This is an excellent life of Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of one of the century's great novels The Leopard. Gilmour has thoroughly researched this figure, by speaking to Di Lampedusa's adopted son and through the notebooks and diaries found in the ruins of the Palazzo Lampedusa, with all the skill of a detective. Almost all of Di lampedusa's work cam in the last three year of his life, and it was no doubt difficult to make the life of this reclusive, shy character interesting but Gilmour manages it. THanks to reading this, I have been able to return to the novel time and time again, each with fresh eyes. Highly recommended
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The Leopard is my favorite novel. I read it at least once a year, and each time it brings me new insights and delights. I've also seen the film a number of times (the best version is the one dubbed into Italian with English subtitles, by the way). Naturally I was interested to find out more about the man who created this wonderful book. For those who haven't read the novel, this is perhaps not the best introduction, but for those who have, it is an enriching coda. Chapeau to David Gilmour for a wonderful book!
If Lampedusa, who in due course became the Duke of Palma, comes across as rather dull, it was partly due to his intense introversion with strangers and also because his life seemed to revolve round consuming literature, history and cakes in prodigious quantities. The author succeeds in showing how Lampedusa's only published novel,"The Leopard", sadly rejected until just after his early death from cancer, was the fruit of decades of musing about his aristocratic family, the state of Sicily and the reading which must have developed his sense of style.
The most interestig part of the book are the final chapters on "The Leopard", which you need to have read beforehand, with an exploration of the extent to which the leading character Don Fabrizio was modelled on Lampedusa's great-grandfather Prince Giulio during the Risorgimento in the 1860s, which brought about the unification of Italy and the break up of the old feudal estates, or on the author himself. Like Don Fabrizio, Giulio was a keen astronomer, but he was probably less of an autocrat. As regards his "sceptical intelligence ..... long periods of abstract thought... and pessimistic view of Sicily and Italian unity..... Don Fabrizio is more autobiography than invention", but he is also "transformed into the person the writer would like to have been".
On the author's own admission, the charming Tancredi is based partly on his adopted son Gio, although "as for his morals....Gio is fortunately much better than him". Yet Tancredi also seems to be an amalgam of some of the young Sicilan aristocrats who joined Garibaldi, for excitement rather than out of conviction.
The huge, violent and mixed reaction to "The Leopard" also makes fascinating reading. Many who thought they knew Lampedusa were astonished that this polite, self-effacing man could hold such cynical and negative opinions. One of the strangest criticisms was that, in being readable with clear characters and conventional syntax, the book failed to achieve the kind of "avant-garde experimentalism" which was in vogue in 1950s Italy.
Another critic even attacked Lampedusa for writing about animals in a "silly" way when in fact the portrayal of the faithful hound Bendico is one of the most humorously touching aspects of the novel, revealing the love of dogs, above people, which Lampedusa displayed in real life.
His marriage is intriguing: he braved his possessive mother's wrath by marrying a formidable pyschoanalyst, who also happened to be a wealthy Latvian aristocrat, but soon settled into what seems to have been a largely intellectual relationship with her, choosing to live with his mother until her death rather than with his wife, since the two women could not get on. Gilmour comments that "flames for a year, ashes for thirty" seems to have been both Don Fabrizio's and Lampedusa's view of love for their wives.
I would have liked the final chapters to have been longer, and more on the socio-political events which formed a background to both Lampedusa's life and his famous novel. The photographs which I discovered at the end of my kindle version are well-chosen.
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This biography has to be a full five stars. I don't know if The Leopard is really a masterpiece or not. Tim Parks on the NYRB recently argued that it was a very limited kind of achievement, that addictive as its style is, it kind of doesn't matter in the way that some other novels of the time do. ... which I suppose means, doesn't engage with progressive social movements of the time, which is true. I read it a long time ago, loved it, and can't remember anything much about it at all.
But Gilmour's biography is stunning. It opens up completely closed doors into the past of a declining aristocratic Sicily, and the writing is quite beautiful. We grow to know Lampedusa so well, and become so absorbed in his life, that his authorship of a great novel, right at the end of his life, seems somehow like an added bonus. We feel Lampedusa would have been worth reading about even if he had never put pen to paper at all. Not because his life was eventful, but because of the details of his domestic life and literary cafe-visits with a tiny group of friends and relatives. Somehow these beautiful details are a worthwhile legacy in themselves. A great deal of the biography is about reading and talking about books.
Here's some tasters. (an early Lampedusa essay, in the 1920s) "..the surprising degree of self-confidence for someone so reserved and inexperienced. The judgement on Victor Hugo is grandiloquently self-assured: Hugo's 'untidy palace', which was 'partly a Gothic cathedral decorated only with monsters and angels, without God, and without human effigies', already had, in spite of its recent construction, 'more than one broken pane and more than one piece of peeling plasterwork'. "
(at home in Palermo in the early 1950s) "Lampedusa rarely saw his wife before the evening. Licy got up after midday, spent all afternoon on her cases and returned to her study late at night. She was engrossed in her work, relentlessly probing the phobias and obsessions of her patients, listing their fears and weaknesses in small black notebooks. Most of her patients, recalled Gioacchino Lanza, 'loved her because she adored them and tried as hard as she could to put them on their feet'. But he himself was not impressed: 'Her psychological approach was straight from Dostoyevsky. She saw everything as a religious problem, with aggression against the father as aggression against God. That was her most common theme, and every case ended up like that.' In the evening she relaxed for a few hours, talking to her husband and reading. One of her pastimes was to draw quick portraits; some of these have survived, including two of Churchill and Hitler and a couple of unflattering sketches of Giuseppe. Some evenings were spent reading aloud, in five languages, passages from their favourite authors. 'We had completely the same tastes,' recalled Licy, though they argued about the merits of the great Russians, her favourite being Dostoyevsky whereas her husband preferred Tolstoy. They read from their favourite poets, who included Goethe, Keats and Shelley, and they discovered Trollope together; both of them loved Shakespeare but for some reason preferred not to read him aloud. ...."
This book should be a compulsory read for anyone who has read or ever tried to read The Leopard. By detailing Lampedusa's childhood and adult life, his close relationship with his mother and his cousins, his intellectual pursuits, his nostalgia and scepticism, it explains so much about The Leopard. A thoroughly enjoyable book.
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If you have read and enjoyed "The Leopard" but had difficulty in making sense of some parts then this book is for you. For me, it did not explain away all of my difficulties but it did make me understand where the author was coming from. Perhaps, the most interesting part of this book is the chapter about what the Italian & Sicilian critics made of the book when it was first published: it was not universally appreciated! So, I really recommend this book to anybody still puzzling over "The Leopard".