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Review: Lampedusa, by Steven Price
FSG, 2019. 326 pp. $27

At age fifty-eight in 1955, Giuseppe di Tomasi learns that he has emphysema, and it’s incurable. Give up cigarettes, his doctor tells him. Eat less; exercise more. Follow that regimen, and you’ll have some years left.

But Giuseppe can’t; not because he’s stubborn or addicted to his ways, though he is. (He’s so stuck in his diffidence, he wrestles for months with how to tell his wife he’s dying.) Rather, he’s the prince of Lampedusa, the last of his line, and, like many Sicilians of his generation, he believes that the world in which he grew up has gone forever. So why stay in it? He bears no anger or ill will, only sadness for what has happened to his country since Mussolini took power, the ensuing war, and the striving but damaged Italy that has emerged. Is his acquiescence to his fate passivity or an act of suicide?

No. It’s an existential choice, a key part of which involves writing a book, a testament to leave behind. All his life, Giuseppe has loved literature but written nothing except an article or two. However, in his final months, he pens The Leopard, a novel about an aristocrat who witnesses the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy in the midnineteenth century, and realizes his world is dying.

Years ago, I read and thoroughly enjoyed The Leopard, as clear and penetrating a psychological study of a man, time, and place as you could ask for. Following its posthumous publication, the book became a runaway bestseller, the subject of a film directed by Luchino Visconti, and has earned at least a mention in discussions of great twentieth-century world literature. So when I saw that Price, the author of By Gaslight, a Victorian thriller par excellence, had written a biographical novel about Giuseppe di Tomasi, I had to read it.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, a man shattered by the twentieth century (courtesy http://www.fondazionepiccolo.it/Xpiccolo/Area1/ITA/ITA/Static/personaggi/TomasiDiLampedusa.htm via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

I’ve come away impressed by Price’s artistic range and the way he’s rendered his subject as acutely as Giuseppe portrayed his Risorgimento prince. I also salute the courage to write about death, that singular event we all think about but dislike talking about or, heaven forfend, reading about in a novel. But as someone who has wondered what our world is coming to — and what, if anything I’ll leave behind when I depart it — I can tell you that Lampedusa speaks to me. It’s not only about literature and its creation; it is literature.

To be sure, the narrative is what publishing folk would call “quiet” (about as far a cry from By Gaslight as you can figure), but that leaves room for contemplation. Price brings across his protagonist’s withdrawn nature, his delicacy in not wishing to offend, the tremendous influence his mother had, especially after family tragedies robbed her of her natural vivaciousness, and the First World War, which left psychic wounds in Giuseppe that never healed.

Price is a gifted poet, and it shows in how he weighs every word, not overwhelming the reader with images but carefully selecting the right ones. For instance: “He was a man who had left middle age the way other men will exit a room, without a thought, as if he might go back any moment.” But, if you prefer descriptions of the Sicilian landscape or city life, there are plenty to choose from, like this one, of Palermo:

The narrow streets there were soft underfoot, the refuse and rotting fruit crushed by the crowds into a slippery grime. High up the stone walls the light would darken and then filter through the interstices of the iron balconies overflowing with potted plants in the criss-cross of laundry lines and Giuseppe would wind his way down to the market, unhurried, the crowds gradually increasing, the flatbed wagon standing with melons in tall stacks or long bolts of red and yellow cloth or gigantic silver fish laid out glistening in rows, their deep flat saucerlike eyes staring at the horrors of the world.

The only thing I dislike about Lampedusa concerns the character of Giuseppe’s wife, Alessandra, known as Licy. (She’s the only female psychoanalyst in Sicily, a fact that Price deploys only occasionally, with great care.) She’s fierce, domineering, slow to forgive, and Giuseppe lives in fear of her. I get that her remoteness offers part of her appeal to him, and how her controlled passion makes her interesting to someone who wishes to provoke it. But I’m not sure I understand how the bond between the two can be so strong and yet so distant.

Still, I admire Lampedusa, the kind of novel that leaves a deep, firm impression.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.