Lampedusa’s The Leopard and Biography

“Prince Giuseppe di Lampedusa has meant so much to me that I find it impossible to present him formally.” Written by E. M. Forster in his introduction to Two Stories and a Memory, continuing, “His great novel The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) has greatly enlarged my life–an unusual experience for a life which is well on in its eighties. Reading and rereading it has made me realise how many ways there are of being alive, how many doors there are, close to one, which someone else’s touch may open.” In these sentences, Forster reminds me of Woolf’s words: “It is the gift of the novel to bring us into close touch with life.”

Forster captured something essential of the The Leopard, once calling it “That great lonely book.” Somehow in considering briefly its themes of all-pervading decay and mortality, what was less obviously apparent, until stumbling over Forster’s phrase, is that the novel is suffused with ideas of aloneness, loneliness, and alienation. It is easy to see The Leopard’s appeal to Forster, whose novels are, in different ways, ruminations on our yearning for transformative connections. Connection eludes the elderly Prince of Salina. Lampedusa’s story seems to suggest that the language we use to connect to other human beings is filled with misunderstanding and might itself be the barrier that prevents communication.

Every book is the outcome of a period of aloneness, and each reader’s experience with a book a way of being in communication with another mind. Perhaps a particular appeal of literature is to those that find such connections particularly elusive. The Leopard resists simple generalisation but is a sublime expression of human loneliness.

In my enchanted state after finishing The Leopard, I chose to read David Gilmour’s magnificent biography of Lampedusa, The Last Leopard, curious how important the autobiographical drive behind this novel was. Gilmour confronts this question, eventually agreeing with Lampedusa’s English translator Archibald Colquhoun who writes, “Don Fabrizio is neither historical symbol, family memoir, self-portrait, nor wish-fulfilment, and yet something of all four.”

After writing The Leopard, Lampedusa, late in life, crossed a threshold of creativity, going on to write two further stories and even a new novel. He begun a memoir and wrote over a thousand pages of literary exegesis. His story entitled The Professor and The Siren is a magical fantasy about a professor’s life changing encounter with the Siren Lighea, daughter of Calliope. Lampedusa proposes a revision of the myth of the Sirens, “Don’t believe the stories about us. We don’t kill anyone, we only love.”

Woolf’s The Voyage Out and Denton Welch

Time to sample a new writer’s work. After two rewarding months in the company of old chestnuts WG Sebald and Virginia Woolf, next on my reading list is Denton Welch’s Maiden Voyage. Des, curator of The Far South Project Blog, brought Welch’s work to my notice in his round-up and Judy Kravis at pocketbook rather wonderfully juxtaposed Walser and Welch recently.

The opening pages of Welch’s Maiden Voyage offered up this sentence: ‘I kept waking up so that my dreams were mixed up with the wallpaper, and somehow the Virgin Mary appeared and disappeared, dressed all in Reckitt’s blue.’ Of course, Wilde’s ‘this wallpaper will be the death of me – one of us will have to go’ comes to mind, wrongly attributed as his dying words. Using the brand colours of a laundry whitener to locate in a reader’s mind the precise blue worn by the Virgin Mary is exquisite, as is the idea of dreams being mixed up with wallpaper, in a room described moments earlier with its ‘warm and depressing’ pink tones.

Denton Welch moved in similar circles to Virginia Woolf and it seems only her suicide that stopped them ever bumping into one another.

Before I leave Woolf’s The Voyage Out behind, I ought mention that I found Helen Ambrose one of the most fully-developed, living, breathing characters I’ve met so far in a novel, more tangible even than Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse. It wasn’t any surprise to read in the Dictionary of Real People and Places in Fiction that Helen Ambrose was ‘accepted by Virginia and Vanessa as a portrait in some salient aspects of Vanessa’. Her intimate understanding of her sister poured into a fictional creation gives Helen extraordinary depth. To have read Moments of Being and the early Woolf diaries is to appreciate the degree to which The Voyage Out is, like many first novels (at least to informed readers), is ‘drawing from life’. The novel itself is a bit contrived but far from a minor novel. Forster summed it up well as ‘strange, tragic, inspired’.

Forster and the Literary Forebears

When EM Forster lectured at Trinity College in 1927, he opened his series of lectures on the novel (collected in Aspects of the Novel) provocatively:

No English novelist is as great as Tolstoy-that is to say, has given so complete a picture of man’s life, both on its domestic and heroic side. No English novelist has explored man’s soul as deeply as Dostoyevsky. And no novelist anywhere has analysed the modern consciousness as successfully as Marcel Proust.

Any thoughtful reader will instinctively see the idolatry in Forster’s remarks, and wish to argue for the English novelist, but ninety years later his charges stand, certainly in respect of English novels. The major figures that come to mind, Conrad, Graham Greene, Woolf, perhaps Doris Lessing, certainly not Forster himself, don’t adequately counter his specific charges.

What of the third more sweeping remark? Can we now favourably compare Proust’s insight into  modern consciousness with Beckett, Kafka or Mann?

The Mechanics of Lyrical Realism

James Wood is E. M. Forster’s heir. Take this analysis of the mechanics of lyrical realism, as practised since Flaubert and Balzac:

By grammar, I mean the rather lazy stock-in-trade of mainstream realist fiction: the cinematic sweep, followed by the selection of small, telling details (“It was a large room, filled almost entirely by rows of antique computers; there was an odd smell of aftershave and bacon”); the careful mixing of dynamic and habitual detail (“At one of the computers, a man was unhurriedly eating a spring roll; traffic noise pierced the thick, sealed windows; an ambulance yelped by”); the preference for the concrete over the abstract (“She was twenty-nine, but still went home every evening to her mom’s ground-floor apartment in Queens, which doubled by day as a yoga studio”); vivid brevity of character-sketching (“Bob wore a bright-yellow T-shirt that read ‘Got Beer?,’ and had a small mole on his upper lip”); plenty of homely “filler” (“She ordered a beer and a sandwich, sat down at the table, and opened her computer”); more or less orderly access to consciousness and memory (“He lay on the bed and thought with shame of everything that had happened that day”); lucid but allowably lyrical sentences (“From the window, he watched the streetlights flicker on, in amber hesitations”). And this does not even touch on the small change of fictional narrative: how strange it is, when you think about it, that thousands of novels are published every year, in which characters all have different names (whereas, in real life, doesn’t one always have at least three friends named John, and another three named Elizabeth?), or in which characters quizzically “raise an eyebrow,” and angrily “knit their brows,” or just express themselves in quotation marks and single adverbs (“ ‘You know that’s not fair,’ he said, whiningly”). At this level of convention, there is a shorter distance than one would imagine between, say, “Harriet the Spy” and “Disgrace.”

Concerning E. M. Forster

On Saturday, in my favourite bookshop, I faltered over Frank Kermode’s Concerning E. M. Forster and left the shop with other selections. Edmund White’s absorbing review suggests I should revisit my decision. An excerpt of the review:

We learn that Forster would never have finished “A Passage to India” had it not been for Leonard Woolf’s prodding. Leonard was a brilliant editor, not only of his wife’s work but of the novels written by friends and the authors he and Virginia published. We read that Forster was, especially in his youth, a devoted Wagner ian and that the concept of leitmotifs influenced his ideas about literary rhythm, though Forster felt his own rhythms were less obtrusive than Wagner’s recurring themes. We discover that Forster rejected Henry James in part because he did not want to conform to James’s practice of writing an entire novel from a single point of view and in part because Forster liked to express his own opinions about life and the world in asides to the reader — an old-fashioned practice that James avoided. Using as an example one of Forster’s novels, Kermode writes, “It may be allowed that in ‘Howards End’ the characters are represented as free individuals, with minds of their own, but the book contains a strikingly large amount of authorial reflection, wise sayings about love, class and culture, panic and emptiness, prose and passion, connecting and not connecting, straightforward announcements of the Forsterian way of looking at the human condition.”

[Via Chekhov’s Mistress]