiatrists become infected and succumb to the frenzies of their patients.’ Licy’s sessions of analysis could last four or five hours – it would have been fascinating to hear about the frenzies to which she may have succumbed. Though the work of Lampedusa, with its historical perspective and pragmatic ironies, does not on the whole invite psychoanalytic treatment, the one love story he wrote, Lighea, a Hellenistic romance about a professor and a mermaid, could have been read in the light of his wife’s profession. The story begins: ‘I had a bad fit of the spleen.’ Spleen is the key to the temperament Gilmour conveys. Like Baudelaire, Lampedusa was prey to both spleen and l’Idéal: when he was touched by beauty, he wanted to push away the pleasure of it – a surrender would acknowledge its power and entail a diminution of mastery. Describing ‘the sorcery of illumination and colour’ in his childhood home, he writes that if he rediscovered it elsewhere ‘it would wrench at my heart were I not ready to brush it aside with some “wicked joke”.’ The last phrase was in English; his profound respect for English literature focused on the acerbity of writers like Swift and Johnson. His favourite dog was called Crab, after Launce’s in Two Gentlemen of Verona – ‘the sourest-natured dog that lives’. Lampedusa, habitually silent, seems, however, closer to the Jaques style of clown. He was capable of shafts of dry, very dry humour. Once, when the film Moulin Rouge was playing, he was asked by the company in a café if Toulouse-Lautrec was a real character. He said he would look into it. The next day he informed his companions that he had hunted through all the pertinent volumes in his library and there was no trace of such a person.

In the Fifties, Lampedusa began to give lessons in English literature in the café to a small band of young admirers; this course was followed by another in French poetry; yet more was planned. The thousand pages of notes have provided Gilmour with many absorbing and original insights. Lampedusa was a writer who served a very long apprenticeship, who could definitely say with Mallarmé: La chair est triste, hélas, et j’ai lu tous les livres. His written Italian has, Gilmour says, a formality reminiscent of Conrad’s English. He was a pioneer voice, too, in pleading for the usefulness of bad books: as a historian (he had 1100 volumes of history alone), he knew the importance of understanding popular taste. He prided himself on reading the unreadable: his course notes show his grasp of thrillers, fantasy, nonsense, erotica. He was able to make inspired connections, noting, for instance, how the Vienna of Measure for Measure anticipated the city of The Third Man.

Other aspects of Englishness appealed to his inherited snobbery: he liked phrases like ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘fair play’, the cult of the ‘good sport’, and praised the public school ethic. But he was too subtle to lapse into mindless Anglophile snobbishness, and his views remained unpredictable: he preferred Cromwell to Charles II. The English have repaid his admiration, finding in his vision of a prince a flattering portrait of lost feudal privilege that could not be as openly displayed on this side of the Channel. In politics, spleen ruled Lampedusa even more sharply than in personal relations: he rarely gave his allegiance, scorning the liberals and the monarchists as well as the Fascists, though he did approve of Mussolini’s support of Franco. Enthusiasm of any sort set him on edge. He fretted against his own country’s passion for opera, and declared that he wished Wordsworth had died a martyr rather than André Chénier, because with his unpronounceable name, he would not have become a hero to the composer Giordano.

But disaffection warred in him with a lyric sense. His favourite writers were Shakespeare and Keats, whom he placed among the grossi – the fat writers – as opposed to the magri or supermagri – the lean masters of implicit narrative, like Jane Austen and Stendhal. Gilmour points out that when he was writing The Leopard, in the last two years of his life, he was disappointed to find himself a grosso. Indeed, the vigour of the novel’s characters is reflected in the prose, and can be matched only with difficulty to the taciturn, splenetic individual whom Gilmour paints here, the portly, sallow figure who, briefcase bulging with books and pastries, went in solitude every day to a modern café under the only skyscraper in his dilapidated quarter of Palermo.

In 1954, Lampedusa’s cousin, Lucio Piccolo, was invited to San Pellegrino by Eugenio Montale, the poet and Italy’s most influential critic, and received a prize for his volume of poems, Canti Barocchi. For years, Lampedusa had spent several days a month with Lucio and his equally singular brothers in their arcadian house at Capo d’Orlando, feasting on their mother’s food, telling ghost stories, competing in quotation jousts like an oral Nemo’s Almanac. None of them had felt the need to turn their faces to the world. Lucio’s sudden recognition stirred Lampedusa from the torpor that had immobilised him for over forty years. He began to write. First the memoir, Places of My Infancy, then The Leopard. He composed in episodes, so that, later, new chapters were found and inserted into the novel. At the same time, echoing the relations of Don Fabrizio and Tancredi, the childless prince formally adopted as heir to his many titles a young aristocrat, Gioacchino Lanza.

The novel was submitted to two publishers and rejected. Lampedusa was 60 years old and had lung cancer; he did not live to see the acceptance of his book and its astonishing success. Licy signed a disadvantageous contract with Feltrinelli, and so The Leopard did not restore the fortunes of the Lampedusa.