Friday, November 26, 2010

Lampedusa and the English

From David Gilmour's TLS review of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa,
LETTERS FROM LONDON AND EUROPE, 1925–30, Edited by Gioacchino Lanza
Tomasi and translated by J. G. Nichols:

He did not have true English friends except for those fictional
characters he had become acquainted with before he saw England. Once
he claimed he would sacrifice ten years of his life for the pleasure
of meeting Sir John Falstaff; Mr Micawber, "Falstaff's only brother in
all literature", was almost equally revered. Although he regarded
Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma as "the summit of all
literature", The Pickwick Papers was his most treasured book, one to
be kept by his side in case of panic attacks at night or on his
travels. Its author was one of his favourite Englishmen, alongside
Shakespeare, Dr Johnson and Izaak Walton. Such men encouraged
Lampedusa to think that he had an English temperament, sharing those
qualities he believed that the English possessed: their reserve, their
irony, their understated manner, their belief in fair play and their
innate sympathy for the underdog. He believed that English public
schools would be good for wealthy Italian families because they would
eradicate the ubiquitous "mamma's boys".


These letters to the Piccolos are written with much self-parody in the
third person: they describe the wit, wisdom and insouciance with which
Giuseppe negotiates England, and they are signed with a flourish by
the "overfed" or "well-nourished" or in other ways greedy "monster".
The recipients are left with the impression that their cousin is
chinwagging with Lord Londonderry and the Duke of Marlborough and
expressing himself in "flowery and vaguely Elizabethan" English. It is
"always a pleasure dealing with the English", Giuseppe once knowingly
reports, because they are "courteous and prompt, and their apparent
stupidity is merely an immense and uncontrollable shyness".

The Piccolos probably realized that their cousin's performance in
England was not quite as he liked to depict. In The Leopard Lampedusa
put a lot of himself into the character of its protagonist, Don
Fabrizio, but then turned him into someone else; into the person the
author would have liked to be. In England he may have wanted to seem a
sophisticated and affable Anglophile, yet he was too shy to act the
part. He had learnt English as a literary language and was alive to
its nuances on the page, but he never spoke it well or with
confidence; flowery Elizabethan was far outside his repertoire.


The review lives here: