Wednesday, July 10, 2024

'More Profundities Than Twists'

I’m sure some of you share my slightly guilty impulse: a book last read months or decades ago enters my thoughts and I can’t shake it. I have to read it again. For me, the same is true of movies. To put it in not non-artistic terms, sometimes you get a craving for spaghetti carbonara. 

Recently I reread John Bunyan’s Pilgrim's Progress (1678), a book I’ve read at least as often as Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and Robinson Crusoe (1719). That three masterpieces of English prose were published within a period of less than half a century is remarkable. I don’t share Bunyan’s theology but what stirred my desire to read him again was, in part, a wish to indulge in nostalgia. My maternal grandmother – a rare relative whom I actually liked -- gave a copy of the book to me more than sixty years ago. She inscribed it so it couples literature and life in a single volume.


Some books hold an enduring interest. Others are exhausted before we’ve finished reading them the first time, and not just genre fiction or most bestsellers. I last read Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) ten years ago. The novel by Sicilian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957) was published sixteen months after his death. It’s the only book he ever wrote. It became a bestseller worldwide and Luchino Visconti’s film version came out in 1963, with Burt Lancaster as the title character – a rare example of a great film adapted from a book.


Last December, The Claremont Review of Books published its annual list of book recommendations for Christmas. I’m a sucker for such things, especially if those suggesting the books have good taste and interesting minds. Most of the titles recommended by the Review, its editors and contributors, I have never read though many are tempting. Christopher Caldwell, a contributing editor to the journal, writes:


The Leopard (1958) is a 300-page novel about a fat, awkward, willful Sicilian prince during the 1860s, dashed off by the fat, awkward, willful Sicilian prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa as he died of cigarettes in the 1950s. The plot follows the fading of a family and of a way of life – it has more profundities than twists. The writing is witty and sharp: a sinister Sicilian village is full of ‘peasants stuck to their houses like caryatids.’ It is wise and aphoristic: the prince refuses a seat in the new Italian senate because he has no ‘capacity for self-deception, that prerequisite for anyone who aspires to lead others.’ It may be the greatest novel ever written outside of Russia."


Grand claims but worth considering (Proust?). Caldwell sold me on reading the novel again. He recommends the work of two other Italian masters: Leonardo Sciascia and Alessandro Manzoni. Caldwell is persuasive. I reread Manzoni’s The Betrothed in the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown. Which brings to mind another Italian novel, one not mentioned by Caldwell: Zeno's Conscience by Italo Svevo. Check out the other contributors to the Claremont’s Review’s Christmas list -- serious readers, serious books.

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