Gentlemen’s Gentlemen

David Gilmour

Novels dealing with childhood memory are frequently said to be ‘Proustian’. Those describing the decline of an aristocracy are likely to be labelled ‘Lampedusian’. The people responsible for these ugly, usually unsuitable adjectives are sometimes reviewers but more often the culprits are publishers. A successful novel from last year was described on the cover as reminiscent of Lampedusa, chiefly because it took place in a part of Southern Italy (as it happens, the wrong part).

Two works which have suffered from – or been glorified by – associations with Proust and Lampedusa have recently been published in Britain. One is Andrea Giovene’s massive quintet Sansevero, published here in two volumes. The other is Llorenc Villalonga’s Bearn o la sala de las muñecas, translated as The Dolls’ Room.[*] Giovene is plainly happy with the associations because they are stressed prominently on the covers of his books. This has probably been an error. The announcement on an earlier edition – ‘Comparison has been most commonly made with Proust and Lampedusa’ – caused an unsympathetic reviewer in the TLS to speculate that ‘Proust and Lampedusa must be turning in their graves, laughing their heads off at the comparison.’ Villalonga, by contrast, who died in 1980, denied that his work was ‘Lampedusian’, and his Spanish publisher makes no such claim on his behalf. Nevertheless in Spain he is regularly dubbed ‘the Spanish Lampedusa’ and I have even heard Bearn dismissed as a plagiarism of The Leopard – which is impossible for various reasons but chiefly because it was written first.

Giovene comes from an ancient Neapolitan family, and his novel traces the life of a Neapolitan aristocrat Sansevero (presumably a largely autobiographical figure) in the 20th century. Beginning appropriately at the ‘Family Tree’, an enormous painting in one of the palace drawing-rooms, we follow him through childhood and school to Ferrara, Rome, Paris and London. On the way there are spells in the Army, an idyll on a southern coast, some interesting experiences in Germany during the Second World War. But it is a long journey and, after 1050 pages, one may be left wishing it had been slightly shorter. Giovene seems to have put everything in, banal incidents as well as interesting ones, boring people along with some good characters, and he does it all in a style which is often elegant but never humorous. At times I had the feeling, prompted perhaps by that unfortunate blurb, that Giovene must have reasoned to himself: ‘If Proust can have longueurs, why shouldn’t I?’ But it doesn’t work. There is simply too much of the narrator meditating on his future, worrying about the hand of fate or trying to ‘orchestrate’ his existence. The reader begins to lose interest in his hallmarks of destiny.

Yet the novel does have charm and there are some beautiful passages, particularly the elegiac descriptions of Licudi, the primitive coastal village which is shortly to be ruined by Progress. Sansevero rejects much of his aristocratic upbringing and decides to live with these Southern peasants. But he remains a nobleman and it is in his attitudes to class that he does indeed have something in common with Lampedusa. His opinion of the Southern middle classes after Italian unification is vengefully hostile. To Lampedusa’s protagonist the men who took over the great estates after 1860 were characterised by ‘tenacious greed and avarice’; to Giovene’s narrator, these ‘small usurpers’ were ‘as greedy as they were narrow-minded’. And with both men contempt for the class below is combined with a sceptical and dismissive view of their own. ‘Under the Terror,’ Sansevero is told, ‘you’d have been with the nobility, but only at the guillotine.’

Much of this scepticism is shared by Villalonga and his protagonist in Bearn, Don Toni, known as the Senyor. Villalonga, who was heavily influenced by Proust though he never claimed to resemble him, pointed out that Lampedusa’s Don Fabrizio is a great feudal lord whereas the Senyor is merely a poor Majorcan squire. Besides, while The Leopard records the disappearance of an entire society, Bearn only describes the disappearance of the Senyor. Yet though the scale is different, there are similarities in attitude and approach between the two authors and between their protagonists. Born within a few months of each other at the end of the 19th century, Lampedusa and Villalonga were landless and impoverished noblemen. Both led frugal lives in the middle of their home cities, Palermo and Palma, spending much of the day in their local cafés. Lampedusa loved dogs, Villalonga loved cats. Both men were conservative and held ambiguous views on the Fascist and Falangist movements. Both settled down to write their masterpieces in their late fifties and both had problems with publishers; Lampedusa’s book appeared after his death whereas Villalonga had to pay for the publication of Bearn (which he had written in Majorcan Catalan and then translated himself into Castilian). I don’t know how close the Senyor’s tastes were to his creator’s but they are astonishingly close to Lampedusa’s. The Senyor’s view of Italian literature as emptier ‘than a snailshell and more rhetorical than a nun’s bouquet’ could have been written by Lampedusa; so could his dismissal of Victor Hugo as a ‘real charlatan’.

Like Don Fabrizio’s, the Senyor’s life oscillates between moments of sensuality and periods of austere contemplation. Like Don Fabrizio, he is a rationalist who knows that his class has no future. Convinced that the nobility would have no proper role in the 20th century, he is thus unable to regret its disappearance. The Senyor is ambivalent about his own class. Lineages are not important, he thinks – ‘there’s nothing more adulterated than lineages’ – but at the same time he scoffs at parvenus and tells the story of a Napoleonic duke who goes off to the painter ‘to order a few ancestors’. Money – and he doesn’t have much of it – is to be spent rather than acquired, and certainly not to be counted: he was ‘concerned about so many spiritual matters that on their account he had neglected the administration of the estate to the point of losing his entire fortune’. This is familiar territory, shared by both Lampedusa and Giovene. Don Fabrizio belonged to ‘a family which for centuries had been incapable even of adding up their own expenditure and subtracting their own debts’, while the Sansevero patrimony, which it had ‘taken the previous seven to accumulate’, was ‘dispersed in a couple of centuries’.

The Leopard, Bearn and Sansevero are very different novels but all three, written by members of an almost extinct nobility, share a similar approach to the decline of their class. It is a very different attitude from that of middle-class novelists looking at the same process from another angle. None of these writers is concerned with the trappings of the nobility, the size of tiara, the number of footmen, the accumulation of titles. They are interested in the role of aristocracies – when they had a role – in the duties and privileges their class possessed under the Ancien Régime. All belonged to a nobility accustomed for centuries to serve the state, and once this service was no longer required, they adopted an ironic and fatalistic attitude to their future. There was no point fighting against History: better to decline with dignity. Don Fabrizio watched ‘the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance without ever making, still less wanting to make, any move towards saving it’.

Novelists writing about nobilities from the outside naturally do not have these attitudes. They may have admiration or contempt or both, but not scepticism or indifference. Usually they are fascinated by names, titles, great social occasions, places open only to the privileged, anecdotes about the duke of this or that. Their literature is full of aristocratic paradises which their narrators long to enter: Brideshead, the Faubourg St Germain, the garden of the Finzi Continis, the Lost Domain. A lot of effort is expended trying to get a foot in the door. One of Proust’s friends lamented that he seemed ‘far more anxious to find a way into certain drawing-rooms of the nobility than to devote himself to literature’. Evelyn Waugh, who admitted that he hunted for ‘social reasons’, admired the aristocracy until he got close enough to realise it contained many tedious and ridiculous people. Proust was similarly disillusioned. It was not until the Dreyfus affair that he abandoned his pilgrimage along the Guermantes Way, not until the second half of his work that he admitted a great noble might be just a boring relative or tiresome acquaintance of those who knew him.

Lampedusa and Giovene had no illusions about the character or capability of their own class. But for those who set the Flytes and the Guermantes on pedestals and then grasped the true nature of their idols, there was no alternative but to knock them off. Brideshead Revisited is criticised as an intensely snobbish book, but it contains little aristo-worship and several upper-class characters are repellent: Mulcaster, his ghastly sister, Brideshead himself. The Guermantes circle is treated in similar fashion. Even the noble youths, Sebastian Flyte and Robert de Saint-Loup, who are supposed to initiate the middle-class narrators into the secrets of aristocratic aestheticism, are irredeemably flawed.

That kind of snobbery which Desmond MacCarthy called ‘foolishly looking-up’ is a fairly minor fault common to many historians and novelists who write about nobilities: it is the snobbery of ‘looking-down’, which may have been a sin of Waugh though not of Proust, that is not minor. Anyone who writes about the great names of the past with a feeling for their resonance is almost bound to show some interest in their descendants. It was entirely natural for Proust to wish to meet the La Rochefoucaulds because they were symbols of the greatness of old France. But because great men very seldom transmit greatness to their heirs, such meetings almost invariably end in disillusion. How many descendants of our own national glory turn out to be loud-voiced clots in the City?

[*] Sansevero, translated by Marguerite Waldman, Bernard Wall and William Riviere, is published by Quartet (2 vols., 636 pp. and 430 pp., £6.95 each, August 1987, 0 7043 0034 6 and 0 7043 0035 4). The Dolls’ Room, translated by Deborah Donner, is published by Deutsch (352 pp., £11.95, April 1988, 0 233 98198 5).