February 27, 2009

Giorgio Bassani: All the life lived

Someone asked me about the line in my last post about sitting next to Giorgio Bassani, the author of The garden of the Finzi-Continis, on a bus. It wasn't meant to be cryptic. It was a conscious effort to avoid one of those infinite tangents that calculus and I am prone to. But having resisted once, I am happy now to share the story.

We were on our way to a conference about the need to defend European culture against American hegemony. He was one of the great names (another was Anthony Burgess, whom I remember circling in an apparently alcohol-induced buzz, a head taller than everyone else, with a red face and eyes that really were "like infected buttonholes I dare not meet in dreams" as Gore Vidal had viciously but funnily described them) and I was just a hostess - as in glorified secretary, not as in geisha - and an interloper as well, being American, but it seemed clear to me that the air of distance which he wore about him like a wisp of Po River valley fog was not from snobbery.

Years later, I opened the paper one day to find a terrible story about how his wife, with whom he hadn't lived for 30 years, was suing in court to take over his financial affairs because, she said, he had Alzheimer's and his companion was squandering his money. For her the defining moment of this financial mismanagement was when he and his companion -- an American professor with whom he had been living in Rome for 20 odd years – had sold his family home in Ferrara.

Me, I prefer to think that they were simply turning the stones into something which at that point he needed more. Care, perhaps, or concert tickets (he was a fine pianist who, like Anthony Burgess, had considered music as a career before literature), maybe out of season fruit or even fine whiskey, of which, according to his companion, he enjoyed "one or two fingers" every night before dinner, always bringing it to the table when it was two. Dementia sufferers travel light.

And anyway those stones of Ferrara will always be his, because of his books, all set among them, all in the same pre-World War II era, that is to say, under the shadow of fascism. In The Garden of the Finzi-Continis there is the stone wall which the narrator, who is pretty much Bassani, remembers climbing over as a boy to see the object of his desire, the beautiful, rich, sophisticated Micol, for whom none of these attributes will be of any use when one more attribute, Jewish, turns out to be enough for the Fascist racial laws. Neither of course is the wall around what they thought was their enchanted garden of any use. One out of three people in the Jewish community Bassani grew up in were deported under Nazifascism, about 100 people, and of those, 5 came back.

Giorgio Bassani liked this entry in Henry James's Notebooks: "Why does my pen not drop from my hand on approaching the infinite pity and tragedy of all the past? It does, poor helpless pen, with what it meets of the ineffable, what it meets of the cold Medusa-face of life, of all the life lived, on every side.”

A Dutch photographer named Susanne Stoop has made a beautiful book of photos called "The Ferrara streetbook: a walk in Giorgio Bassani's footsteps" with the creative publishing company "Blurb". Follow this link to leaf through a digital copy of the book. www.blurb.com/books/471228

February 02, 2009

The Leopard

The leopard, written by the Sicilian prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa almost exactly fifty years ago, is usually considered the greatest Sicilian novel. As often happens to me with great books, it is hard to choose what to say it’s about. I might do as the book does and say, the Leopard, or, Prince Fabrizio of Salina. Based by Tomasi on his great-grandfather, the Prince is an autocratic giant who bends silverware with his hands when he is angry without realising it, a lover of novels, and an amateur astronomer who, when he once discovered two small planets, named one for his estate and the other for his favourite hunting dog.

As the book opens, Garibaldi has landed in Sicily and the House of Bourbon, which rules Naples and Sicily, is tumbling down. The Prince, with his intelligence and his energy which "tends toward abstraction", as one of the characters notes, sees clearly that a whole way of life is dying, but is incapable or unwilling to do anything about it. “One of the world’s great lonely books” EM Forster called this book. All through the book, its wonderful, lyrical descriptions of Sicily's landscapes and rituals, its funny passages and its acute observations of human nature, the “sediment of sorrow” building in the old prince is a constant refrain.

Many people know about the book from the great movie Luchino Visconti made of it, which the library just recently purchased on DVD (my suggestion!). I took it home as soon as it arrived and watched it. It had aged well, maybe because it is very staged, very magnificent, like one of his opera productions -- 'natural' goes out of date very quickly, but rich and choreographed keeps its spell. Claudia Cardinale is as beautiful as I remembered as the alluring daughter the proto-Mafioso barters for power, but how did I forget how stunning Burt Lancaster was as the Prince?

The leopard was Tomasi di Lampedusa’s one book. He wrote it in only a few months but, his wife recounted after he died, he had been thinking about it for 25 years. It was learning he was terminally ill that decided him; he was able to just finish the fair copy and to have it rejected as unpublishable by the two major Italian publishing houses before he died. This last bit, which I learned today from the back cover flap of one of the three copies of The leopard we have in the fantastic Central Library basement, seems unbearably sad.

I also learned, this from the translator's preface, that when it did get published, by Feltrinelli in 1958 -- which would make it the same year they published Dr. Zhivago -- it was Giorgio Bassani, then an editor there, who chose the manuscript. Giorgio Bassani was from a Jewish family of Ferrara, the beautiful Renaissance city on the Po river delta in northern Italy, about as far and as different from Sicily as you can get. He later became a famous writer himself with The garden of the Finzi-Contini, The heron, and other books, and once I sat next to him on a bus: a kind and distant man in a hat and elegant belted coat.

The leopard was a bestseller and went on to be recognised as one of the greatest novels of 20th century European literature. Oh, and the other two copies in the Library basement stacks were both out.


You can read an excerpt from the first chapter of The leopard on our website
The last leopard: a biography of GIuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa by David Gilmour

Lair of the leopard: 20 artists go in search of Lampedusa's Sicily is based on an exhibition of paintings inspired by The Leopard at the Frances Kyle Gallery in London

Get the DVD of The Leopard directed by Luchino Visconti, starring Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon

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