Lampedusa by Steven Price

by Edith Cody-Rice

When we think of the word Lampedusa today. many of us instantly conjure up the image of rescued migrants who have launched from Libya and have landed on this tiny Italian island in the Mediterranean, the southernmost point of Europe, swamping the local population.

But the Lampedusa of Steven Price’s new novel is something else altogether. The Lampedusa of the title is the Sicilian Prince of Lampedusa, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, who lived and died in Palermo  and never visited the tiny Island. Giuseppi Tomasi is the author of the Italian classic novel The Leopard which was published posthumously in 1958 and made into a Luchino Visconti film of the same title with Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon  in 1963. The Leopard is recognized as a masterpiece and has outsold all other novels in the Italian language since its publication. It is the tale of a 19th century Sicilian prince caught in the time of the  Risorgimento, the reunification of Italy, which will destroy and impoverish the old aristocracy of the Sicilian kingdoms. The prince watches the decay helplessly.

Price’s novel, set in 1956 and 1957, is a fictionalized account of the last years of Tomasi’s life. Steven Price has read the Leopard many times and was struck, in reading about its author, how much Tomasi’s life resembled that of the fictional prince. The real life Tomasi, as Sicilian aristocracy, had spent his childhood in a luxurious palazzo but the second world war destroyed his childhood home and impoverished him and his aristocratic Latvian wife Alessandra so that he ended his days in  a partially bombed out palazzo without running water and with leaky plumbing.

The Leopard is the only novel that Tomasi wrote and it is a masterpiece that occupied his declining few years. Before he died it was rejected by two leading publishers and only accepted and finally acclaimed after his death.

The fictionalized story invented by Steven Price is largely an interior novel. By that I mean, while meticulously respecting the known facts of the real life Tomasi, The book is largely an interior dialogue of the prince, his musings on philosophy, on life, on his wife, his regrets and his condition – he had debilitating emphysema and died of lung cancer in 1957. It has a lovely, dusty, old world European feel – the atmosphere, in fact, of the Leopard but also of the bomb ruined Palermo. It is an homage to memory, to regret, and to the civility of the old ways.

Tomasi laments that, having come from ancient and honorable Sicilian nobility, he, the last in his line, will die without a legacy, without an heir. He muses

The ancient Tomasi had achieved immortality in Palma di Montechiaro by building and giving to the church their palazzos and cathedrals. It did not matter what sort of men or women they had been in life….. GIuseppe, on the other hand, was a man without reputation. All his life, he saw, he had avoided any gesture that might be noticed or considered worthy of remembrance.

It is a rich underlying irony that the reader knows what he does not: that his great masterpiece will be his  lasting legacy and will immortalize his world that died in the ashes of the reunification and of the war.

There is an omniscient narrator but that narrator reaches into the heart of Giuseppe Tomasi as we watch him live his life among the remains of his aristocratic relatives. In real life, Tomasi adopted a young nobleman to pass on his title of Duke of Palermo although his princely title died with him. The young nobleman,  Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi still lives in Palermo and has gained fame as the son of Tomasi and the model for one of the characters in the Leopard. Steven Price was able to visit him and his wife Nicoletta there in the house he inherited from Tomasi. I presume that the descriptions of the palazzo, are thus drawn from life.

This is not a novel of action, in fact,it is a novel of stillness, of exquisite attention to the details of life, of the day to day and simple, yet internally complex human relations. Steven Price has brought all his descriptive powers to what would be a sad tale did we not know the legacy that Tomasi left. In an interview Price said that he thinks that the second rejection of the manuscript broke Tomasi’s heart and perhaps hastened his death which occurred 10 days after that letter was received.  Yet this novel is an immensely pleasurable read.

Lampedusa is published by McClelland & Stewart

326 pages