Monday, July 28, 2014

`He Took a Cold Bath Each Morning'

“By his early twenties his knowledge of literature and history was so impressive that his Piccolo cousins dubbed him il monstro, the monster. Nearly all his reading, except for Russian novels, was done in the original language. As a child he had learnt to read Italian, French and German, and later on he had acquired English: he had read all of Shakespeare before visiting England in the twenties and must have been one of the first Italians to penetrate Joyce. Giuseppe later compared literature to a forest where it was important to investigate everything, not just the large trees in isolation but the undergrowth and wild flowers as well.” 

The reader in question is Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957), as described by David Gilmour in The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe di Lampedusa (1988). His only novel, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), was published in 1958, the year after his death, and became both a bestseller and recognized as one of the great historical novels of the twentieth century. Luchino Visconti’s film version came out in 1963. 

Lampedusa’s father was the Prince of Lampedusa and Duke of Palma di Montechiaro. He was an aristocrat and his grand theme was the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy and the rise of the lower orders. Lampedusa wrote other works but The Leopard, based largely on the life of his great-grandfather, Don Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi, also a Prince of Lampedusa, sustains his literary reputation. As the quoted passage above suggests, Lampedusa was devoted to literature and read widely. The Leopard is often compared not to Joyce or Proust – writers he much admired – but to the cool realism of Stendhal and Tolstoy. One way to think about The Leopard is as a pan-European Italian novel. 

Lampedusa was thoroughly familiar with English literature and judged Jane Austen the greatest of all female writers. He admired Dickens, Emily Brontë, Hardy, Thackeray, George Eliot and Disraeli. Gilmour tells us “the quality he liked most about the English was their sense of humour. Once again this was a characteristic of their literature which ran all the way from Chaucer to Evelyn Waugh. He thought nonsense verse very funny and argued that `anyone incapable of laughing at a limerick basically understands nothing about England and its literature.’” Unexpected is Lampedusa’s valorization of Dr. Johnson. Gilmour reports that “one of [Lampedusa’s] favourite pictures” was Sir Joshua Reynolds’ 1756 portrait of Johnson in the National Portrait Gallery in London. The biographer reports: 

“We know that he saw London not as a tourist in Trafalgar Square but as a reader of Dickens and Dr. Johnson. For Giuseppe, Johnson was the quintessential Londoner, `a countryman in exile’ who each Sunday went out to the country, had a picnic on the grass and returned to the City with a bunch of wild flowers.’ [Gilmour is quoting a lecture on England prepared by Lampedusa].” 

Of all the Englishmen Lampedusa admired, the two who “incarnated their country” – interesting pair – were Johnson and Isaak Walton (in particular the latter’s biographies of Donne and Herbert). The Italian thought Johnson’s character “embraced all the country’s national peculiarities.” Lampedusa was praising England when he called it “the country least governed by logic,” a quality offset by an innate capacity for common sense. Keep in mind these words were written by a Sicilian. Gilmour paraphrases Lampedusa when he writes: 

“He was also humorous, scrupulous and unconcerned with appearances; he might have dirty fingernails or forget to polish his shoes, but he took a cold bath each morning and changed his shirt every day. Above all he was phlegmatic and…a master of understatement. Lampedusa once recounted to friends how Johnson, after being robbed and injured by thieves, had described the affair as a lively exchange of opinions. `Any of us Sicilians,’ he commented, `would have screamed, “They have killed me!’”

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