The Professor and the Siren (New York Review Books Classics)

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Limerence, Lust, and Love: The Millions Interviews Melissa Broder

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. 

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Burst of Sicilian Sun

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
1.
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.

2.
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.

3.
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.

4.
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.”

5.
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.

6.
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.

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