Lampedusa is a quiet, contemplative novel about a man close to death. It opens in Sicily, in Palermo, as Giuseppe Tomasi, the last prince of Lampedusa learns that he is dying of emphysema. Giuseppe is an older but not old man, prematurely aged by both his smoking and his family history. He seems to live comfortably but it is nothing compared to the opulence of his ancestors. His family’s palazzo lies in ruins, destroyed during World War Two, and Giuseppe has never quite recovered from its destruction. That or the death of his mother, who lived out her days amongst the ruins, a forceful entity in Giuseppe life to the last.
As Giuseppe faces his death he begins to think about his legacy. Not simply as the last of his family line but as a man without a great impact on the world around him. He has done little to be remembered by and he and his wife have no children. As the novel unfolds, he makes two major decisions to alter this. The primary one that the story focuses on is that he finally writes the novel he has long thought of.
This novel became The Leopard, a book I have heard of but never read. It was interesting to follow its unfolding, the fervour with which Giuseppe writes, and then the reactions of those around him and his struggles to publish it before he dies. Unfortunately, he did die before he saw its publication and subsequent success. Within Lampedusa, the book is called magnificent and praised highly even as it is rejected. Without having read it, I can’t say whether that’s a fair assessment. I’d be curious to know how the book is received and thought of within Italy itself. The Leopard, it seems, much like Lampedusa is about a man at the end of his life and about a world that is changing. Giuseppe is very much aware that he is a part of a world that is ceasing to exist. Halfway through the twentieth century, Italy is entirely different than it was when he was a child and men like him will not be a part of it for much longer.
The present day story of Giuseppe writing his novel is interspersed with stories of his adolescence and his mother, a passionate and volatile figure who dominates much of his life. We see some of his experiences through two world wars and follow along his somewhat strange relationship with his wife, Alessandra. There are also sections in the present day where Giuseppe travels to other parts of Italy.
Sometimes the timeline was confusing, particularly toward the end of the novel when I couldn’t tell immediately if we were in the present day or the recent past. These always sorted themselves out but it left me feeling rather unmoored.
The book is light on plot. Ostensibly, it’s about the writing of The Leopard but Giuseppe completes his novel about halfway through the book. There is not a lot of action or even forward movement. There is a lot of thoughtful walking, a lot of descriptions of architecture, a lot of food. The writing is beautiful and picturesque and very evocative of southern Italy. It made me want to sit in a cafe and drink wine or eat very good bread after hiking up a hill to view ruins.
This certainly won’t be a novel for everybody but if you’re looking for a thoughtful, beautifully written, slowly unfolding story about literature and aging and the things we give our hearts to, you might just enjoy it.