Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Resisting Temptation

It's my birthday (thanks, but really, there's no need), and among the many presents (or votive offerings, as I like to describe them) that I've received is "Letters from London and Europe", a collection of letters by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard.

The Leopard was the first book that I ever read in Italian - and, rather in the same way that that first camera shot you take often turns out to be the best one, it is probably also the best book I have ever read in Italian (although, of course, there was Dante, which I saw someone describing somewhere the other day as 'not as good as Shakespeare', which I thought a meaningless comparison, [and I also liked Christ Stopped at Eboli and at first I liked Calvino but now I only really like the one about being in the resistance that he wrote early on - but I digress {how unusual}]).

Anyway, the book I've been given is wonderful. In fact, I have had to have a short sharp talk with myself; I have had to tell myself firmly that I cannot transform this blog entirely into an altar to Lampedusa's letters; I have agreed with myself - actually, I have given myself a firm commitment - that I will not quote from it in every blog post from now on but merely slip in the odd bit or piece occasionally, among other topics. Otherwise, it might get a bit like reading aloud your favourite bits to unwilling listeners.

I don't really believe anyone could be unwilling to discover this delightful material, but I have been forced to accept that it's possible. In exchange for my agreement to be moderate, I have given myself permission to include a nice slab from Francesco da Mosto's foreword today (well, fair's fair - it is, as I mentioned, my birthday):

'My mother was born in Palermo, and she lived there until she got married. So every year, for Christmas, we went down to visit the grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and the whole extended family. All of them belonged to the Bellini Club, just like Lampedusa and his cousins, the Piccolos, to whom most of these letters are addressed.

My grandfather remembered Lampedusa from his times at the Bellini and the various balls, where he often leant against the door jamb, like a spectator rather than an actor in that magical comedy, together with Roberto Lucchesi Palli, Duca della Grazia. As a result, the pair received the nickname of "The Pillars of Hercules".

At the time, it was common for the Sicilian aristocracy to travel regularly to France and England. In Paris, the ladies would get fitted from head to toe, while the men went to London to get custom-made shirts and shoes, and stopped in Paris for the gibus, the collapsible top hat. We used my grandfather's as an accordion or - walking with a bone-topped cane in arm - lowered it over our eyes to imitate him.

Among the "travelling" Bellini members, my grandfather Ciccio sent his shirts to London to be laundered. Another member, Cicciuzzo, the "Demented", from the landowning family of the Cupane barons, was extremely intelligent and had an almost maniacal taste for paradox. He would come out of the library with his clothes all crumpled, exclaming: "I went on the most marvellous trip - I've just come back from China" - and asking the Maestro di Casa, before leaving the Club, to send home a telegram with instructions to wake him up the next morning. Slovenly and always with unkempt hair and beard, he was very different from his cousin Cicciuzzo, the "Lackey", who always looked like a true gentleman, perfectly turned out and well dressed.

Other members of my Sicilian family travelled too, also in very eccentric ways. One of my uncle's ancestors had vowed to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land if he survived a cholera epidemic, but since he didn't have enough money to embark on such a long journey, he decided to replicate the expedition through his garden and inside his own house. So, on a Monday night, he set off for the "Holy Land" with his butler: one day they would camp near the fish pond, where the papyrus plants would brush against the fabric of the tent; another day in the flower bed under the orange-tree blossoms; one day in the stables, and the next in the ballroom or the music room, covering the whole distance until they finally reached their destination. To celebrate their arrival, a mass was held in the house chapel, after which my uncle's ancestor turned to the butler and said: "And now let's get ready for the journey home." To which the butler is said to have replied, in a deferential tone, "M'Lord, if you don't mind, I'd rather stay here, in the Holy Land."'


  1. I wish I had such delightful eccentrics in my family

    Happy birthday!!

  2. Marvellous stuff and a Happy Birthday. A day after the irreplaceable Nige, eh?

  3. Very nice, Zoe, and a very very happy birthday to you. lots of love from P&D xxx

  4. Happy birthday and thank you for the recommendation. I'd read a couple of positive reviews and you've persuaded me to buy it.

  5. Thank you, Nurse, you probably wouldn't, if you did.
    Thank you, Recusant, is that right? Well, well.
    Thank you, P&D, let's get together when you have returned from paying obeisance at the altar of the redoubtable Goddess Lily
    Thank you, Gaw, I shall be unable to resist posting more excerpts, so perhaps we can establish a kind of duel of quotations.

  6. Belated happy birthday. Ir was also the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

  7. Thank you, Frank - and thank you for that information. How did I reach my fifties without ever knowing that before? Completely unobservant of me - in more than one sense, I suppose.