Lampedusa by Steven Price

If you’ve ever been to Sicily, you’ll have fond memories—of its natural beauty, of the amazingly well-preserved Greek ruins of Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples, of the first women in bikinis portrayed joyfully dancing on the mosaic floors of the ancient Villa Romana del Casale, near Piazza Armerina. You must have visited the 12th-century Norman castle in Palermo, sitting on top of a previous 9th-century Arab castle built during the region’s Muslim domination. You might even have reached the much-beloved destination of Corleone, the old village immortalized in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. In short: in the collective mind, Sicily is about raw natural beauty, foreign occupation, ruins, and the Mafia. It is, on the surface, much less about literature and cultured, delicate international aristocrats, who have in fact for centuries been the heart and soul of this mysteriously beautiful island.

In the collective mind, Sicily is about raw natural beauty, ruins, and the Mafia—much less about literature.

Steven Price fills this gap with his new book, Lampedusa, a realistic novel about the conflicted soul of Giuseppe Tomasi, Prince of Lampedusa, trying to write his literary masterpiece, The Leopard. The result is a passionate, melancholic, wonderful account of an erudite, intellectual Sicily that kept discreetly in the background while history shaped new eras defined by new foreign occupations.

There have been several other books about the Sicilian author, most notably David Gilmour’s comprehensive biography, The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1991). But Price does something different: he adapts fictional emotional dialogues, situations, and interpersonal dynamics to a strictly factual context. Get ready for an incredible murder story featuring tragedies and plots to divert inheritances—tales so dramatic they seem fictional, and all happening in the Lampedusa family. (The leopard was a symbol in the family crest.)

Winds of Change

Price’s plot travels back and forth in time—while pursuing his literary ambitions, Giuseppe is confronted with constant, monumental fights between his mother, Beatrice Mastrogiovanni Tasca Filangeri di Cutò, and his wife, Baroness Alessandra Wolff Stomersee, whom he calls Licy, a complicated Baltic-German beauty. Giuseppe’s joy is teaching literature to a select group of grown-up pupils—his distant cousin Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, Francesco Orlando, and the spicy, beautiful Mirella Radice. Licy and Giuseppe, who are childless, adore Gioacchino; they adopt him, and are thrilled when he proposes to Mirella, seeing their union as the start of a new, modern, interclass chapter in the family history.

While the plot of Price’s book thickens, its underlying message is about the importance of continuity as an antidote to the traumatic changes inflicted on Sicily and its population by recurrent invasions going back thousands of years. The novel’s narrative develops a thread over a period of almost two centuries, traveling between the stories of Sicilian prince Don Fabrizio, the main character in The Leopard, his great-grandson, Giuseppe Lampedusa, our hero, and a delightful, bright, curious Gioacchino, whose real-life counterpart is still living today in the old family palazzo in Via Butera 28. There, he welcomes international and American writers traveling to the home of the great 20th-century author in search of Sicilian inspiration.

The importance of continuity as an antidote to the traumatic changes inflicted on Sicily by invasions going back thousands of years.

The thread in Lampedusa is clear: Don Fabrizio is disgusted by the arrival on his island of yet more foreigners—this time, it’s the Savoia, invading from the north under the pretext of the Italian Risorgimento and unification; and Giuseppe, especially on one occasion, is disgusted by the superficial attitude he discovers on the part of the writers he meets in Northern Italy.

In 1954, Giuseppe is invited by his close cousin Lucio Piccolo, a poet, to join him at a literary festival in San Pellegrino Terme (yes, the same place that sources the famed sparkling water). Piccolo was being introduced to the Italian literary world by the poet and writer Eugenio Montale, who in 1975 would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Most of those attending were national literary figures, instinctively intimidating for Lampedusa.

And yet, as Price writes, Giuseppe was deeply disappointed: “What all of the writers at San Pellegrino craved was not the self-abnegation of true literature but the admiration of those who would read it. The crowds gathered, gesturing, smoking, they dissipated into the night. Giuseppe concealed his disgust under his shyness, and mumbled his regrets, and all the while a bitterness ate away at his heart.” That trip might have given him the final push to start writing his only novel.

After Life, The Leopard

Returning to Palermo, Giuseppe goes back to his Sicilian literary roots. This is an island that gave Italy two Nobel laureates for literature—the playwright Luigi Pirandello and the poet Salvatore Quasimodo—and produced authors who have influenced the rest of the country, including 19th-century realist Giovanni Verga and 20th-century authors Vitaliano Brancati, Leonardo Sciascia, and the late Andrea Camilleri, creator of the best-selling Inspector Montalbano character, who went on to capture the imagination of millions around the world when the Montalbano novels were adapted into a successful TV series.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in Palermo, circa 1935.

Bound by his traditions and history, Giuseppe finishes his book—Mirella typed the manuscript—and his cousin Lucio sends the manuscript to Mondadori in Milan, but after a long while the book is casually rejected by the publishing house. Shortly thereafter, on July 23, 1957, Giuseppe dies, convinced that the superficiality of Northern Italy killed his masterpiece.

But the manuscript is still around. Feltrinelli, a new, successful publishing house, had just smuggled Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago from the Soviet Union to the West, soon to become the literary—and political—sensation of the time. (Pasternak himself was a recipient of the Nobel Prize.) A young editor at Feltrinelli, Giorgio Bassani (who would later write The Garden of the Finzi-Continis), is looking for a new hit and falls in love with The Leopard. It’s published in 1958, and in that first year it sells 200,000 copies in Italy alone—a record for Italian publishing at the time.

But the manuscript is still around.

There is a veil of sadness in Price’s compelling book: Giuseppe ends up being recognized with Italy’s most prestigious literary award, the Strega, only after his death. The Leopard then becomes a sensational movie classic, ironically directed by the Northern Italian (Milanese) Luchino Visconti, starring Burt Lancaster in the role of Don Fabrizio, Alain Delon as Fabrizio’s nephew, Tancredi, and Claudia Cardinale as Angelica, the beautiful daughter of a self-made landowner: a trio not dissimilar to Giuseppe, Gioacchino, and Mirella.

Perhaps it’s not by chance that the most celebrated quote from The Leopard is what Tancredi says in response to his beloved uncle Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, dismayed by the new changes: “Everything has to change so that everything can stay the same.” Fast-forward to 2019: The island of Lampedusa is now internationally famous as the main point of entry for North African refugees migrating to Europe. Italy was recently in the midst of political turmoil, lost in a fight between the harsh populism of the Northern League and the old, weaker liberal democracies. A new, improbable but well-received government has been formed in this seemingly unceasing turmoil. And yet there is something reassuring in the air: Via Butera 28 is still open for business, with Gioacchino at the door.

Mario Calvo-Platero is a columnist for La Stampa. He lives in New York City