Sicilian author Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957) is most famous for his only novel The Leopard, published posthumously. I have an unread copy of The Leopard on the shelf–bought primarily thanks to the film version from director Luchini Visconti.
The Professor and the Siren, a slim volume of 69 pages from New York Review of Books, contains three stories: Joy and the Law, a short morality tale concerning an impoverished accountant, married with three children and saddled with debt, who receives a 15lb panettone at Christmas for being the most “deserving man” at work. The story reminded me of the wisdom of Alfred Doolittle from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion–a large gift of charity (10 pounds in the case of Alfred Doolittle) makes a man “prudent, like; and then goodbye to happiness.” Alfred Doolittle understands that with a smaller gift of 5 pounds he can spend every penny with a clear conscience, but 10 pounds brings responsibilities. In the case of di Lampedusa’s accountant, he would have been better off if he hadn’t been selected as the recipient of the huge panettone.
The third story, Three Blind Kittens, was originally intended to be the first chapter in a ‘follow-up’ to The Leopard. This story concerns the Ibba family, and the current head of the family, Don Batassano has just bought another piece of property from the Prince of Salina (the Salina family is the focus of The Leopard & the lawyer brokering the deal is the son of the man who worked for “Old Prince Fabrizio“). Don Batassano has a map with all the Ibba family land coloured in yellow, and he looks forward eagerly to his latest acquisition increasing those yellow bits. Batassano is an unpleasant man, careless of a peasant child and brutal to his own horse. Gradually we learn just how the Ibba family expanded their properties in unpleasant ways:
an epic tale of cunning, of lack of scruples, of defiance of laws, of implacability and also luck, daring as well.
Don Batassano’s father was illiterate but “seduced the deaf-mute daughter of a local bourgeois, a minor landowner only slightly poorer than he was, and with the dowry obtained by means of the extorted marriage had doubled his own assests.” Thanks to loan-sharking, stealing, land-grabbing, and even murder the Ibba family fortunes rose. The entrance of Garibaldi into the political scene sealed the triumph of the Ibba family.
We see the unpleasant Ibba family at home, at dinner, with grossly obese Lady Laura in full bloom, an impressive figure “of lard alluringly fresh and firm.” Local noblemen from the oldest families, including the current Prince of Salina gather and bemoan the rise of the vulgar Ibba family, speculating as to the legendary (and exaggerated) vastness of the Ibba family fortune:
The castle of lies was extremely fragile, but so beautiful–made up of women’s thighs, obscene acts without names, great painters, and one 1,000 lire bills–that no one wanted to blow on it and make it fall.
The gem here is the title story, The Professor and the Siren, a story that blends myth with a love story. In this tale, set in 1938, a young man who finds himself unexpectedly womanless due to his own carelessness meets an idiosyncratic elderly professor at a corner café.
It was a sort of Hades filled with the wan shades of lieutenant colonels, magistrates, and retired professors. These vain apparitions played checkers or dominoes, submerged in a light that was dimmed during the day by the clouds and the arcade outside, during the evenings by the enormous green shades on the chandeliers. They never raised their voices, afraid that any immoderate sound might upset the fragile fabric of their presence. It was, in short, a most satisfactory Limbo.
It’s in this café that our narrator, Paolo Corbera di Salina, “the sole surviving specimen” of the once noble family meets the elderly professor, a difficult man who initially keeps his distance, and treats Paolo badly. Over time, the two men develop a relationship of sorts, and the crusty professor expounds at length on his various pessimistic theories, but on the subject of women, the professor’s beliefs are even bleaker:
In, fifty, sixty years, perhaps much sooner, they will all die; so they are already diseased. And wretched as well. Some elegance they’ve got, composed of trinkets, stolen sweaters, and sweet talk picked up at the movies. Some generosity too, fishing for greasy banknotes in their lover’s pockets rather than presenting him, as others do, with pink pearls and branches of coral. This is what happens when one goes in for those little monstrosities with painted faces. And were you all not disgusted–they as much as you, you as much as they–to kiss and cuddle your future carcasses between evil-smelling sheets?
A strange statement, but then again, this is an elderly confirmed bachelor offering advice on the subject of women to a man 50 years younger. Underneath the professor’s advice, however, is a strange love story which took place in 1887 … .
It’s in The Professor and the Siren that the author’s talent seems to break loose–Joy and the Law is a pleasant little tale, Three Blind Kittens is a wonderful glimpse of shifting class structure in Italy, along with the resentments and unexpressed envy of the aristocrats who are unable to stop the decimation of their own historic privileges, but The Professor and the Siren is exquisite. It’s beautifully written, and di Lampedusa seems to be at once deeply in love with his subject, but also unleashed by his rich, vivid descriptions in a tale in which the author’s use of luscious language is matched by its exotic subject. Under the story’s sensual mystery of myth and passion, the story asks the question: is it better to have experienced a moment of such intensity that the rest of one’s life pales in comparison, or is it better never to have known ecstasy then measured against a lifetime of mediocrity? The answer … well that’s up to you.
Translated by Stephen Twilley.
Review copy/own a copy.