Lampedusa by Steven Price, published in 2019, is the fictional account of Giuseppe di Lampedusa, the author of the acclaimed novel The Leopard, which was published in 1957, a year after his death. Price imagines how the novel came to be written and depicts the agony and urgency of writing, humanizing a literary master.
That’s the situation. But this is the story: how does a dying man reckon with his life?
After a lifetime of reading literature and earning no money, Lampedusa is diagnosed with late stage emphysema. He’s going to die. But he buries this information, concealing it from his wife, continuing to smoke because, as he says, he is “not prepared to live as a man with an illness, a man who carried his death in his pocket.”
But he is carrying death in his pocket, which is weighty enough. But that he has no children weighs further: when he dies there will not only be no heir, but no evidence of his life. As the fact that he will not be remembered bears down on him, he decides to write a novel about a fictional prince—Don Fabrizio Corbèra—as he struggles without success to preserve his family and class amid the tumultuous social upheavals and the crumbling Italian aristocracy of 1860s Sicily.
But Lampedusa has never written a novel before. The portrait Price paints of Lampedusa’s struggle to leave something meaningful behind, some evidence of his existence, is both tender and unsparing.
From the beginning, Lampedusa is a man you want to be around. In describing his wife he says this:
“And because she was intelligent and not classically beautiful her opinions had often made her company unbearable to men, and he liked that about her, too.”
Of course you like this guy! Of course you are rooting for him!
The emphysema is unrelenting and it’s a fight against time which the reader notices but Lampedusa does not. This tension between creative impulse, denial, and the certainty of death is the triple-twisted rope that tightens as the novel progresses. The reader knows death will win, but Lampedusa seems mortally aloof:
“He was startled by a new dizziness, a shortness of breath, as if his body had decided at last to begin its betrayal.”
In the face of this inevitable treason, he begins to work, but he works slowly:
“All this while, as he dreamed and thought and brooded, he said nothing…He felt a clean pleasure in a story that did not yet exist. The possibility in it felt powerful, and he felt as if he were taking part in something that was both original and true, and he wanted to preserve it, unspoken, for as long as he might.”
This is the relentless unease in the novel. We feel the pressure of death arriving, and he feels the joy of the story slowly forming in his mind. But it is in the process of writing his novel that he is coming to terms with his life. And that takes time.
His approach to writing contrasts with that of his cousin Lucio, a poet who shamelessly courts fame. Lampedusa notices this and finds it shallow and off the mark:
“He watched his cousin’s transformation and slowly came to see that writing would not be a way of knowing for Lucio but rather a way of being known and when he realized this he realized he did not want any part of it.”
Lampedusa’s motivations are deeper, more complicated, and require much more time. Yet, when he finally finishes the novel, he can’t get a publisher and he is almost surprised at his disappointment:
“It saddened him to think the novel might not be published and so immense was his sorrow that he could not look at it directly, only sidelong, like a man regarding a letter he did not wish to open. And that is how, he understood, he had looked at life for almost his entire duration on this earth. Could he have lived differently? It did not matter now. He had been waiting a long time for what he knew was soon to come, and he had cleared a space in the rooms of his mind for it, pushing most everything up against the walls, as if his death were a new piece of furniture to be delivered.”
He dies without the novel being published. Yet, as he is lying on his deathbed he doesn’t think of that, but of the terrible loss of historical memory:
“It saddened him to think that the Lampedusa line would be extinguished so completely. His great-grandfather had produced nine children. Now he would be the last. He had been born into its casual decline amid the waste and drift of an age in decline and soon a new kind of aristocrat would take over, a bloodline of wealth and privilege whose eye was trained on the status of the new. There would be no historical memory, and therefore no grave understanding. What had held worth for its particular survival across centuries would cease to hold worth. There would be only the future, only what was to come. Perhaps, he thought sadly, that was no loss to any but himself. Perhaps nostalgia was its own kind of sickness. He turned his tired face to the wall, shut his eyes.”
He’s thinking about the lessons of 19th century history that will be forgotten and yet his concern seems so breathtakingly relevant now—our disregard for the past and our rush toward the future without the necessary “grave understanding.”
Then what follows is maybe the most understated, sad deathbed scene that I have ever read. He is lying in his bed, his wife is sitting in a chair by his side, has been there faithfully throughout the night, but has fallen asleep. As his life blinks out, he wants to see his wife’s eyes, but he hasn’t enough breath to rouse her. Really, this scene slayed me, so I am quoting it at length:
“He must have slept. For he opened his eyes, his breathing tight, a sharp pain in his chest, and found he was alone now in the great quiet. He studied the red glow of the horizon through the open window, the crack of red light over the rooftops apocalyptic and terrifying. Was it morning again? He shifted his head on his pillow and saw his wife, asleep in a chair to one side of the window. It surprised him that he had not heard her breathing. Her chin was pressed to her chest, her hair in a waterfall around her, her beautiful deep black eyes closed to him. All at once he wished she would wake and look at him and he waited but she did not. He blinked and worked his mouth and tried to raise his hand but it would not obey him. He could see a book turned face down on her knee but he did not recognize it….He swallowed painfully. A glass of water beside his bed darkened. When he glanced up, the red vein of light beyond the rooftops of the city was diminishing and he squinted and tried to speak and then the light was seeping back downward, as if the day were abandoning him. A dark morning was rising, very beautiful. His eyes were wet and he tried to keep them open, tried to see the world for as long as he could. He listened to his wife breathe. The black book on his wife’s knee gleamed. How strange it was, he thought, that he did not know that book, what it contained.”
That he slips away is in perfect keeping with the disappearance he long feared. And it is so sad.
The end of the real life story? Lampedusa died in 1956. The Leopard was published in 1957 and has sold more than three million copies. In 1959 Lampedusa was posthumously awarded the prestigious Strega Prize for the novel. He has not been forgotten.
You can order Lampedusa at your local bookstore, get it at the library, or buy it here:
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >