24 June 2014
Chapter 1 – Introduction to the Prince
It’s good of Lampedusa to make it so easy for us. A novelist in the 1950s could have made things hard for the reader, especially one with only a vague understanding of Italian history in the 19th Century. Instead, he uses broad strokes to paint a picture of a way of life in terminal decline. In particular he presents us with Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina in Sicily. He is a huge, overbearing man in his late 40s who considers himself in his prime, and Lampedusa has made him almost a personification of the perennial dichotomy between mind and body. He loves the cerebral life he can indulge in with his beloved astronomy – even, at one point, wishing that he could relinquish everything else in life – but, on the first evening we meet him, he makes one of his accustomed visits to a Palermo brothel. (Afterwards he compares the things said by his favourite there with those he met on a trip to Paris where he is attending, with the kind of irony Lampedusa enjoys, an award ceremony for his work in astronomy. He also thinks of his wife’s habitual cry when he reaches a sexual climax, a prayer to ‘Jesu-Maria’. He has never, he reminds himself in that self-justifying way of his, even seen her navel.)
Accompanying him in the observatory and on the trip to Palermo – though not, obviously, into the brothel – is Father Pirrone, the put-upon Jesuit family priest. The prince’s relationship with this man symbolises the aristocracy’s easy habits of incorporating those elements of the Church that it finds convenient while blithely ignoring the rest. He likes likes to exercise his power over the priest as much as he does over everyone else, forcing him on the night-time journey despite his obvious embarrassment. In an occasional shift in the point of view from the prince to the priest, we are made as explicitly aware of the fine nuances of Pirrone’s sensibilities as we are of Don Fabrizio’s simpler ones. Lampedusa likes these shifts away from the prince’s self-serving perceptions of the world. We know how Stella, his long-suffering wife, feels about the nocturnal trip before we hear the cry she gives from her room, a cry the prince regards as evidence of one of her ‘fits of hysteria’. And, in what must be a satirical dig at his owner, we know how proud the prince’s dog feels about the havoc he wreaks on the garden next day – and how the prince indulges this favourite. File that one away for later.
The prince isn’t presented as a monster, but as the product of his times and his upbringing. This is May 1860, and the ancient pictures on the wall of the family estates give us as clear an image of the sense he has of his place in the world as the mixed-up crockery bears witness to generations of careless owners. It’s somehow appropriate that despite having sons and daughters of his own, his favourite is the product of an unhappy marriage between his sister and a man who squandered every last bit of his family’s heritage. This nephew, Tancredi Falconeri, is the 20-year-old he frankly wishes was his own son, preferring him to Francesco Paolo, his own sixteen-year-old, despite his hot-headedness and dangerous politics. Tancredi is his other great indulgence, and I’ll come back to him.
What is happening in the world are developments that the prince has no way of coming to terms with in any sensible way. 1848 has been mentioned, the year of revolutions, when the first steps were taken in mainland Italy towards unification. As far as the prince is concerned, the main outcome of this kind of thing is a king with a Neapolitan accent instead of one from Turin – in a flashback we see how uncomfortable he is with the king’s ‘plebeian’ manner – and finds it hard to imagine that his own position can be in any real danger. Except… in April 1860, only a month before the novel opens and mentioned early on, there had been disturbances in Sicily itself. In May these are ongoing, and the campfires of insurgents can be seen all over the mountains around Palermo when he visits at night. It’s typical of him that next morning he is able to imagine that, looking as they do like ‘vapour’, the mountains can’t really pose a threat.
This is the background to the evening and morning that make up Chapter 1. Our first introduction to them is in the prince’s garden, in which roses from more temperate climates reach the size of cabbages and fill the air with a sickly sweetness. It reminds him of an even sicklier, sweeter smell after the April disturbances, which turned out to come from the corpse of a soldier who had found his way there before dying. There’s something very apt about this. We already have a sense that the prince is governed by his senses in spite of his fantasy of governing the paths of the stars through his careful calculations – and, perhaps more to the point, those of the priest. He isn’t controlling anything, and is as subject to the overweening power of the Sicilian heat as his garden.
But the main link is Tancredi. The prince tolerates his ‘insolence’ – the prince’s own word – when he makes a joke about his visit of the night before. He had been in the town, and is now dressed and ready to leave to join with those bringing about change. The prince is content to let this appealing young man reassure him with a sound-bite he must have picked up from somewhere: ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ The prince is out of his depth and accepts this. When the king himself had mentioned that the prince should keep a watch on his nephew, he pays more attention to the bad taste of his comment than to what it might mean. Now, he is confident that all that is to be expected is a little re-shuffling. There will be no real fighting – this despite his vivid memory of the dead soldier – and nothing worse than ‘a few spots of blood’.
He’s clueless. His response to a warning letter he receives at the end of the chapter is to laugh at the writer’s over-cautious reaction. Unlike his correspondent, he won’t be leaving his house in the hands of servants. Later, when he reads in the newspaper that Garibaldi really is close – which (if I remember rightly) is when Garibaldi’s name is mentioned for the first time – he decides there is nothing to worry about. Garibaldi’s Piedmontese masters will keep a check on his actions.
And for some reason I’m reminded of the wall-decorations in the chapel at the beginning of the chapter. For ‘twenty-three-and-a-half hours’ of every day, the chapel is in the charge of the monkeys on the walls. I get the sense that in this novel there is nothing accidental about a little image like that. Who is in charge in the palace?
Chapter 2 – Donnafugata, late August 1860
Donnafugata is the town where the prince and his family come every year in the late summer. Descriptions of the ubiquitous ‘leopard’ motif, including one statue with its legs broken, let us know early on that nothing changes, and everything changes. The journey, which ends as the chapter opens, has been three days of misery through the arid Sicilian landscape. (Descriptions later in the chapter insist on its scorched barrenness.) But for the prince this is where he feels most welcome, can recapture something of his childhood self. Hah. Before the first day is over – like Chapter 1, this one consists of the end of one day and the beginning of another – he has had pessimistic thoughts about his own life’s journey, as arid as the one he’s just completed, and is forced into thinking of himself, not yet fifty years old, as an old man. He might be the leopard, but the catlike Tancredi keeps appearing noiselessly behind him and the unspeakably bourgeois mayor is superseding him in ways he would never have dreamt of before this year. The broken legs of that statue appear more and more ominous.
Is there anything about this novel that reveals that it was written in the middle of the 20th Century? It’s as though Modernism never happened, so that the narrator’s omniscience is a given, and unhurried descriptions of people and places always contain enough signals for the reader to understand what is going to be significant. Lampedusa’s imagery is so clear-cut we always know where we are with it… and I’ve just realised that this was written less than 20 years before my favourite historical novel ever, J G Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur. In both of them the familiar, leisurely style masks a critique of a culture coming face-to-face with its own obsolescence.
But the prince is now in Donnafugata and all is as it ever was. Except it isn’t. During the political upheavals that have happened offstage between Chapters 1 and 2 – notably Garibaldi’s invasion, apparently, of most of Sicily – the respect shown to members of the old order seems unchanged. The army commander who had visited the prince at the time spoke to him in the same deferential way that he would have before, and at Donnafugata the old retainer is as obsessive as ever – Lampedusa gives us a story of how once he reverentially left a glass of wine untouched for months between visits – that everything is exactly as it was when the prince left. But this man also tells the prince that Don Callegaro Sedara, the man who is now the mayor – we soon see him in his tricolour sash – is now, through what sound like shady behind-the-scenes deals, making himself as rich as the prince himself.
It isn’t all about money, but in this chapter it becomes one of Lampedusa’s ways of sending the reader signals about the shifts that are taking place. We’ve had warnings in Chapter 1 (from the prince’s steward) about the rising power of this new class, and now the mayor’s wealth rings alarm bells. Another one rings when, almost in an aside, we are told that the permit needed by the prince to travel across Sicily was only available if the right payments were made to the right people. It’s becoming part of a bigger thread to do with the incipient corruption of the new regime in Sicily. Basically – I’m guessing – nothing has changed in that respect.
There’s another big plot element in this chapter, to do with the prince’s domestic life, and money is inextricably linked with that as well. Tancredi, now wearing an eye-patch following his exploits with the Garibaldi forces (I’m not sure whether he’s actually lost an eye), is with the family and, apparently, getting close to Concetta. She is the prince’s second daughter, is still in her teens, and has told her father via Father Pirrone that she is in love with Tancredi. However… Tancredi hs been around and is clearly not nearly as fond of Concetta as she thinks he is. He is ambitious, and it is one of the prince’s first thoughts that he will need more money than she would bring to a marriage. This is familiar territory for readers of 19th Century fiction, from Austen to Tolstoy, and Tancredi behaves according to type. The prince has invited the nouveau riche mayor to dinner on the first evening, and he has brought his daughter Angelica. She is a beauty, and all the men present are besotted – but it’s Tancredi that the prince sees next day taking a gift to the mayor’s house of a dozen peaches. He has thought nothing of taking more than half the first crop ever grown from the new graftings in the prince’s garden.
This is part of another thread emerging concerning the relative positions of Tancredi and the prince, although it’s early days yet. The omniscient narrator has let us know that the prince feels an unmistakeable sexual stirring at the sight of Angelica, but knows that she is not for a man like him, just coming to terms with growing old. He had noticed Tancredi’s interest despite the younger man’s game attempt to keep a conversation going with the woman he’d been talking to before Angelica’s arrival. Concetta notices too, and gives him a dressing-down for the suggestive story he tells her new rival about his storming of a nunnery with other revolutionaries. (Angelica has no problem with it, an indication of how she feels about this attractive young man and his red-blooded stories.) The prince doesn’t seem to hear the story, and doesn’t understand why, from now on, Concetta’s interest in her cousin appears to cool so suddenly.
It becomes clearer next day. The prince is performing one of those acts of patronage he enjoys so much, paying his annual visit to the nunnery founded by an ancestor of his in order to drop off his usual ten ounces of gold. Ok. But part of the pay-off is a tradition that satisfies his aristocratic male vanity: he is the only man, aside from the king himself, who is allowed to cross the threshold. Tancredi tries to get himself allowed in, a request that stuns everybody . Concetta asks him why he doesn’t use a battering ram, which is how he and his colleagues got into the nunnery in his risqué story, but then the prince enters alone. Tancredi seems to shrug off the idea – who needs silly stuff like that anyway? – and takes the peaches to the mayor’s house. The prince sees that he is wearing his favourite seducing colour, Prussian blue – and if he doesn’t realise that Tancredi doesn’t need him any more (beyond filching his property, a neat image), the reader certainly does.
The reader will also have noticed that money and property are inextricably linked with this episode… but I mentioned some time ago that it isn’t all about money. Things are slipping in other ways, as we see close to the beginning of the chapter. The prince is so pleased to be on familiar ground after the recent upheavals that he asks people to dinner who have never been on the list before. Specifically, he asks the mayor – it’s that man again – and it’s a mistake: ‘never before would he have issued so cordial an invitation; and from that moment, invisibly, began the decline of his prestige.’ How many more signs of decline are there? His body might still be like a mountain range, as we see in the scene in the bathroom where he calls the priest in while he is getting out of the bath. But he’s beginning to look like yesterday’s man – and I’ve just noticed the title of Chapter 3….
Chapter 3 – The Troubles of Don Fabrizio, October 1860
Lampedusa likes these two-day bites. This time it’s just one day, but there are detailed reflections on the previous day. Meanwhile, since last time, the rain has come and gone and the sun is back in power again. Don Fabrizio is out hunting, if you can call it that in a land where, as the narrator points out, there is so little to hunt. We get a riff on the ancient, unchanging barrenness of Sicily, exactly as it was when the Phoenicians arrived… and all the others who followed. He is out with the trusted church organist Don Ciccio, and this leads to more animal-based imagery. The Neapolitan forces putting up a last-ditch defence in another part of Sicily at that moment are likened to the rabbit the hunters each get a shot at – in Sicily they are always promoted to the status of hares by hunters – which doesn’t recognise its own doom even after it’s shot. The ants that become so excited over the finding of some discarded grape-skins – ‘garbage’ – are the representatives of ‘anthill No 2’, forging a new future for their proud nation.
This might seem heavy-handed, but it’s all relevant, because one of the two major events of this chapter (I counted) is the Plebiscite that has recently taken place in Sicily. Don Fabrizio is troubled by the result of the vote, and it is during an uncharacteristic tirade by Don Ciccio that he realises what it is that is causing his unease. The result was declared a unanimous ‘yes’, when the prince himself had expected a fair number of ‘no’ votes. It’s Don Ciccio who spells out that this has not only made him feel disenfranchised – he had voted no – it is sending a message ‘that I said white when I really said black.’ (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of it.) Nobody will ever know what Sicilians really thought, and the prince realises that ‘something died’ on the day the result was announced, ‘the newborn infant, good faith’. There was a wind blowing up dirt that day – there’s always wind in Sicily, but the dirt is specific to that town square on that day – and he will always associate that dirty wind with a cheat perpetrated on the populace. From now on, he realises, they will be like the hapless victims of a moneylender who delights in pointing out that ‘this is what you signed.’ And in a rare reference to the history of the years following his novel, Lampedusa describes how the Sicilians’ reputation for passive acceptance of whatever their politicians do can be traced back to this day when ‘a hundred Sedara’ made false declarations of the result.
Sedara is also inextricably bound up in the second of the prince’s ‘troubles’. On the day before the hunting trip, the prince had received a letter from Tancredi asking him to seek permission from Sedara to marry Angelica. (Lampedusa spends several paragraphs on the diplomatic skill Tancredi shows in this letter, which he has drafted very carefully indeed.) The prince’s response is highly complex, and Lampedusa’s detailed description of his feelings and subsequent actions – he does what Tancredi asks, and it’s like ‘swallowing a toad’ – is a wonderful dissection of the class system in 19th Century Italy. The animal theme continues in this section of the chapter, in which the prince receives Sedara, as badly dressed and badly shaved as usual. The prince is, straightforwardly, the leopard, accustomed until now to cutting a ‘leonine’ figure and dismissing difficulties ‘with a sweep of his paw.’ He thinks of Sedara as a hyena – except, when he is in the room, he sees that there is too much intelligence in his eyes. Sure, it’s not an intelligence the prince respects, so it is easy for him to read it as mere slyness. Which is what he tends to do. A mistake, surely?
I’m not doing justice to the subtle dance of social differences and the prince’s slow coming to terms with what is going on. Lampedusa uses Don Ciccio to bring out both of these as, caught off guard, he opens up to the prince about what he thinks of Sedara and then tries to extricate himself from the embarrassment of the faux pas when he feels he has made his patron uncomfortable. Faeces and manure are the images that characterise Sedara’s private life. His wife, no more than an ‘animal’ and his sex toy, is the daughter of such a lumpen peasant who was always known as ‘Peppe Merda’ – and when he started to become too demanding of his new son-in-law, he was found ‘with sixteen bullets in his back’. However, Don Ciccio and the prince are able to agree that the manure has only served to fertilise the rose that is the incomparable Angelica – but not until after Don Ciccio has expressed his horror at the idea of Tancredi marrying into such a family. The organist is a ‘snob’ – Lampedusa spends some time on the complexities of what this means, explaining how such people take the proprieties of such matters more seriously than the aristocracy themselves – so he can’t help saying what he says. He immediately wishes the ground would open beneath him, but it’s too late now. The prince forgives him but, as he says ‘there is a price’: Don Ciccio will have to be locked in the gun room for the duration of a visit that Sedara is to make that afternoon. Interestingly, when the two men resume their shooting they do well, because each is imagining that the woodcocks and rabbits in their sights are really Sedara. Animals again.
There are other things going on. There’s another mention of the prince’s mountainous form in the shadow he casts as he lies in bed. This is after he has just told his wife of Tancredi’s letter, and after he has managed, with a mixture of feigned anger and those huge, tender fingers of his stroking her little head, to calm her down. Later, after Sedara has given his consent to the marriage, we’re back to money again. Her dowry is going to be so enormous that even the priest, a comic picture of neutrality up to now, cannot suppress a grunt of shock. The chapter ends when his daughters rise in respect as he passes their room – except for Concetta, who clearly ‘has not heard’ those unmistakeable footsteps of his. The chapter ends with him seeing nothing of her but her back, turned to him.
Chapter 4 – Love at Donnafugata, November 1860
The title only describes the middle section of this chapter, a strange depiction of the palace somehow transformed into a rather ironic metaphor. During it we come to understand that ‘love’ in the case of Tancredi and Angelica is not going to be a straightforward matter, despite appearances at this early stage. I’ll come back to that, because both the beginning and end of the chapter focus on the prince, and the changes happening around him .
The (fairly short) opening section is about the growing acquaintance between the prince and Sedara, and the effects it has both in the short term and years into the future. Lampedusa makes explicit what we know already, that the relationship represents a much broader picture of the shifting social structures in the mid-19th Century. The prince seeks more and more advice about his property from Sedara, who genuinely helps him as much as he can. Until now, all the aristocrats he had met had been sheep giving themselves up for shearing – but even now, the prince doesn’t really follow his advice. His laziness – by implication, like the laziness of all his class in matters that have never threatened the status quo until now – means that he just can’t be interested. In the future he will, unfairly, gain a reputation for cheating his descendants of their inheritance while Sedara, of course, will become richer. He is the elephant, going in a straight line that pays no regard to whatever comes in his path.
Sedara, when he first begins to see more of the Salina family, is as bemused as ever by aristocratic behaviour that he has always found absurd. But his contact with Tancredi – a man he finds as ‘cynical’ as he is – makes him begin to realise what all these good manners are about. Deference to women, self-effacement rather than being seen to win an argument at any cost and other social graces all, surprisingly, offer ‘a greater yield’ in the long run. He is learning the advantages of the ‘refinement’ which, over three generations, will lead his family to be as sheep-like as all the others. We learned in Chapter 3 that he is going about the conventional business of creating a trumped-up lineage for himself, and his descendants, three generations down the line, will have the mind-set to go with it. In Sedara we are witnessing the process of how the aristocracy comes about from humble beginnings.
The prince mentions Sedara’s wish to invent an ancestry in the last section of this chapter – ‘He is not from an old family, but he soon will be’, or words to that effect – when he is talking to a government representative on a visit. This is the hapless Chevalley di Monterzuolo, in Donnafugata to invite the prince to become a senator in the new government. The tone of this section has been one of fairly broad social comedy. Chevalley is a fish out of water, has been told terrifying stories of brigands and murderers and, while being shown around Donnafugata by Tancredi, has heard bloodcurdling stories about the locals. Ok. But now he has Don Fabrizio to contend with, and the tone changes as the prince tells Chevalley why he will not be accepting his invitation to be in the new senate. At first, it seems to be a personal decision: as a supporter of the old regime and an inexperienced politician, he wouldn’t fit in….
But then we get the wider, much more interesting explanation. Lampedusa puts in the prince’s mouth what must be his own long-considered opinions. He gives a wry, worldly appraisal of why Sicilians will neither accept help from outsiders nor participate in their government. They are an old culture – ‘25 centuries’ of rule by outsiders mean that they believe in nothing and nobody outside themselves – and outsiders’ efforts to modernise them are like dragging around the Great Exhibition a tired-out centenarian, not at all interested in the products of state-of-the-art steel and cotton mills. Chevalley has got it wrong when he asserts that they must want to change the squalor of most of their lives. They don’t want to change a thing, they want to sleep. More than once he says their ultimate ambition is to approach a death-like inertia, and more than once he explains that this is because they have already reached ‘perfection’. He says later that in their own estimation ‘they are gods’. Chevalley slowly begins to realise that the prince is being absolutely serious.
The other thing that outsiders need to recognise is the merciless heat the Sicilians put up with for six months in every year. The prince compares it to winter in Russia – where, in fact, they cope much better. The sun in Sicily is like the fire pouring on the cities of the damned in the Bible, and he tells a story of some British naval officers, looking at the awe-inspiring landscape and, in particular, the light. But, at the same time, they are appalled by the poverty. What they don’t understand is these two things are inextricably linked.
Is there no hope for Sicily? Fortunately, some men are exception to this rule, and the prince has mentioned that, if taken out ‘by the age of twenty’, a Sicilian might just learn a different way of thinking. When he comes to offer an alternative to himself for a place in the senate I genuinely expected him to say the name of Tancredi. In fact – and this must be Lampedusa’s biggest hint yet about the nature of politics, and not only in Sicily – he nominates Sedara. Chevalley is appalled, knowing all about Sedara’s ways of working, and will not listen to the prince’s reasons for suggesting him. (Lampedusa tells us all we need to know about this sort of idealism with the information that in ten years’ time, Sedara will, indeed, take his place in the senate.) Next morning he makes his way home early, more disgusted than ever by the squalid conditions tolerated by people he believes to be beyond redemption.
We are in the middle of the novel by now, and this chapter Lampedusa makes more and more references to the historical context these people are living in. Early on I was wondering what makes this a 20th Century novel, and this is it. Italian readers in the 1950s would have been all too familiar with the backwardness of their own deep south. Carlo Levi had published Christ Stopped at Eboli the decade before, and in it he relates his experiences of exile to what seemed like a different country in the 1930s. In fact he’s in the southern part of the mainland, and he uses a telling image to illustrate both of the locals’ attitude to outside interventions and of how out of touch the government is. This is the urinal installed by the Fascist government, only used as a drinking-trough for pigs and for boys to float paper boats. Lampedusa’s readers would be very aware that the prince is not only describing 19th Century attitudes in Sicily.
Between these two sections comes the long interlude of ‘love at Donnafugata’. Lampedusa describes ten days that Tancredi and Angelica spend together exploring the obscurest corners of the palace, and continually offers dark warnings of how their apparent happiness does not set them up for a lifetime of contentment. Even now, whatever it is that they feel for each other can’t be described as love. Angelica is too self-possessed ever to yield to what I think the narrator calls the ‘abandonment’ of love, although he does allow that she can be described as ‘in love’ at this moment. And we are never allowed to forget that she combines the two elements that are bound to attract an ambitious young man like Tancredi, money and a powerfully evoked sexual attractiveness.
It’s possible to interpret this as a satirical take on courtship in 19th Century fiction. Through the thoughts of the prince, Lampedusa has constantly been insisting on the temporary nature of this first flush of love, and there’s nothing in what he tells us about this young couple that goes against this. Their exploration of the Gormenghast-like layout of the palace seems to stand in for their (unsatisfactory) exploration of each other, although I’m not exactly sure how this works. They find long unused bedrooms, some of them impossibly sumptuous, but never go as far as to make love in any of the beds. They come close on the day before Tancredi has to leave – but the clamour of a chapel bell just outside saves them…. Ok. But they also find a secret room full of hesitantly described instruments that are clearly S&M toys – Tancredi does his best to shield them from Angelica’s gaze – and another that contains the gruesome accessories of religious self-torture. After that they begin to notice that whips are almost as common in the palace as leopards. Go figure.
Meanwhile Tancredi, feeling guilty – I think this is made explicit – has brought along someone to pay court to Concetta. This is a Milanese gent from his regiment, and his efforts at conventional courtship get him nowhere. Ok, again.
There’s such a shift in these four short chapters that they almost have the feel of a coda. They take up perhaps the final one third of the novel, but most of what Lampedusa has to tell us has already been covered. There are new insights, from different perspectives, but few surprises.
Chapter 5 is Father Pirrone pays a visit (February 1861). He’s at his humble village, five ‘cart hours’ from Palermo, paying tribute to the memory of his father. There have been references to death before in the novel, but this memento mori is the first of many still to come. Pirrone, of course, is the clever lad who’s made good, and we see the simple respect he’s given. Ok. But the main business of the chapter comes in two set-piece episodes. In one, he tries to explain the aristocratic mind-set to men who have no idea what he is talking about. It’s Lampedusa’s opportunity to point out the absurdity of a class who, while making decisions that affect hundreds of people, might have their whole day spoiled by a poorly-ironed collar. He’s referring specifically to the prince, and we know exactly what he’s talking about. But he men are mystified, only wanted to know the prince’s views on the Plebiscite, and wander off home. Only the old herbalist remains, and Lampedusa is almost satirising himself as the priest uses images and analogies to explain the differences in the classes. When the old man falls asleep the priest is pleased, because now he can say exactly what he means….
The other episode is a short story in itself, illustrating the true nature of Sicilian ‘honour’ by sending it up so outrageously that everyone seems no better than clowns. Do you need any details? Someone’s daughter has been seduced by someone’s son in a squalid act of revenge. The mother appeals to Father Pirrone, and reminds him that the feud – there’s always a feud – is about property. The son’s father was in partnership with the daughter’s father, but… etc. The priest suggests the mother splits the property down the middle and offers half as the girl’s dowry. The end. ‘Honour’ comes into it when the father, a caricature of a touchy Sicilian peasant, has nothing to say about honour when it concerns the morality of his own son’s behaviour (in fact, the sex was clearly the father’s idea), but reaches for his knife whenever property is mentioned. The satirical pay-off, of course, is that it proves that marrying for property is as acceptable among the peasantry as it is for aristocrats. Can we move on now?
Chapter 6 is A Ball (November 1862), and the action takes place during a single night. It’s all told from the point of view of the prince, and the memento mori count rises again. On the way, in all their finery, the prince and the Salina women encounter a priest making his way to offer the last sacrament to someone in his ‘death agony’. All of them kneel and cross themselves… before we’re whirled away into what promises to be better than the usual run of these soirees in which ‘the world’ – a meagre few hundred from the oldest Palermo families – congratulates itself on managing to stay alive. The prince has managed to get Angelica and her father to be invited, and the prince frets about the spectacle Sedara will make of himself. In fact, nobody is looking at Sedara. Angelica, through the combination of her looks and enough superficial knowledge to allow her to pull off a little conversational trick, gives the impression that she has impeccable taste. (She says that whatever she sees is good, almost as good as… and she names the best example in Italy.) We are told that the reputation for connoisseurship that she gains during this evening will stay with her, ‘undeservedly’, for the rest of her life.
But this is really the prince’s chapter. He looks around sceptically, at the décor, at the other people of his own generation, at the young women. There are a handful of beauties, including Angelica, but these merely make the rest look like ‘frogs’ by comparison. Later in the evening (I think) he imagines them as monkeys, climbing the chandeliers and displaying their behinds. and it’s as though he’s inside Yeats’s ‘Sailing to Byzantium’: ‘That is no country for old men. The young in one another’s arms, birds in the trees – Those dying generations – at their song….’ The narrator has already set the scene, as so often happens. The frescoes ‘thought themselves eternal, but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn was to prove the contrary in 1943.’ Now the prince can only see impermanence of youth, and looks for conversation elsewhere. The only proper conversation he has is with the general who has been honoured for shooting Garibaldi in the foot. History, in this world, is easily reduced to an anecdote shared between old men.
Tired, and wishing he had never come, he escapes to the library. He is surprised to find what the narrator actually refers to as a memento mori: a reproduction of ‘Death of the Just Man’ by Greuze . He knows that death is never so theatrical, that there will be no weeping daughters arranged in picturesque poses. What there will be are stains and spots of blood on the sheets…. But Tancredi comes in with Angelica and, after she has persuaded him to dance, he feels the years fall away as he and the young beauty cut a striking figure. Hah. On the way home he sees a laden cart from the slaughterhouse, dripping gobbets of blood. He contemplates Venus, longing for a more pure realm of existence that he often imagines in his observatory. Hah, again.
The memento mori count in that chapter is at least four, and the title of Chapter 7 explains what Lampedusa has been setting up: Death of a Prince (July 1883). It’s the shortest chapter of all, as the prince sits in an armchair on a hotel balcony. He remembers with horror the journey back to Palermo from the medical specialist in Naples – he had insisted on travelling back by train – and how the faces of the family members who hadn’t gone with him tell him what the doctor had not: he is close to death.
In this chapter we get even more of what is now a familiar blurring between the prince’s view of the world and that of the narrator. As the novel has gone on, the impression has become stronger and stronger that the way the prince sees things, for all its limitations and for all the prince’s faults, is the right one. ‘For years’ he has felt the approach of death – the ball in Chapter 6 had taken place over 20 years earlier, but it sets the scene for this chapter – and now it is as though he can see through the vanity of human existence. Lampedusa makes the process of dying fairly short and, at a physical level, not uncomfortable. But that’s not the level he cares about. The prince has the chance to look back sceptically on his own life. How much of it has been truly happy? As the priest arrives, having been sent for by a genuinely affected Tancredi, the prince resorts to what he has been most comfortable with throughout his life. He makes calculations. A few seconds of sexual ecstasy, the genuine pride of holding his first-born son…. Soon he is lost in confusion, his mental abilities ebbing away. But he comes up with the round figure of three years. Three years out of the 73 that he has lived. Not much of a score, he decides.
The priest mistakes the look on his face for contrition, and gives absolution. So much, Lampedusa seems to say, for priests. What the prince is actually seeing at the moment of death is a vision of a woman in grey that he remembers seeing at the station. The experience of death, in other words, is just another part of life. Except… somehow, as she helps him to his feet, he realises he has seen her in his favourite situation, but now she is ‘lovelier than… when glimpsed in stellar space.’ We’re back to where we’ve always been with the prince: it isn’t the cerebral abstractions of astronomy that do it for him, it’s the allure of a striking-looking woman.
The title of the final chapter, Relics (1910), drips with bitter double-meanings. At first it seems to refer to the three dried-up daughters of the prince, in their late sixties or early seventies and all unmarried. But no, the ‘relics’ are the collection of 70-odd holy items amassed by one of them, mostly bought from a woman who is clearly a crook. Concetta, the sister who makes the decisions, has sanctioned the purchases despite having no faith in their provenance. Lampedusa makes it explicit that she is like an exasperated parent buying toys for a bad-tempered child.
A new papal ruling has brought the local church hierarchy to prepare the ground for an official assessment of the relics next day. Lampedusa has made it clear what the outcome is likely to be for most of them, and the only thing that the ladies can look forward to is the pomp of a visit from (I think) a cardinal… but, when the day arrives, he disappoints them. Attitudes in this backwater have made him bored and cynical, and there is no ceremony. He hardly glances at the faded magnificence of the house and its furnishings and will take no refreshment beyond a glass of water. He leaves the young, polite, utterly unsentimental Vatican-trained evaluator who, a few hours later, leaves them with five genuine relics and a pile of detritus he suggests they simply throw away. He is impressed more by the display cabinets, as explicit a sign as we need from Lampedusa. It’s all show – and the sisters are left wondering what all this is going to do for their jealously guarded status.
There are different relics. Concetta, unsentimental in other ways, has kept secret boxes in her room for over 50 years, containing the trousseau she collected when she expected to marry Tancredi. She has even kept Bendico, the dog they had at that most precious time of her life, stuffed and now moth-eaten…. Save both of these for later, because although Lampedusa has kept quiet about her inner life until now, only showing us what she shows to the world, there’s more to come….
It comes by way of a visit from Angelica on the same day. (Don’t be fooled by her still statuesque form she still presents, Lampedusa warns us in an aside. She is already suffering from the terrible disease that will ‘transform her into a wretched spectre’ before long.) She tells Concetta that a certain Senator Tassoni is in town, and has been asking after her. He’s another relic, veteran of the same Redshirt campaign that Tancredi fought in. Concetta doesn’t like the idea of meeting him: in her mind he will be forever associated with that unpleasant little story of the nunnery that marked a turning-point in her relationship with the man she had loved.
Are the alarm bells ringing yet? They should be, because he tells Concetta that Tancredi had once confessed to him that she, and no one else, was the one he loved. He believed that his story about the nunnery – the one he had only invented in a stupid moment of showing off to Angelica – had turned Concetta against him. In a terrible moment of insight she realises that it was her own cold sarcasm towards him that led to their estrangement. Worse, she remembers her battering-ram jibe when he asked to be given permission to enter the nunnery with her father, and realises that this was a subtle proposal of marriage to her: it would have been the only way he would ever have gained the right. Aaargh.
I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t actually work for me. These eleventh-hour insights into the biggest disappointment in Concetta’s life should be heart-rending, as she understands that her own pride has led to 50 years of dry spinsterhood. In fact, they don’t really amount to much. We don’t know this woman so, however much we might sympathise with her plight, it is hardly more affecting than her sister’s disappointment over the holy relics. (On top of this – coming after warnings from Lampedusa about the uncertainty of so-called historical truth – Tancredi is an unreliable source anyway. By the time he tells Tassoni of his supposed regret, he hasn’t found love in the marriage partner he chose for all sorts of selfish reasons.) It’s a plot development that Lampedusa carefully laid down all those chapters ago – it’s one of the very few times in the novel when it could be said to contain any plot at all – and, well, it comes too late.
It doesn’t stop Lampedusa using her mortification to furnish him with a final telling image to end this novel full of images. To go with the heap of discredited holy relics we now have the idea of Concetta finally throwing out all her own relics. First she tells the servants to get rid of those boxes of 50-year-old memories. And as for Bendico…. One of them throws the stuffed moth-bag out of the window and as it falls, almost magically, ‘in the air there seemed to be dancing a quadruped with long whiskers, its right foreleg raised in imprecation. Then all found peace in a heap of livid dust.’
In so many ways this is among the best readings of a book I’ve read that I have ever read, and only fails to be the very best from an apparent imperception of the great redemptive power of the beauty of its prose even in translation. Nevertheless I salute you.
When you say, “He also thinks of his wife’s habitual cry when he reaches a sexual climax, a prayer to ‘Jesu-Maria…” my reading is that the wife screams when she has an orgasm. A woman can’t always tell right when her sexual partner reaches an orgasm.
The Prince and his wife are in a loveless marriage, and she only submits to him from a sense of duty. She craves forgiveness from God for allowing this to a man she doesn’t love, which is what ‘Jesu-Maria’ is all about. If you can believe that she is reaching an orgasm (which, in passing, I would suggest is the very last thing on the Prince’s mind) then I salute your faith!