‘The Leopard’ Lampedusa’s light-hearted, deeply learned, always entertaining letters

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Famous for his 20th century classic, The Leopard: Revised and with new material (Vintage Classics) – and Visconti’s wonderfully evocative film of the name, The Leopard [1963] [DVD], with Burt Lancaster – this slim collection of Lampedusa‘s letters, mostly to his two cousins, is a delicious, quirky and charming epistolary treat. Quirky because his deep learning typically combined with his often scatological, irreverent humour (most notably, there are some very funny letters written in the style of a proprietor of numerous models of high-quality testicles to gentlemen in such need), and the fact that he referred to himself in his letters in the third person, as The Monster (because of his voluminous appetite for reading; the title was given to him by his cousin and poet, Lucio Piccolo, one of the recipients of the letters).

Lampedusa was a deeply cultured man, loving – and being immersed in – literature ancient, medieval and modern, especially Italian, English and French. (He wrote a 1,000-page study of English Literature, published in 1990-1991 by the Italian firm Mondadori; he also wrote an incomplete, densely handwritten 500 pages for an intended follow-up study of French literature.) He also loved going to the cinema – he’s insightful, for example, about the now-classic King Vidor’s The Crowd (1938) – sadly not available nowadays to us on DVD – loved architecture, and enjoyed bespoke, quality-made clothes.

If this collection was not already a sufficient joy for Lampedusa’s sense of humour and impressive sweep of literary references, and his easy display of learning and culture with an always light touch, he’s also terrific at capturing the essence of a place he visits (he was a great and regular traveller, typically following a `circuit’ that included London, Paris, Berlin, Rome and other vistas) and with great relish he conveys his tremendous Epicurean sensibilities. As one terrific example, let me quote the following, on his love for English food:

But the Monster, as he has already given you to understand, contains in himself not only an angel, but also a pig – of which he is proud. And as a pig he appreciates and rejoices in fleshly pleasures. At times the Spartan simplicity of the pure English cuisine terrifies him. But more often he is delighted – whether he is drinking, as he is today, thick buttery milk which leaves a trace of cream in the cup, whether he is biting bloody steaks which pass on to him the vigour of noble and select young bulls, whether he is tasting large thick slices of rosy ham, lying on beds of soft real bread and coming from the heraldic loins of the illustrious hogs of Yorkshire, whether again at the end of the meal, sinking a greedy spoon into the supplies of the lordly cheeses of Chester, rosy as onyx, or Stilton, green as aquamarine, or Cheddar, transparent and amber-coloured. Because here cheese is not served in prosaic slices, but whole cheese are brought to the table, and the dilettante (I was about to say the lover) digs into the tasty recesses, rummages in them with a horn spoon and tries them out. And the waiters are often so incautious as to leave the multicoloured treasures in front of the Monster – and their eyes pop out when, instead of three cheeses of about ten kilos each, they find only three fragrant but empty shells.

Isn’t that just wonderful? I get hungry every time I read it and even now am fantasising about chomping on a giant wheel of cheese. And his powers of description extend also to human portraits; in particular one very beautiful, utterly captivating description of a brilliant curator of The Wallace Collection.

But he’s not an absolute star; meaning he’s not – as with all of us – without some deep faults; far from it. An occasional snobbery does come in matters of certain social classes and individuals, and he can be quite (though rarely horribly) cruel in some of his characterisations; these are forgivable, but what is far from palatable is his unquestioning support of Il Duce and fascism, and his barely concealed abhorrence of Jews (at one point he cites the Russian progroms as an example of `Russian wisdom’). (And if there are readers who say, it’s unfair to criticise someone of the 20s and 30s being anti-Semitic, as anti-Semitism was common at the time, I think this is no excuse, for we are all responsible for our individual actions and beliefs, and Lampedusa was far from ignorant in his understanding of many other aspects of life and society in general.)

Still, a fascinating insight into a way of life and living that Lampedusa already knew was on the cards (Sicilian aristocracy, and the aristocratic way of life in general).

As to the quality of the publication itself, there’s no complaint, save one absolutely almighty one: It is the infuriatingly stupid way in which each note to a particular reference in the letters has – instead of being numbered – been itemised with an asterisk. As you turn the pages, and the notes inevitably accumulate, you find yourself being advised to – as an example – `See first note to p.43′ to return you to the original note in which that particular reference occurred. But then you turn to p.43 and find that it is not the relevant note but instead is the first occurrence of that reference, so then you have to go and turn the pages of that individual letter’s notes, on p.53, for an explanation of that note! Bloody, hugely frustrating. I can understand completely why the editor wanted to be economical and avoid repeating the same notes – after all, extra pages bump up the cost of publishing a book, and this collection may perhaps only interest the most devoted of Lampedusa fans (I hope not, they’re well worth the read), but then why weren’t all the notes itemised with numbers, so that you could be told to, in the same example, `See p.53, note 1′ – simple, surely?!

Highly recommended.

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