Friday, March 03, 2017

`He Did Not Move for Four Hours'

“Lampedusa was as eccentric and obsessive as all writers, even though he did not know he was a writer: he hated melodrama and Italian opera, which he considered a barbarous art; in fact, he hated anything explicit. His favorite Shakespeare play was Measure for Measure, but he preferred, above all, Sonnet 129.”

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957) was the opposite of a literary careerist. He wrote one book late in life, a novel, The Leopard (Il Gattopardo), published posthumously in 1958. A provincial aristocrat, in many ways a nineteenth-century man, he remained essentially solitary throughout his life, which he devoted largely to reading on a heroic scale. As Javier Marías reminds us in “Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in Class,” Lampedusa was the purest sort of reader, non-utilitarian, non-academic, pleasure-driven, “insatiable and obsessive.” Marías writes:

“The few people who knew him well were astonished at his encyclopedic knowledge of literature and history, on both of which subjects he possessed a vast library. He had not only read all the important and essential writers, but also the second-rate and the mediocre, whom, especially as regards the novel, he considered to be as necessary as the greats: `One has to learn how to be bored,’ he used to say, and he read bad literature with interest and patience. Buying books was almost his sole expense and sole luxury.”

Dr. Johnson wrote of Measure for Measure: “There is perhaps not one of Shakespeare’s plays more darkened than this by the peculiarities of its author.” I expected fluff and froth on first reading, in a freshman Shakespeare class. Calling it a comedy is an academic stretch. It’s the only play that surprised and almost shocked me the first time I read it. In Act II, Scene 2, Isabella sounds like Johnson:

“. . . but man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.”

Sonnet 129 is an explosion of lust and shame, yet is never “explicit,” to use Marias’ word. It’s as condensed as star matter and contains more information than most novels: “Mad in pursuit and in possession so, / Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme. / A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe; / Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.” There’s no “I” in the poem and 129 is the only sonnet to use the word “lust.” Marías suggests Lampedusa may have been impotent. We’re left with the impression of a deeply private man, a loner in every sense, who waited until his final years to write a single book, one of the last century’s great novels. Its theme is the ebbing of a world, the waning aristocratic order with nothing worthwhile to take its place, “Drest in a little brief authority.” After reading The Leopard and David Gilmour’s The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe di Lampedusa (Quartet Books, 1988), we’re left with the impression of a man without serious complaint. No social butterfly, never the life of the party, he lived his life as he wished, often solitary, with a single-minded devotion to reading and, in the end, writing. Marías describes a retirement plan I can endorse:

“While Licy, his Latvian psychoanalyst wife, recovered in bed from the hours which, by her own choosing, she spent working late into the night, Lampedusa would get up early and walk to a cafe-cum-patisserie where he would take a long breakfast and read. On one occasion, he did not move for four hours, the time it took him to finish a large novel by Balzac, from start to finish.”

1 comment:

Alexander MacAulay said...

Salvatore Savoia in Chapter 13 (‘La biblioteca di Giuseppe Tomasi’) of his ‘Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa' (Palermo: Flaccovio Editore, 2010) gives what he calls a ‘rapida carrellata’ of the depleted remnants of the ‘Biblioteca Lampedusa’ (6,047 volumes in at least five languages). Bibliophiles would wish for more than the whistle-stop tour on offer, but when are bibliophiles ever content with intelligence divulged concerning other people's libraries? No mention at all of Shakespeare but ‘his beloved Balzaac was represented by 27 volumes, as well as various biographies and Gallimard’s Comédie humaine.’