Some consider that the greatest novel of the 20th century is The Leopard or Il Gattopardo, the only novel by a Sicillian nobleman who died before he realised he was a writer. Indeed, in his few other essays, he wonders why he was recalling events, since he assumed that no one would ever read what he wrote.
Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa was a prince brought up as a single child in huge palaces, one with three hundred rooms, either in Palermo or in the south west of the island. He delightfully describes wandering through these rooms in Childhood Memories and Other Stories translated by Ian Thomson and published earlier this year in paperback by Alma Classics. Both ancient palaces have gone, through Allied bombing in 1943, or through earthquake. This matches the trend in Lampedusa prose which is about the decline and demise of the ruling Sicilian families descended from the Normans. He himself had no descendants.
What obsessed Lampedusa was William Shakespeare and English literature. After active service during World War One and since he never needed to work, he devoted his life to reading English literature. He had an odd marriage to the psychiatrist daughter of an Italian singer, possibly the mistress of Brahms, and lacked daily lunches at home. So he set out, each morning armed with books and biscuits, to sit in cafes in Palermo, smoking cigarettes, sometimes meeting his cousins. While he had visited his uncle, Italian ambassador to Britain in the 1920s, he had spent his days tracking down the physical settings for great passages of English literature.
Always among these books he had works by Shakespeare, which his wife said he read if oppressed by negativity. He wrote an Italian guide to English literature. But what finally turned him into a writer was the success of his cousin in getting a slim volume of poetry published, which won as prize. He thought to himself “I can do as well as that”. Hence, in the short time he had left to live, he penned The Leopard about his family and their palaces set at the time of the Garibaldi landings, which was published after he had died of lung cancer. It was an international bestseller, now a literary classic.
As a writer, Lampedusa has the kind of instant convulsive power that great writers have. Among one or two short stories that he left is one Joy and the Law about a poor hard working clerk, of limited intelligence, rather like Bob Cratchet in Christmas Carol, who brings home a huge panettone, given by sympathetic colleagues for Christmas, to his poor but sensible loving wife and children.
As he mounts the stairs in his block of flats, he mentally evaluates the condition of his more comfortably off neighbours. One man has a car, a Fiat 1100, but an old, ugly, rude wife. Another, a doctor has a mad son, obsessed with Vespas and no patients. At the top is his own humble flat, in his mind, respected, upright and happy. Clearly, there is some irony in this, but the principle is gratitude for what one has, for family, for love, for people. In other words, the righteous are blessed. All they need to do is realise it. Dickens may be behind this story but Lampedusa does it better without his heavy sentimentality.
We learn two lessons from Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the man who never knew he was a writer. First, if you want to write, just do it. You may be a great writer, without knowing it. Second, keep very close to William Shakespeare.