A twentieth-century Sicilian aristocrat – a prince, no less -- “gets” Dr. Johnson better than many a twenty-first-century American academic and even better than some of his eighteenth-century English contemporaries. From childhood, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957) was an enthusiastic reader of literature, including English, French and Russian. He wrote a single novel, a masterpiece, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), published posthumously in 1958 and filmed by Luchino Visconti five years later. The novel is set in Sicily late in the Risorgimento, which ended in 1871 when Rome became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy. The middle class rises, the aristocracy wanes, Italy for the first time unites.
In the wake of recently rereading The Leopard I happened on The Siren and Selected Writings (The Harvill Press, 1995), edited and co-translated by David Gilmour, Lampedusa’s biographer. It collects some of Lampedusa’s short fiction and nonfiction, most of the latter devoted to literature. He’s not a profound critic but a discerning dilettante, a description chosen without condescension. Included in The Siren are a series of “tutorials” he prepared on English literature for two Sicilian friends:
“These notes are only the residue, the precipitate of thirty years of disordered reading passed through a brain notorious for its forgetfulness. Consequently you have little to hope for.”
Lampedusa’s modesty is winning. He makes no claims for scholarly brilliance. He’s a reader who, like some bloggers, wants to share bookish loves. He writes about Shakespeare (“the author I know least superficially”), Isaak Walton, G.K. Chesterton, Walter Scott, Keats, Jane Austen, Robert Burns, Emily Brontë, Dickens and Graham Greene. With Walton, Johnson and Chesterton he is concerned with identifying Englishness and establishing national types. He writes:
“Dante, to give a different case, was a good example of `the Italian.’ He possessed many of the characteristics that we all have: the cult of form, figurative language, the factiousness, the poverty, the sense of political exile. Imagine that we now knew for certain that he had also been a gossip, a womaniser and a double-crosser: he would no longer be Signor Dante Alighieri, he would be Italy. Similarly, our man of letters is no longer Dr Samuel Johnson but Mr John Bull.”
Lampedusa ranks the Dictionary and Lives of the Poets as Johnson’s chief works, and that’s a reasonable assessment. Of the latter book, he says, “Johnson’s honesty shines through every page: his judgments are always just except in the case of Milton whom he detested for political reasons.”
Gilmour tells us Lampedusa taught himself Spanish in order to read Calderón and Góngora. He judged Montaigne the finest prose writer of France and Stendhal her greatest literary figure, and was among the earliest in Italy to appreciate Ulysses. In his introduction to the literary section of The Siren, Gilmour portrays Lampedusa as a man who lived an enviably bookish life:
“Lampedusa never moved anywhere without a book. According to his widow, he always carried a copy of Shakespeare so that he could `console himself when he saw something disagreeable’; at his bedside he kept The Pickwick Papers to comfort him during sleepless nights. Friends used to encounter him in Palmermitan cafes eating cakes and reading a volume of French Renaissance poetry, or wandering around the city with a bag stuffed with courgettes and volumes of Proust. Once he read an entire novel by Balzac without moving from his favourite café, the Pasticceria del Massimo. In the evenings he and his wife often read aloud—in the original language—passages from their favourite European authors.”