Melissa Broder was famous before you even knew who she was. In 2012, she launched the anonymous Twitter account @sosadtoday. Armed with a wry sense of sarcasm, Broder wrote poignant and irreverent words of wisdom 140 characters at a time. Now with over 600,000 followers, Broder came out publicly as the voice behind the account in 2015 around the time she started writing her collection go personal essays So Sad Today.
Her collection, which explored her depression, anxiety, and personal life, was heralded for being an honest look that broke the stigmas of mental health. In addition to that book of essays, she is an accomplished poet with multiple collections out including Last Sext. Even with all of the bylines, however, she never imagined writing a book. Especially one about having sex with a merman.
I spoke with The Pisces author over the phone prior to the release of the book as anticipation swirled for her debut about her desire to control the narrative of her depression and writing about merman anatomy.
The Millions (TM): A lot of people know you as @sosadtoday on Twitter. So I want to start by asking how do you pitch this book to readers in a tweet-length?
Melissa Broder (MB): On the narrative level: It’s about a book about a woman who moves to Venice Beach and begins a romantic obsession with a merman whose tail starts below the D.
On the thematic level: It’s about the attempts to fill one’s existential hole with the narcotic of limerence, lust, and love.
TM: And speaking of Twitter, you started the account anonymously and now you’re public with your identity. I think you’ve been public just as long at this point as you were anonymous.
MB: Yeah, I think so. It’s about equal. I was anonymous from 2012 to mid-2015. Then I’ve been out from then until now.
TM: How has your life and how people approach you shifted in the past three years?
MB: I just had a great conversation with someone about this. It was an article I wrote for Vice with the twitter account Depressed While Black. We talked about the idea of people’s expectations about how depression presents itself in life. People expect me to appear as Wednesday Addams and are probably disappointed that I’m a very smiley person.
There are expectations of how depression should look and feel. People also assume So Sad Today is a persona. It’s not a persona. It’s a part of myself that I felt was not fit for public consumption. I think some of that has to do with perfectionism and fear of really being seen. Some of it may have to do with being a woman. But for many, many reasons I felt I could not share these feelings of depression and anxiety. Especially anxiety. It can feel very lonely.
If you’re at a dinner with people and you have a panic attack, you feel so alone. A lot of people don’t even know that I am having a panic attack. They just see the smiling. So, So Sad Today isn’t a persona, but it isn’t all of me. It’s a part of me I felt I couldn’t share with the world.
I still fear about having a panic attack in front of a person. Or what if depression renders me imperfect in some way. You think I’d cut myself some slack because people know about the Twitter account, but I have not yet given myself that permission.
TM: Is that permission a reason you return to these themes and topics so much?
MB: Yeah. The thing with depression and anxiety is that it has been very cyclical in my life. I feel like every time it happens that I’m never going to get out. Each relapse of depression feels like it is going to be the one that takes me out, but then I end up on the other side. Writing about it is that one place that gives me the illusion of control over depression. It is the control over the narrative though. It lends itself some meaning to the experience because I can alchemize this feeling and experience that may resonate with other people.
That’s why I started the account at first. I was in a very bad place even though I was in therapy, on my meds, and doing all of the stuff I was supposed to be doing. It’s like any other chronic illness. You can be doing everything “right” like getting your sleep, taking your meds, and never missing therapy, but sometimes you just get sick.
TM: After the years of running a popular Twitter, releasing books of poetry, and an essay collection, was this always what you imagined your first full-length piece of fiction would be like?
MB: I never thought there would be a full-length piece of fiction. I never even thought there would be essays. I thought I was going to be a poet forever. I still am a poet, but what happened was that I used to write my poetry on the subway in New York City. Then when I moved to Los Angeles I started dictating in the car and all of the line breaks started disappearing. It became more conversational and that’s how the essays were born.
After the essays came out and my last book of poetry, Last Sext, came out, I had this desire to annihilate oneself in love or the addictive qualities of love. I was writing poems and felt I was writing the same poems I’ve written before. At one point, I was on the beach and reading this book called The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa who also wrote The Leopard. I was never a mermaid fan. I would have selected Pegasus to hang out with.
As I was reading that book about the professor in love with a mermaid, I realized how much darkness there was. I thought about what if it was a merman and a woman. I didn’t think I could write a novel, so I approached it the same way as So Sad Today and I dictated. It was three paragraphs a day and within nine months I had the whole first draft.
TM: The idea of the merman was really what kicked the book off then? It wasn’t Lucy in an existential crisis and the merman came later?
MB: Yes, but Lucy was born right aside Theo. He existed in relation to Lucy’s need for that stimulation. It was why Lucy could see Theo. I was consumed by these themes that Lucy embodies. My first concern was to get this stuff out of me. Then I encountered the siren and human relationship.
TM: What was it like writing Theo the merman?
MB: I was never a mermaid girl. I was always a horse girl, so Pegasus all the way. If I were going to have a sexual relationship, it wouldn’t be with Pegasus. I would be more inclined to have a sexual relationship with Apollo because he is a twink who would ignore me. Maybe Cerberus the Dog of War. Maybe the Kraken like in the painting “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife.” Who wouldn’t want that? I’ve also been attracted to Ursula the Sea Witch. She’s my sexual ideal. I’d rather fuck Ursula than Ariel.
So when I was creating Theo, I knew there were going to be merman fundamentalists that were going to ask why the tail started below the D and tell me this is how it should be. For me, it was just there were certain things I needed to accomplish. I knew Theo was going to have a dick. I built him as I needed him to be just as any fantasy we build as it needs to be.
When people ask me if Theo is real I say he is as real as anyone we are ever obsessed with. How well do we ever really see anyone we’re obsessed with? Right? Theo fulfilled all of our fantasies.
TM: Okay, so I hate when I ask authors “How autobiographical is this book?” but I am going to ask that. Were you putting yourself in Lucy?
MB: I mean Lucy has a lot of me in her and not a lot of me in her. It was fun writing a character who was a little older than me. The book got optioned by Lionsgate and I am writing the script right now and people would ask me who I would want to play Lucy. To me, Lucy has physically always been this librarian I had in middle school named Mrs. Luccia. Mrs. Luccia would play her in the movie.
There are experiences I had and feelings I had that are very Lucy. We have a lot in common, but at the same time, there are differences.
TM: Your Twitter account is this therapeutic outlet for you to talk about mental health and break stigmas—
MB: It’s also an addiction. Let it be clear: it’s also a dopamine addiction.
TM: What about this book then? What did it do for you mentally?
MB: Similar. Similar. I always need to be writing because just living — and this is probably a fault of mine — living in the moment is not my forte. Sometimes when I am just alive, I forget to live in the moment. I feel like there is nothing is tethering me to the planet. Yet, when I write it makes me feel like — I guess it makes me feel less depressed. It makes me feel like, okay, I can do this. It makes sense why I am here.
TM: It helps with depression even when you’re writing so much about depression?
MB: Yeah. It gives me control of the narrative. Or the illusion of control.
TM: You’re also very funny. While reading this and some of the essays or your work on Vice, I notice you walk a fine line between humor and sincerity. How do you manage that?
MB: I first adopted humor to talk about darker things as a defense mechanism. They say to tell the truth but tell it slant. I think humor was a way to get people off my back. I can control the narrative. It’s about control. It’s like I was feeling like this, but I could still make a joke.
I also believe that when it’s something I have gone through and experienced that there is no proper tone. There’s something very feeling about humor. Stuff doesn’t seem so big or daunting when we can laugh about it. For me, there is no sacred topic that I can’t joke about. It’s my depression and I will talk about it how I want.
I find myself doing similar things. I love making fun of myself when I’m in the hole because then I don’t have to worry about what everyone is saying because I beat them to the punchline and I was funnier than they could be.
It’s like if you have a giant zit at a party. I’m not the one to try and hide it. It will be the first thing I say. I don’t want someone seeing something about me and thinking I am not aware. It’s like let me confess to you all my weaknesses so you don’t see them first. Again, it’s the illusion of control, but I’m doing that for me and not anyone else.
TM: Now that this book is done and you’re addicted to writing, what’s next?
MB: I have written two more novels. My agent has not seen them, but she knows what they are about. One is set in Venice, again. It is about a married couple who move out to Los Angeles in search of healing and the American Dream. They become obsessed with their upstairs neighbor. The working title is The Man Upstairs. The other’s working title is called Milk Fed. It’s about a love affair between two Jewish women. One is a very voluptuous Orthodox Jew who works at her frozen yogurt store. The other is a reformed Jew with an eating disorder.
The Man Upstairs is on its second to last round of edits I would say. With the other, I’m almost done editing my first round. Since I dictate and don’t edit at all, my first round of edits is going back and trying to figure out what the fuck I was trying to say.
As if to mark the new year, or as if preemptively depressed by the brutal lows and snows of the months to come, our thermostat suffered a nervous breakdown in the first weeks of 2015. The new normal was 63 degrees Fahrenheit. I’d wake before dawn, put on long johns, pants, fleece, and hat, and sit down at my desk, between north-facing windows, trying to start something new. The phrase “rough draft” took on a new meaning. As did the phrase “starting cold.” By noon — an interval during which I’d moved only to shower and take the kids to school and re-wrap myself in a horse blanket — my fingers and nose were phantom appendages. Looking back on this now, though, I feel a surge of warmth. Why? Because every afternoon, after a late lunch, I’d fire up the space heater in the living room and sprawl in a patch of sun and return to an imagined Italy.
I’d begun Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels with a rationing plan: one volume for each season of the year, to culminate with the publication of the fourth and final installment in September. But a week after I finished Volume 1, that plan went all to hell. More than Lila and Lenù (heroines, antagonists, entangled particles), I missed the volcanic energy they generated together. Nothing else I tried to read seemed quite as vivid. So I dipped into Volume 2 — just a few pages, I told myself. And then when I reached the end, I didn’t even pretend to wait to begin Volume 3. At various times, in the empty house, I caught myself talking back to the page. “Wake up, Lenù!” “Don’t open that door!” “Oh, no, she didn’t!” Oh, yes, she did.
The only not-fun part of binge-reading the Neapolitan series was running out of pages before the end — which, by mid-February, I had. I felt like Wile E. Coyote, having raced out over a canyon, legs still churning, but with nothing left beneath. Eventually, I found a different kind of escape: Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, a dreamy 19th-century Russian novel where, basically, nothing happens. Rather than distract me from my snowbound state, this novel seemed to mirror it. For the first 100 pages, Oblomov, our hero, can’t even get out of bed. He’s an archetype of inanition, a Slavic Bartleby, but with a gentleness of spirit that’s closer to The Big Lebowski. He falls in love, screws it up, gets rooked by friends and enemies…and hardly has to change his dressing gown.
Sufficiently cooled from Ferrante fever, I moved on to Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, from 1979. I’ve taught (and admired) Hardwick’s essays, but was somehow unprepared for this novel. Fans often mention it in the company of Renata Adler’s Speedboat and Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays, with which it shares a jagged, elliptical construction and a quality of nervy restraint. But where the fragments of Adler and Didion suggest (for me, anyway), a kind of schizoid present-tense, Hardwick’s novel is as swinging and stately as a song by her beloved Billie Holiday, ringing “glittering, somber, and solitary” changes from remembered joy and pain.
As the glaciers beyond my windows melted to something more shovel-ready, I began to fantasize about a piece called “In Praise of Small Things.” At the top of the list, along with the Hardwick, would go Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, the story of a Western railroad worker around the turn of the last century. I’m still a sucker for full, Ferrante-style immersion (favorite Westerns include The Border Trilogy, Lonesome Dove, and A Fistful of Dollars), but to deliver an entire life in a single sitting, as Johnson does, seems closer to magic than to art. Train Dreams is just about perfect, in the way only a short novel can be.
Then again, I also (finally) tackled The Satanic Verses this year, and caught myself thinking that perfection would have marred it. The book is loose, ample, brimful — at times bubbling over with passion. Another way of saying this is that it’s Salman Rushdie’s most generous novel. The language is often amazing. And frankly, that the fatwa now overshadows the work it meant to rub out is a compound injustice; many of the novel’s most nuanced moments, its most real and human moments, involve precisely those issues of belief and politics and belonging Rushdie was accused of caricaturing. Also: the shaving scene made me cry.
Though by that point spring had my blood up. Maybe that’s why I was so ready for Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Or maybe it was the return to Italy. Either way, this turned out to be one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read. As with Hardwick, the mode is elegy, but here all is expansion, sumptuousness, texture: the fading way of life of an endearingly self-regarding 19th-century aristocrat, ambered in slow, rich prose (in Archibald Colquhoun’s translation): “In a corner the gold of an acacia tree introduced a sudden note of gaiety. Every sod seemed to exude a yearning for beauty soon muted by languor.” And by the time I finished, gardens were blooming and buzzing around me, too.
I woke the morning after our Fourth of July party to find that a guest had left a gift: Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, Mary Norris’s memoir of life in the copy department of The New Yorker. We headed to the beach, on the theory that saltwater is an antidote to hangover. But I ended up spending most of the afternoon on a towel, baking, giggling, geeking out over grammar and New Yorker trivia. What kind of magazine keeps a writer this engaging in the copy department? I wondered. On the other hand: what are the odds that a grammarian this scrupulous would be such a freewheeling confidante?
I don’t think of myself as a memoir guy, but (appetite whetted by the Comma Queen), I ran out a few weeks later to buy a brand new copy of William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days — a book I’d been waiting to read since first encountering an excerpt a decade ago. Finnegan is a brilliant reporter, and the core material here — his life of peripatetic adventuring in the 1970s — seems, as material goes, unimprovable. Around it, he builds a narrative that is at once meticulously concrete and wonderfully, elusively metaphorical. Even if you don’t know or care about surfing, the whole thing starts to seem like some kind of parable. Which may be true of most good sports writing…
And speaking of brilliant reporting: in early August, I plucked a copy of David Simon and Ed Burns’s The Corner from the giveaway pile on someone’s stoop. It’s exhaustive — almost 600 pages, and none of the broad strokes, in 2015, should come as news. Yet its account of individual struggle and systemic failure in a poor neighborhood in Baltimore is nonetheless enraging, because so little seems to have changed since the book’s publication in 1997. I found myself wanting to send a copy to every newsroom in the country. Here on the page are causes; there in the paper years later, effects.
It would take a week of vacation and newspaper-avoidance in Maine to remind me of how urgent fiction can be, too — or of the value of the different kind of news it brings. I read A Sport and a Pastime. I read Double Indemnity. I read The House of Mirth. And I fell into — utterly into — Javier Marías’s A Heart So White. This novel has some similarities with The Infatuations, which I wrote about last year; Marías works from a recipe (one part Hitchcock-y suspense, one part Sebaldian fugue, one part sly humor) that sounds, on paper, like a doomed thought experiment. Yet somehow every time I read one of his novels, I feel lit up, viscerally transfixed. And A Heart So White is, I think, a masterpiece.
This October, I published a novel. And I came to suspect that prepub jitters had been shaping both my reading and my writing all year, from those cold dark starts in January to my lean toward nonfiction in the summer. Anyway, some admixture of vacation and publication (the phrase “release date” takes on a whole new meaning) seemed to cleanse the windows of perception, because I spent most of the fall catching up on — and enjoying — recent books I’d missed. Preparation for the Next Life, for example, was love at fist page; if you’d told me Atticus Lish was another of Don DeLillo’s pseudonyms, like Cleo Birdwell, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash. Yet an eccentric and (one feels) highly personal sense of the particular and the universal colors the prose, and Lish doesn’t let sentimentalism scare him away from sentiment. His milieu of hardscrabble immigrants and natives jostling in Flushing, Queens, feels both up-to-the-minute and likely to endure. Someone should Secret-Santa a copy to Donald Trump.
Another contemporary novel I loved this fall was actually more of a novella — another small, good thing. Called Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it’s the first published work of fiction by a young Englishman named Max Porter. It follows a father of two through the year after the death of his wife. The chapters are compressed, poetic vignettes that evoke the chimera of grief through suggestion and indirection. And then, more evocative still: the arrival of a giant, metempsychotic raven straight out of Ted Hughes’s Crow. You quickly forget that the book is weird as hell, because it is also beautiful as hell, moving as hell, and funny as hell.
In late October, I got to spend a week in the U.K., and decided to pack London Fields. A boring choice, I know, but I’d been shuttling from here to there for a few weeks, and needed to be pinned down in some specific, preferably Technicolor, place. London Fields didn’t let me down. The metafictional schema shouldn’t work, but does. And more importantly, a quarter century after its publication (and 15 years on from the pre-millennial tension it depicts), the prose still bristles, jostles, offends freely, shoots off sparks. The picture of the world on offer is bleak, yes. Yet in surprise, in pleasure, in truthfulness, almost every sentence surpasses the last. This book is now my favorite Martin Amis. I wouldn’t trade it for love or Money.
As synchronicity goes, M Train on a plane may not quite match London Fields in London, but Patti Smith’s new book remains one of the best reading experiences I had this year. Like Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it is elliptical and fragmentary, weird and beautiful, and, at its core, a reckoning with loss. Much has been made of the book’s seeming spontaneity, its diaristic drift. But as the echoes among its discrete episodes pile up, it starts to resonate like a poem. At one point, Smith writes about W.G. Sebald, and there are affinities with The Emigrants in the way M Train circles around a tragedy, or constellation of tragedies, pointing rather than naming. It is formally a riskier book than the comparatively straight-ahead Just Kids, but a worthy companion piece. And that Patti Smith is still taking on these big artistic dares in 2015 should inspire anyone who longs to make art. In this way, and because it is partly a book about reading other books — how a life is made of volumes— it seems like a fitting way to turn the page on one year in reading, and to welcome in another.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
In Paolo Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty, a louche writer named Jep Gambardella, spends much of his time strolling through the cobble-stone streets of Rome and soaking up impressions and experience, that will figure, we assume, in a long-delayed follow-up to his first acclaimed novel. He reflects on the ineffable qualities that mark good writing.
“I was destined for sensibility. I was destined to become a writer. I was destined to become Jep Gambardella.”
At another point, while responding to the flattery of a beautiful, young female admirer, who quotes from his book, Jep says the sentiment he was expressing had been better written by the Italian prose master Alberto Moravia.
Born in 1907, Alberto Moravia achieved at 21 critical and commercial success with his first novel, The Time of Indifference, a cause célèbre eschewing middle-class mores. Before his death in 1990, he would publish over 40 novels, including The Conformist (1951), the adaptation of which in 1970 by Bernardo Bertolucci has the unusual distinction of being both a classic of post-war Italian cinema and of early-1970s zeitgeist.
In his recollections to the Paris Review, after Mussolini came to power, he struggled to get his books published (though Mussolini himself approved the 1940 publication of The Dream of the Lazy) and eventually fled for refuge to the Apennine mountains in 1943. He spent the war years trying to get his scandalous novels past Fascist censors:
I sent Agostino to them two months before the fall of Fascism, two months before the end. While all about them everything was toppling, falling to ruin, the Ministry of Popular Culture was doing business as usual. Approval looked not to be forthcoming; so one day I went up there, to Via Veneto — you know the place; they’re still there, incidentally; I know them all — to see what the trouble was. They told me that they were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to give approval to the book. My dossier was lying open on the desk, and when the secretary left the room for a moment I glanced at it. There was a letter from the Brazilian cultural attaché in it, some poet, informing the Minister that in Brazil I was considered a subversive. In Brazil of all places! But that letter, that alone, was enough to prevent the book’s publication.
Moravia himself spent most of the second half of the 20th century strolling along the Via dell’Oca (which means “Street of the Goose”). Anna Maria de Dominicis and Ben Johnson, in the introduction to his Paris Review interview, describe the street as “houses of working-class people: a line of narrow doorways with dark, dank little stairs, cramped windows, a string of tiny shops; the smells of candied fruit, repair shops, wines of the Castelli, engine exhaust” on one side and on the other side “the serene imperiousness of unchipped cornices and balconies overspilling with potted vines, tended creepers: homes of the well-to-do.” His fiction would explore both sides of Italy.
In an introduction to Moravia’s Boredom, William Weaver says, “Moravia was a great friend to walk with: a born Roman, he knew every brick of the city; even the most drab apartment block or the scruffiest little church could set a sparkling train of associations and memories. But, on encountering him, I would first, automatically, ask him how he was.
“’Mi annoio,’ he would usually reply, in his clipped telegraphic way.
NYRB Classics has recently republished Moravia’s early novella Agostino, in a fine translation by Michael F. Moore. Agostino is a young boy who has an unusually close attachment to his widowed mother, and the novel takes place during their extended stay at a beach resort. His sensitivity and jealousy drive them apart in the first chapters of the book, a closely reworked Swann’s Way:
Agostino’s mother was a big and beautiful woman still in her prime, and Agostino was filled with pride every time he got in the boat with her for one of their morning rides.
The novel, though, soon plunges from Proust into the hard-knock fringes of the beach resort. Driven away by his mother’s interest in a “tanned, dark-haired” young man, Agostino falls in with a group of working-class boys who are inarticulate, violent, inscrutable. He is drawn to them, as a kind of foil to his predictable upper-middle-class universe:
For a moment Agostino felt happy as he swam while the cold powerful stream tugged at his legs, and he forgot every hurt and every wrong. The boys were swimming in all directions, their heads and arms breaking through the smooth green surface. Their voices echoed clearly in the still air. Through the glassy transparency of the water, their bodies looked like white offshoots of plants that, rising to the surface from the darkness below, moved whichever way the current took them.
Eventually, the privileged Agostino whose home has 20 bedrooms (an unimaginable number for the other boys) begins to beg for change. He encounters a father and son, and the father unadvisedly takes the opportunity to teach his son about the have’s and have-not’s.
“And how old are you?” the man inquired.
“Thirteen,” said Agostino.
“You see,” said the man to his son, “this boy is almost the same age as you and he’s already working.” Then to Agostino, “Do you go to school?”
“I wish…but how can I?” replied Agostino, taking on the deceitful tone he had often heard the boys in the gang adopt to address similar questions. “I gotta make a living, mister.”
“You see,” the father turned to his son again, “this boy can’t go to school because he has to work, and you have the nerve to complain because you have to study?”
Moravia maintained an interest in intellectuals who rationalize their own impulsive behaviors and others’. In stark contrast to Agostino, his later novel, Contempt, rereleased a decade ago by NYRB Classics, features a first-person narrator, a screenwriter whose disgust for movie-writing is matched only by his wife’s inexplicable contempt for him. Throughout, the narrator interrogates his wife, and by extension the mystery of attraction itself:
Suddenly, the suspicion that she no longer loved me sprang into my mind again, in an abrupt, haunting sort of way, as a feeling of the impossibility of contact and communion between my body and hers…And I, like a person who suddenly realizes he is hanging over an abyss, felt a kind of painful nausea at the thought that our intimacy had turned for no reason at all, into estrangement, absence, separation.
Since so many of his themes touch on the unconscious and taboo sexuality, it might be surprising how skeptical his novels are to psychoanalytic techniques. Throughout Contempt, Moravia satirizes a character who has embraced a very schematic version of Freudianism.
Moravia suggests that ratiocination is a poor substitute for taste. One of his great themes is how sensibility is wrecked by negotiations with other people, other classes, other individuals, and thereby reinvigorated. As the screenwriter-narrator of Contempt says of his wife when she tells him she despises him, “It was the tone of the virgin word that springs directly from the thing itself and pronounced by someone who had perhaps never spoken that word before, and who, urged on by necessity, had fished it up from the ancestral depths of the language, without searching for it, almost involuntarily.”
Both Contempt and Agostino have an almost Neoclassical form, unlike, say, The Leopard. Lampedusa and Moravia point toward two very different directions for Italian fiction, though Contempt, a bracingly austere book that harkens back to naturalism, was published in 1954, and Lampedusa’s inventive, comic experiment was published in 1958.
Though his work deeply engaged with early-20th-century social and intellectual concerns, he claimed his fiction was informed most by the big “C” Canon. In his conversation with the Paris Review, he comes across as alternately fusty and cantankerous in his observations on the Moderns. He rejects O’Neill and Shaw as major dramatists because they “resorted to everyday language and, in consequence, by my definition failed to create true drama.”
If the first chapter takes off from Proust, the last movement of Agostino is a poignant revision of the ending of Sentimental Education. In Flaubert’s novel, Frédéric and Deslauriers, after several intervening years of disillusionment and disappointment, reminisce about a youthful visit to a brothel. During the visit, Frédéric becomes embarrassed and flees into the street, and his friend follows him. They are both seen coming out, and it causes a “local scandal which was still remembered three years later.” The novel ends with the two failed romantics remarking on the story:
“That was the happiest time we ever had,” said Frédéric.
“Yes, perhaps you’re right. That was the happiest time we ever had,” Deslauriers says.
In the final pages of his novella, Moravia has the prepubescent Agostino visit a brothel with his piggybank savings. When the encounter at the brothel predictably ends badly, he goes back home and demands of his mother that he be treated like a man. It is a moving depiction of a young person’s thwarted autonomy.
“But he wasn’t a man,” Moravia writes, “and many unhappy days would pass before he became one.”
Joseph Luzzi’s memoir begins with the slaughter of his pet rabbit:
I don’t know what it took — my mother’s usual two brisk whacks with a stick to the back of the skull or my father’s preferred twist of the neck in his thick fingers — but by five p.m. my pet had become an entrée. I came into the kitchen to find him splayed out, his glycerine blue eyes lifeless and coated in oil, over a bed of roasted potatoes.
The rabbit, an Easter present intended for the table, had never really been a pet, but to a young Joseph Luzzi, the bunny’s demise was just another example of the way his Italian immigrant parents were out of place in their suburban Rhode Island surroundings. While the parents of Luzzi’s friends bought frozen and pre-prepared foods from the grocery store, his parents grew their own vegetables in their backyard, where they also raised chickens, pigeons, rabbits, and a goat. They preserved much of their harvest, too: “from tomatoes and beans to peaches and pears in rows of mason jars that filled the cellar alongside the hanging shanks of prosciutto and soppressata.”
Today, the Luzzi basement would be the pride of any urban homesteader, but in the 1970s, it was something Luzzi wanted to hide: “As a kid, I had scorned all that homemade freshness, desperate for the packaged and processed, the fructose and trans fat that would help me fit in.” It was only as an adult that he realized that his parents were producing “boutique food at a bargain rate.” Now, Luzzi emulates his father’s thrift, using leftover vegetables to make ribolitta, a peasant stew. It’s a dish that his father never made or even knew, because he was from southern Italy, and ribolitta is from Tuscany, a northern region. Luzzi’s embrace of the dish is one of the many ways he has learned to marry his “Two Italies” — the rustic southern traditions he grew up with and the cultured, northern traditions he studied in graduate school and now teaches as a professor and critic.
My Two Italies is a hybrid memoir, both a recollection of personal experience and growth and a scholarly look at the long-standing divide between Italy’s north and south — the north characterized by wealth and culture, and the south by poverty and crime. For Luzzi, the divide is personally felt. As the child of parents from the Calabria region of Italy, his blood is rooted in the south, but as a scholar of Italian culture, his intellect is drawn to the north. There is also an important linguistic divide between north and south, which is complicated, but boils down to the fact that a northern dialect, Tuscan, was designated “Italian” even though, at the time of Italy’s unification in 1861, a majority of Italians spoke a variety of other dialects. These other dialects flourished well into the 20th century, and put Luzzi in the peculiar position of speaking “better” Italian than his parents, whose southern Calabrian dialect was at odds with the literary Italian he learned in school. Luzzi’s parents ended up speaking their own peculiar mix of Calabrian and Amrican English, resulting in words like uascina mascina for “washing machine,” ŉu carru for “a car,” and u porciu for “the porch.” It was a language so unique that Luzzi had trouble remembering it after his father’s death:
After he died, I heard my father’s voice but I couldn’t fill it with words. When I forced him to speak to me in English, it sounded pedantic and prissy. His Italian, though, was no less stilted, either when I tried to revive my Calabrian or when I used the textbook grammar that was unnatural to both of us. I had so much to say but no way to say it, a reflection of our relationship during his lifetime. Without his words I lost a way of describing a world.
Luzzi’s memoir is in part a tribute to his parents. His father was a war hero who survived capture by the Nazis; his mother immigrated to the U.S. alone in order to gain citizenship for her husband and four children, and to escape the crushing poverty of Calabria. The youngest of five children, Luzzi is the only one of his siblings born in America. His decision to study Italian came out of a desire to understand where his parents and siblings had come from. At the same time, Luzzi wanted to suppress his southern heritage and to remake himself as a wealthy, cultured northern Italian. As an undergrad studying abroad for the first time, he chooses Florence, the city of Dante and Botticelli: “Florence, I believed, would enable me to upgrade from my parents’ Calabria to a calzone-free Italian lineage.”
My Two Italies helped to complicate my view of Italy. I know Italy as a tourist, and many years ago, as an undergrad studying abroad in Rome. I fell in love with the country for its beauty, as everyone does, and knew of its crimes mainly through movies and TV shows. I never bothered to ask why Italy was beautiful or corrupt, or how those two qualities might be linked. I also never peered too deeply into Italy’s contemporary history, preferring, instead, to dwell on the glories of ancient Rome and the masterpieces of the Renaissance.
Luzzi addresses these common blind spots, delving into Italy’s contemporary problems, which include economic stagnation, a low birth rate, “brain drain,” and a level of corruption second only to Greece. In a chapter on the career of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s staggeringly sleazy Prime Minister, Luzzi looks to a 19th-century poet and philospher, Giacomo Leopardi, to explain Berlusconi’s success:
Leopardi wrote that Italy’s fundamental problem was a lack of “society”: it had no sense of national community to unite its people, no public sphere that regulated conduct and taste and gave rise to sentiments of honor and shame…In Leopardi’s view, this resistance to collective thinking made Italians the most cynical of peoples…
Luzzi sees this cynicism in modern Italian voters, who “stood by idly as Berlusconi wreaked political havoc.” Luzzi also attributes Berlusconi’s rise to the very spectacle of his excess: “With his face-lifts, seaside villas, Marinella ties, sprawling estates, and near-naked showgirls, Berlusconi embodies the Italian love of surfaces.” Again, turning to literature, Luzzi quotes froma classic Italian novel, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, in which the title character observes that Italy’s great beauty is derived from “the squalor and filth of the streets around.” That is, the extravagance that we associate with la dolce vita comes at a price. Interpreting Lampedusa, Luzzi writes, “you cannot have a nation obsessed with beautiful forms without the devotion to seductive appearances devoid of moral substance.” Finally, Luzzi quotes the English poet Percy Bysse Shelley, who observed that there are “two Italies”, one “sublime” and the other “odious.”
In a discussion of the untranslatable Italian phrase, bella figura — literally, ‘beautiful figure,’ but better understood as a theatrical gesture, a “beautiful act’ — Luzzi evokes the shipwreck of the Costa Concordia in shallow waters, a disaster that was the result of the captain wanting to show off his ship and sailing too close to a small island. It was a theatrical gesture gone terribly wrong. Photographs of the half-submerged ship captured the world’s imagination: it was somehow both sublime and odious. The Italian filmmaker, Paolo Sorrentino, used the image to great effect in his Academy Award-winning film La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty). In his film, Sorrentino’s protagonist, Jep Gambardella, a washed-up writer who nevertheless lives in great style and comfort, visits the wreck. From a nearby cliff, he gazes down at the ship as if looking at his own wrecked life in need of salvage. Or, maybe it is Italy that Sorrentino’s Gambardella sees: a beautiful country run aground.
Luzzi closes his memoir with an image of his daughter, climbing the steps of Santa Croce in Florence. As eager as he is to show her the beauties of his adopted city, Luzzi is aware that she will always see Italy in a nostalgic way, that she will never understand the immigrant struggles of her grandparents, or even her own father’s struggle to reconcile his multiple heritages: “Free from the reservoirs of la miseria I had inherited from my parents, my daughter would likely stare one day at black-and-white photographs of a lost Calabrian world and wonder how on earth she was related to it.”
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.
I respond to sun, but then I come from Minnesota and had years of being disappointed by northern California with its indeterminate weather and freezing surf. I’m overdetermined for life in Africa. I love the sun bursting up every day of your life like some broken mechanism.
—from Mating, by Norman Rush
In her introduction to Stephen Twilley’s new translation of short works by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, recently released by New York Review of Books Classics, Marina Warner writes of the “sensuous plenitude…encrusted and sumptuous” in Il Gattopardo — Lampedusa’s only novel, and the masterpiece for which he is best known. Of “The Professor and the Siren,” the title story of the new collection, Warner writes:
Lampedusa is placing himself as the heir of an imaginative literary legacy running back to the pagan past, when Christian repression and hypocrisy did not exercise their hold but instead life was bathed in a luminous intensity and heightened by guilt-free passion.
I wrote about Il Gattopardo a few years ago and considered what it was that drew me to it — the story of an aging Sicilian nobleman, a dying breed caught between old and new worlds. At that time, I attributed my affinity for both the novel and Luchino Visconti’s well-known film version to the Prince of Salina’s independence of soul — a “certain energy with a tendency toward abstraction, a disposition to seek a shape for life from within himself and not what he could wrest from others.” After reading “The Professor and the Siren,” I see now that it was also the Prince’s lust for life — sensual pleasures, feminine splendor, the sweltering sloth of his wild and rugged Sicily — and his sense of loss with the coming of more pragmatic times that captivated me.
Like the narrator ofNorman Rush’s Mating, who was “overdetermined” for life in Africa, you could say that I — product of an evangelical Christian upbringing and Korean heritage of stoic endurance — was overdetermined for Lampedusa. His elevation of natural appetite as an ideal, and his vision for unity between body and spirit in their fullest expressions, radiate from the page. When I read Lampedusa the sun bursts up indeed, thawing all of that deeply seeded “puritanical horror,” as Warner puts it, and reconciling life forces that, as Lampedusa attempts to show us, were never meant to be opposed.
The tragedy of his literary late blooming is now the stuff of legend: Lampedusa, himself the last prince of a noble Sicilian family (Il Gattopardo is based on his great-grandfather), began writing in his later 50s and died of lung cancer at age 60 before Il Gattopardo’s publication. The novel had been rejected by publishers while he was still alive, and thus Lampedusa died under the impression that his art was mere trifling, the failed scribblings of a dilettante.
An earlier translation of “The Professor and the Siren,” entitled “The Professor and the Mermaid” and collected with a short memoir and the opening chapter of a second novel (a sequel to Il Gattopardo that he did not live to write), was published by Pantheon in 1962. The memoir, Places of My Infancy, was written at the prompting of his wife, a psychotherapist; she suggested the project as a way of mourning the loss of his treasured childhood home, which had been destroyed during the 1943 bombing of Palermo.
In his introduction to the 1962 collection, E.M. Forster called “Places of My Infancy” exquisite — perhaps not surprising coming from the author of Howards End. I admit that I found the piece initially off-putting: it puts so much distance between the author and the common reader as we get young Giuseppe’s impressionistic vision of his idyllic, rarefied kingdom:
On the veranda, which was protected from the sun by great curtains of orange cloth swelling and flapping like sails in the sea breeze…my mother, Signora Florio (the “divinely lovely” Franca), and others were sitting in cane chairs. In the center of the group sat a very old, very bent lady with an aquiline nose, enwrapped in widow’s weeds which were waving wildly about in the wind. I was brought before her; she said a few words which I did not understand and, bending down even farther, gave me a kiss on the forehead…After this I was taken back to my room, stripped of my finery, re-dressed in more modest garments, and led onto the beach to join the Florio children and others; with them I bathed and we stayed for a long time under a broiling sun playing our favorite game, which was searching in the sand for the pieces of deep red coral occasionally to be found there.
That afternoon it was revealed that the old lady had been Eugénie, ex-Empress of the French, whose yacht was anchored off Favignana.
But to be fair, Lampedusa wrote these reflections for himself only; they were never revised, and he did not intend them for publication. He felt free to recall the fullness of his privilege: “For me childhood is a lost paradise. Everyone was good to me — I was king of the home.” Beginning with the sensory richness and extravagant security of childhood was his way of exploring love and loss, the two most universal experiences.
For some though, it may be hard to resist lacing Lampedusa’s biography with light mockery: “[W]hat on earth was he doing with his life anyway, and why didn’t he get down to writing earlier?” Julian Barnes’s imagined interlocutor posits in a 2010 article in The Guardian. “The non-literary answer: not very much.” What Barnes means by “not very much,” however, is that Lampedusa spent most of his adult life (aside from strolling to Pasticceria del Massimo for breakfast in his tailored English suits then stopping in at Flaccovio booksellers before finally settling in for the day at Café Mazzara) immersing himself in literature — reading, studying, discussing with friends, teaching. By one account he made over 1,000 pages in notes to prepare a year-long English literature course for his nephew and a friend.
Lampedusa’s eventual success at portraying a layered, multi-caste society at a time of great social upheaval is testament to the power of literature to shape the imaginative and emotional capacity of a devoted reader, no matter how sheltered his daily life. Much like Chekhov — who, unlike Lampedusa, did have direct experience of various social strata — Lampedusa’s narrative eye is both convincing and impressive as it roves among each segment of Sicilian society, from royalty to upstart revolutionaries to the new-moneyed precursors of the Mafiosi.
The short story “Joy and the Law,” for example, is a taut gem of a tale, the effects of which echo Chekhov’s best stories about peasants and functionaries (Gogol’s “The Overcoat” also comes to mind): in the days leading up to Christmas, an unnamed accountant brings home to his family an enormous, fancy loaf of sweet bread, bestowed upon him by his employer. Ramping up to epic proportion the acuteness of aspirational want, Lampedusa portrays the accountant’s fog of self-deceit as a necessity for survival:
[E]uphoria now welling up inside him, rosy and bright…What joy for Maria! What a thrill for the children…His personal joy was something else entirely, a spiritual joy mixed with pride and tenderness…And nothing could have dampened that invigorating sensation…nothing, not even the abrupt realization deep in his consciousness that it had come down to a moment of scornful pity for the neediest among the employees. He truly was too poor to permit the weed of pride to sprout where it could not survive.
It is the wife, Maria, who matter-of-factly bursts the accountant’s bubble: she states the obvious, that the pannetone is “nothing but charity,” and deems that it must be sent to a lawyer to whom they owe a token of gratitude. The man must now spend additional money to courier the sweet bread to the lawyer, and on top of that, the package becomes lost. The reader grows as desperate as the accountant, filled with the anguish of futility and injustice. Will the universe so cruelly dash the protagonist’s hopes? the reader wonders. Then, the last lines of the story:
After Epiphany, however, a visiting card arrived: “With warmest thanks and holiday wishes.”
Honor had been preserved.
The reader exhales momentarily, only to realize the bait-and-switch that Lampedusa has so skillfully performed: Honor? When did the story become about honor? When The Law entered, that’s when — in the form of proper social commerce. The cost of this honor was joy, and the story conveys beautifully and tragically the universal right of the human soul to “spiritual happiness mixed with pride and tenderness,” not to mention “a respite from anguish.” Despite his privileged life, Lampedusa did not, it would seem, take such simple joys for granted.
Thus the decision on the part of NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank to collect “Joy and the Law,” but not “Places of My Infancy” in this volume results in a different impression of the author from the earlier volume. The new collection effectively counters what Archibald Colquhoun, translator of both the original English-language version of The Leopard and the 1962 Pantheon collection, described as a less-than-full embrace of Lampedusa’s success in its time —
On the members of the new Italian literary establishment the book has had a different impact; it has become a bogey, for the success of Il Gattopardo, so different in outlook from most Italian postwar literature, seems to them a sign of decadence —
as well as a 1998 article in The Economist:
Italian Marxists saw his aristocrat heroes as evidence that the novel was right-wing and its author a man with no sense of progress. Much of the literary Left condemned the novel as worthless because it was neither progressive nor avant-garde.
(I posed the question of curatorial selection to Frank in an email, and he revealed that his intention was simply to collect all of Lampedusa’s short fiction, which meant excluding the memoir.)
Whether or not literary readers today are as concerned with an author’s socio-political outlook as they were in the early 1960’s, there will surely be much in Lampedusa’s short work that appeals to the contemporary reader — for example the way his voracious literary autodidacticism is reflected in the “mashup” quality of “The Professor and the Siren,” which, Warner points out, brings together elements of Greek myth, the poetry of Keats and Dante, Sicilian folklore, and perhaps too Boccaccio and One Thousand and One Nights.
The eponymous professor of the NYRB collection’s centerpiece story is Rosario La Ciura, world-renowned scholar of Greek literature, longtime Sicilian senator, and author of Men and Gods, “recognized as a work of not only great erudition but of authentic poetry.” The narrator is Corbera di Salina, a journalist and, incidentally, sole surviving descendant of Lampedusa’s lusty Prince, il gattopardo. When the professor and the journalist meet, La Ciura is 75 years old and Corbera a young man. The seedy café in Turin that the two misanthropes frequent sets the stage for Lampedusa’s otherworldly tale:
It was a sort of Hades filled with the wan shades of lieutenant colonels, magistrates, and retired professors…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…It was, in short, a most satisfactory Limbo.
Corbera is the pre-formed, peripheral first-person narrator that readers will recognize — the Nick Carraway, the unnamed narrators of Bolaño’s “Sensini” or Sherwood Anderson’s “The Other Woman.” Over a period of months, the two develop a friendship of sorts — La Ciura rails on subjects ranging from the “rubbish I happen to be reading” to the “squalid aspirations” of young men like Corbera vis-à-vis the female sex; Corbera attempts to speak his mind while also suspecting the great man’s profound unhappiness. One day, the professor summons the younger man to his home, where Corbera sees a photograph of the professor in his youth — “with a bold expression and features of rare beauty…The broken-down senator in a dressing gown had been a young god.” Corbera then invites La Ciura to his own apartment, where he serves the old man fresh sea urchins, about which La Ciura had previously ranted:
They are the most beautiful thing you have down there [in Sicily], bloody and cartilaginous, the very image of the female sex, fragrant with salt and seaweed…They’re dangerous as all gifts from the sea are; the sea offers death as well as immortality.
The professor prepares to depart for a conference in Portugal and summons Corbera for a final visit; here we begin our ascent to Lampedusa’s allegorical summit. “I’ll have to speak in a low voice,” La Ciura says, and we appreciate his — and Lampedusa’s — theatricality, as the young journalist and the reader are drawn deeper into both comprehension and mystery. “Important words cannot be bellowed.”
The peak — of La Ciura’s earthly existence, of the story, of all spiritual incarnation, Lampedusa proposes — is one of pure eros: purely sensual, youthful, uncivilized. The professor’s beloved is Lighea, a siren, as much animal as human and monstrously beautiful, serene, insatiably loving. She comes to him one summer in his youth from the Sicilian sea. Their consummation lasts three weeks, and during that time the professor becomes enlightened to true pleasure, “devoid of social resonance, the same that our solitary mountain shepherds experience when they couple with their goats.” La Ciura dares Corbera to be put off by the comparison, such repulsion revealing only that “you’re not capable of performing the necessary transposition from the bestial to the superhuman plane.” Lighea is all body and all spirit, powerfully attuned:
From her immortal limbs flowed such life force that any loss of energy was immediately compensated, increased, in fact…She ate nothing that was not alive. I often saw her rise out of the sea, delicate torso sparkling in the sun, teeth tearing into a still-quivering silver fish, blood running down her chin…
Not only did she display in the carnal act a cheerfulness and a delicacy altogether contrary to wretched animal lust, but her speech was of a powerful immediacy, the likes of which I have only ever found in a few great poets.
As Marina Warner points out, Lampedusa is not interested in supplanting reason with passion, but rather reclaiming a native unity. “Lampedusa aims to fashion a coincidentia oppositorium at many levels,” she writes. “[S]upernatural and natural, unreal and material, monstrosity and beauty, animal and human, ideal love and lubricious delight.” And this is evident throughout the story in his language: beauty and blood, “insolence” and “detachment,” the professor’s gnarled hands which caress with “regal delicacy” a page in a magazine that bears the image of a Greek statue. When Corbera serves the sea urchins, the professor “consumed them avidly but…with a meditative, almost sorrowful air.”
The story’s interests are thus transparent, its purposes straightforward — though, to my mind, no less affecting for it. Lampedusa’s passion for unity of soul and body startles and moves us; in hearing the professor’s tale, Corbera in part lives it and is changed, as are we.
But will the general reader agree? Perhaps it depends on one’s pre-determinations. The narrator of Mating in the above epigraph likens the African sun to a “broken mechanism.” But as they say, one person’s junk is another person’s treasure: “broken” if four distinct seasons is your norm, perfectly functional if you’ve come from extreme cold and gray.
In Lampedusa’s case, we can deduce that his own deepest longings were for what he had known and lost — the magic of his childhood — as well as for what, as he wrote this last story, he had not achieved: transcendence via entry into the pantheon of literary artists. The result, in “The Professor and the Siren,” is a tale at once pessimistic and optimistic: La Ciura can find no worthy pleasure or meaning in earthly life after his experience with Lighea, and yet in the end he joins her, answering her call to the underwater world deep below, “where all is silent calm…in the blind, mute palace of formless, eternal waters.”
Light and darkness seem also to color Lampedusa’s literary stature: Il Gattopardo won Italy’s Strega Prize in 1959, two years after his death, and has sold well over 3 million copies worldwide; but we’ll never know what the second novel, Il Gattopardo’s sequel, might have been. The fragment published in both the 1962 and current NYRB collections under the title “The Blind Kittens” does reveal that Lampedusa’s eye continued to focus on Sicilian society and the epic desires of common men. Colquhoun opined on the possibility that Il Gattopardo itself was a kind of lesser preview of the real novel Lampedusa meant to write — would have written — had he started sooner: “Is the novel peaks, in a more or less continuous range, of a vast submerged book that was never completed?”
Broken or functional, incomplete or fully realized, decadent or democratic…I am glad for Lampedusa’s sumptuous, if scant, work, so nearly kept from us by both Lampedusa’s late start and publishers’ tastes. And while the professor’s vast book collection “slowly rots” in a university archive following his descent into the sea, Lampedusa’s small body of work bursts up like the sun, reviving those of us primed to respond.
Click here to read an interview with NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank and translator Stephen Twilley.
Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a new monthly feature at The Millions.
In considering why it took Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa until the age of 58 to begin work in earnest on his one and only novel, the luminous masterpiece Il Gattopardo, or The Leopard, Julian Barnes wrote:
Lampedusa was afflicted with several handicaps (not so much to being a writer, but to being thrustful enough to dream of, and then achieve, publication): extreme shyness; enough money never to need take a job [he was a prince]; plus a sense that, as a Sicilian aristocrat, he came from an exhausted, irrelevant culture. There were other factors too, including a major nervous breakdown in his 20s, and a domineering mother.
The roots of such unthrustfulness notwithstanding, one laments whatever convergence of factors precluded Lampedusa from a more prolific literary career. I first fell in love with Il Gattopardo via Luchino Visconti’s sumptuous film version (I’d seen it three times in fact, before reading Lampedusa’s original). It is unusual for me to read a book after seeing the film adaptation, but I was aware that some had criticized Visconti for staying, believe it or not, too close to the novel. I was thus eager to read it, and it has become, like the film, among my very favorites.
One indisputable factor that deprived us of more opportunities to luxuriate in Lampedusa’s gifts was a diagnosis of lung cancer in the spring of 1957, at age 60. The diagnosis came just a few months after he finished the novel. He had two publisher rejections already in hand, a third would arrive weeks before he died in July of that year. The author note of the Pantheon edition goes as far as to say that this third rejection came from an Italian editor who told him that his novel was ”unpublishable”—that Lampedusa, in other words, died with that declaration stamped upon his late-blooming artistic soul.
One wonders just how shaped Lampedusa was by his exhausted, irrelevant culture, as he in fact lived a life highly atypical of a Sicilian of his era: influenced by his mother’s cosmopolitan bent, he was educated in Rome, read Latin and Greek, spoke German and French, and (almost unheard of at that time) eventually studied English. He served briefly as a lieutenant in the army during World War I and was imprisoned in a POW camp in Hungary. After the war, he traveled throughout northern Italy and Europe, and while visiting his uncle in England — of whose literature and culture he became (scandalously, for a Sicilian) enamored—he met Alexandra “Licy” Wolff Stomersee, a Latvian aristocrat and intellectual who studied psychoanalysis. The couple wed at Riga in 1932, in the Orthodox Church—another shocking departure from Sicilian cultural tradition—but eventually they lived apart, after his mother (domineering, yes, although some accounts additionally deem her “eccentric” and “open-minded”) forced her only son to choose between the two women. Licy was apparently no match for Signora Beatrice.
He spent the late years of the Second World War near the coastal town of Capo d’Orlando in Messina, with his mother and cousins, where he also reunited with his wife. After his mother died in 1946, Giuseppe and Licy returned to Palermo, where Lampedusa lived out his mature years, doing very little, strictly speaking: according to Barnes (whose source is David Gilmour’s biography, The Last Leopard), “on a typical day, he might first visit the bookshop and cakeshop, then sit reading in a cafe for hours, return home for tea and buns, and perhaps go out to the film club in the evening.” While most accounts confirm Lampedusa’s extreme taciturnity—a most “shut in” personality, someone you “met but did not know”—it was during these years that he began meeting regularly with a group of young intellectuals to discuss French and English literature.
What more can I say that has not been said about this beautiful novel? In 2008, for The Leopard’s 50th anniversary—for yes, obviously and thankfully, it was eventually published, in 1958, the year after Lampedusa’s death—Rachel Donadio wrote a wonderful essay for The New York Times which I recommend and refer you to for your basic plot and historical context. Donadio also describes an event that year at NYU at which Lanza Tomasi, a younger cousin whom Lampedusa adopted as a son (presumably the autobiographical seed for the character Tancredi Falconeri, beloved nephew to our main character, il gattopardo himself, Don Fabrizio Prince of Salina) spoke of class divisions in the novel—essentially two classes, nobility and peasantry—as “unredeemable.” And yet, Lanza said, like all great novels, The Leopard transcends such boundaries. Reading it, “no one believes he’s the lower class,” Lanza said. The “miracle” Lampedusa produced in this novel is that “everyone believes he’s the prince.”
Everyone, indeed—even this Korean American woman living in New York City circa 2012. One’s love for Il Gattopardo is nothing if not a love for Don Fabrizio, a lusty middle-aged nobleman, the last of his kind at a time of social and geopolitical upheaval, with a passion for mathematics and astronomy, a soft spot for beauty and charisma, and a “certain energy with a tendency toward abstraction, a disposition to seek a shape for life from within himself and not what he could wrest from others.” He is a character with whom anyone who has found herself cultivating an independent soul, by choice or by necessity, feels an intimacy.
And so, it is not just with interest, but with tender fidelity, that we follow Don Fabrizio’s affecting evolution from irritable dreamer to wistful relic. Early in the novel, as both political and familial disturbances encroach—the novel opens in 1860, as the war hero Garibaldi is gathering rebel volunteers to overthrow the Bourbon King for the cause of risorgimento, or the unification of Italy—Don Fabrizio considers “the endless little subterfuges he had to submit to, he the Leopard, who for years had swept away difficulties with a wave of his paw.” Without yet a vision for how to cope, how to move along with his times, he turns, as always, to the comfort, the “morphia,” of the skies:
The stars looked turbid and their rays scarcely penetrated the pall of sultry air. The soul of the Prince reached out toward them, toward the intangible, the unattainable, which gave joy without laying claim to anything in return; as many other times, he tried to imagine himself in those icy tracts, a pure intellect armed with a notebook for calculations: difficult calculations, but ones which would always work out. “They’re the only really genuine, the only really decent beings […] who worries about dowries for the Pleiades, a political career for Sirius, matrimonial joy for Vega?”
At this point, the Prince is primarily worried about domestic matters—the gradual but inevitable disintegration of his royal wealth into the hands of the new money classes. He is also worried about his sweet but unsophisticated daughter Concetta, who is in love with her dashing cousin Tancredi (Alain Delon in Visconti’s film version), whose fortune was squandered by the Prince’s brother-in-law and in whose future, political and social, the Prince sees great things. And he is worried for Tancredi’s impending engagement, around which the bulk of the novel revolves—to the enchanting Angelica (a young Claudia Cardinale, who else?), whose father, Don Calogero di Sadera, is exemplary of these crude rags-to-riches merchant classes in whose hands the future of Sicily, not to mention great sums of wealth, seem to lie.
But later, as the lovely Angelica and the Sedara family become fixtures in his life, as Tacredi’s future solidifies with the assurance of Sedara’s wealth, and as a unified Italy dominated by power (not nobility) materializes as a foregone conclusion, the Prince
found an odd admiration growing in him for Sedara’s qualities […] he began to realize the man’s rare intelligence. Many problems that had seemed insoluble to the Prince were resolved in a trice by Don Calogero […] he moved through the jungle of life with the confidence of an elephant which advances in a straight line, rooting up trees and trampling down lairs, without even noticing scratches of thorns and moans from the crushed.
The Prince is not exactly resigned, not exactly accepting; but neither is he self-deluding. He faces the coming reality with neither self-pity nor false optimism. He is il gattopardo—regal in the hot sun, dignified, elegant, weary, solitary. Wise to threats but unmoved, a creature of both survival and indifference. When the Secretary to the Prefecture entreats the Prince to represent Sicily in the new Senate, he responds with a lengthy speech, at once fiery and aching with melancholy, as if all the stages of grief have collapsed into one gorgeous oratorial moment, saying of himself, and of men like him,
We are old, Chevalley, very old. For more than twenty-five centuries we’ve been bearing the weight of a superb and heterogeneous civilization, all from outside, none made by ourselves, none that we could call our own. […] I don’t say that in complaint; it’s our fault.
Sleep, my dear Chevalley, sleep is what Sicilians want, and they will always hate anyone who tries to wake them […]
This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything, and these monuments, even, of the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us and yet standing around like lovely mute ghosts; all those rulers who landed by main force from every direction, who were at once obeyed, soon detested, and always misunderstood, their only expressions works of art we couldn’t understand and taxes which we understood only too well and which they spent elsewhere: all these things have formed our character, which is thus conditioned by events outside our control as well as by a terrifying insularity of mind […]
I belong to an unfortunate generation, swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both […] but I am without illusions; what would the Senate do with me, an inexperienced legislator who lacks the faculty of self-deception.
Edward Said, writing about The Leopard in (his own late, last work) On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, characterized Don Fabrizio as
in effect the last Lampedusa, whose own cultivated melancholy, totally without self-pity, stands at the center of the novel, exiled from the continuing history of the 20th century, enacting a state of anachronistic lateness with a compelling authenticity and an unyielding ascetic principle that rules out sentimentality and nostalgia.
If I am reading Said correctly, he is associating lateness with both authenticity and asceticism, as well as a cultivated melancholia and exile. I prefer these associations to Barnes’s mere “unthrustfulness,” which Barnes (or perhaps the biographer Gilmour) in turn ties to exhaustion, irrelevance, reticence, nervousness, and submissiveness; for Said’s more appreciative assessment of “anachronistic lateness” applies not only to Lampedusa, but, it seems to me, to many of the late-life bloomers we’ve seen in this series; and to many of the artists I personally most admire.
It’s always hard for me to choose the best book I’ve read in any given year, since I read constantly, if slowly, like a tortoise. This past year I’ve read mostly novels, although I often read history, biography, lay science, memoir, and poetry, as well. As the season wanes, I like to look back over my list, however paltry it may be (the tortoise effect). This year’s included Matthew Kneale’s wonderful historical novel English Passengers; Kazuo Ishiguro’s quite perfect The Remains of the Day; Lampedusa’s masterful tale of fading aristocracy, The Leopard; Giles Waterfield’s eerie story of war in Europe, The Long Afternoon; a fabulous work of history, The Discovery of France, by Graham Robb; and Jane Austen’s Emma (how did I miss this one during my previous forty-three years?).
But the book that really marks 2009 for me is one I probably should have read long before and will probably read at least once again, life permitting: A Tale of Two Cities by, of course, Charles Dickens.
A Tale of Two Cities is one of those books so famous that it has come to seem more title than actual book, like Frankenstein, Dracula, Moby Dick, War and Peace. Wikipedia tells us that it is the “most printed original English book.” It contains one of the three or four most famous first lines in the English language: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” I remember that when I was about thirteen, my father was talking about first lines and he said, “What if you reversed that? ‘It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.’ Doesn’t work at all, does it?” And my uncle, also literary, liked to quote the last line of the book, in a mock-epic voice: “It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done…” Clearly, it was high time for me to find out what lay between those two galloping old warhorses.
A Tale of Two Cities contains all the hallmarks of the Victorian tearjerker: it is sentimental, cloyingly pious, full of terribly convenient and eventually predictable coincidences, laden with long sentences, self-sacrificing Angel-in-the-House female leads, political caricatures, and grotesque minor characters. I was riveted from the first–or, perhaps, the second–sentence–and I wept over the last.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about the story, in case you’ve waited as long as I to read it, because the plot is so intricately suspenseful that almost anything I describe about it will give too much away.
Suffice it to say that it is not only an extraordinary piece of storytelling but also a remarkable piece of historical fiction–eighty years after the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, Dickens imagined not simply the large machineries of social injustice and mob fury but also the very essence of everyday life under duress, the things that make history real to a reader–the rough wool fabric of a red cap, the color of the mud on a man’s shoes, the staring eyes of a stone figure on a chateau wall, the murdering women with blood on their skirt hems going home to their Paris quarter to feed the children, the tree from which a guillotine was made. Please do not wait as long as I did.
For the ultimate experience, hear it as I did, too: as a Recorded Books AudioBook (available at your public library), read by the incomparable Frank Muller (originally a Shakespearian stage actor).
Dickens was made to be read aloud, by fireplace and coal stove, lantern and gaslight, and A Tale of Two Cities is even better in this form than on the printed page.
On the last Sunday in November, book critic Adam Begley scooped Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd for the top spot in the New York Times most emailed list. Not with a review though. Instead, he wrote an excellent piece about Florence for the travel section, in which he recommended E.M. Forster’s Room with a View as a kind of literary guidebook to the city. The Florence piece came several months after Begley employed the same tactic to tour Sicily, that time with Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s The Leopard in his pocket.Those two pieces inspired me to think about other novel-city pairings. Last June, The Millions ran a guest post from novelist Joan Silber, in which she detailed some of her favorite books for enriching a trip abroad. Here I have something slightly different in mind: novels that allow you to follow Forster’s advice to leave the guidebook at home (and instead replace it with a great work of fiction). So, without further ado:The American southwest: Try Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House for its stark descriptions of a New Mexico mesa.If you don’t know Boston already, let Henry James introduce you with The Bostonians, his story of love and politics in the 19th-century city.It feels cheap, I know, to make John Grisham your tour guide, but I devoured The Client on a boat trip up the Amazon and don’t regret it a bit. If, for some reason you’re looking to weigh down your trip to Brazil, go with Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes and TropiquesSee the Windy City through the eyes of Dreiser’s classic Sister Carrie, which renders a teeming, if not always hospitable portrait of Chicago.I like Graham Greene for Cuba, with Our Man in Havana. Greene recurs a lot in this list, so in order to get it out of the way all at once: London (The End of the Affair); Mexico (The Lawless Roads or The Power and the Glory); Switzerland (Doctor Fischer of Geneva); Vienna (The Third Man); Vietnam (The Quiet American)There’s still no better guide to Dublin than James Joyce (The Dubliners).Greece: Bring along The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller.E.M. Forster’s good for Florence. He’s also good for intrigue in colonial India: A Passage to India.It’s always a decision, do you want to see a place through the eyes of a perceptive foreigner or a local? In Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and The City you get both.Jerusalem: Mark Twain voyages to the ancient capital in The Innocents Abroad. How can you resist?London: OMG. Ready to party? Try and keep up with Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. A jaded post-colonial? Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. Prefer to delve into immigrant life? Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Or, if you take your London straight up, there’s no better pour than Bleak House by Dickens.Try Joan Didion’s Miami if you have half a mind not to come back.I can think of nothing finer than New York in the hands of E.B. White: Here is New York.Paris: Again, are you going for the expat experience or the genuine article? If the former, go with James’ Portrait of a Lady or Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. But for my money, see the city like a native. Stendahl’s The Red and the Black.The great Russian novels are like a trip abroad no matter where you read them. Try Crime and Punishment or Gogol’s “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” for St. Petersburg.Switzerland has inspired some great books in addition to the aforementioned Greene. There is Twain again with A Tramp Abroad and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.I conclude the list with wanderlust. Books and foreign places are a fitting pair. There will always be more of both than there is time. This is of course anything but an exhaustive list. I’d love to hear what books you recommend in lieu of a tour guide.
Wells Tower’s short stories and journalism have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, The Washington Post Magazine, and elsewhere. He received two Pushcart Prizes and the Plimpton Prize from The Paris Review. He divides his time between Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Brooklyn, New York. His first collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, will be published in March.Last spring, it started seeming insane that I’d never read Moby Dick, which, naturally, knocked me over. I’d been warned about the unending contemplations of harpoon hawsers, the glutinous curds in the sperm whale’s skull-milk, etc., etc., but I hadn’t braced adequately for the rabid exuberance of Melville’s language. Every sentence is like a maxed-out steam calliope. Melville could herniate himself describing a pencil. Also, he’s hilarious, e.g., that scene where the Pequod’s bearing down on the crippled whale whose maimed rear fin causes the water to bubble, simulating flatus, and Stubb cries, “Adverse winds are holding mad Christmas in him, boys.”Other books that astounded me included Allan Gurganus’s short story collection White People (which deserves a place alongside the stories of Yates and Cheever for its gorgeously tooled sentences and huge, hurting heart), Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, The Known World by Edward P. Jones, Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Dusk by James Salter, Charles Portis’s The Dog of the South, Nabokov’s King, Queen, Knave, and The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts, which reveals E. Pound’s inspired vandalisms against the early versions.More from A Year in Reading 2008