Giller Shortlist: Lampedusa by Steven Price

I didn’t get far into Lampedusa before realizing why this book was selected as one of the finalists. For someone who has never been to Sicily (1950s Sicily), I felt completely immersed in it – the atmosphere, the architecture, the societal structure. Aristocracy in Sicily? I hadn’t given it a thought. And that’s what this book is about. It’s the story of how the old ways are falling away, becoming distant memories for most of us.

Giuseppe himself, one of the fading princes of Sicily keenly feels this shift in his world, and feels an urge to document it. In his latter years, after learning of his imminent death, he writes a novel that chronicles the changes in Sicilian life and society during the Risorgimento and calls it The Leopard.

He, Giuseppe, was not only himself, he knew, feeling a sudden bitterness, but all he remembered, all he had done and known. And all of that would be obliterated with him.

We are from a world that no longer exists. If I do not write that world, write it down, then what will become of it?

It surprised him sometimes to think about the nature of blood, and title, and how his name Tomasi did not belong to him but was only borrowed from those who had gone before, to be held in trust for those who would come after, like the great houses themselves, all of which were gone now. What these things had meant , how they had mattered in his life, was not something he felt equipped to comprehend.

Readers of The Leopard, I think, will likely get more out of this novel than I did, but even so I can admire what Price has done with it. Giuseppe comes to life on these pages; quiet, thoughtful, soft-spoken, solitary, melancholy, bookish, a Sicilian through and through with a fondness for sweet pastries. A character study of a dying man who reflects on his life with questions and regrets, but also with moments of joy.

These moments of joy give us relief from the somber atmosphere of the book. Giuseppe’s wife Licy, an independent and intelligent woman, makes a good match for him and his fondness for reading, studying, and conversation. But literature is Giuseppe’s great joy – and has been with him throughout his life – reading, writing, reflecting, and discussing it with friends and family.

No life can be lived deeply… if it is lived outside of art.

Every other page of Lampedusa is fraught with the sorrow of his death and his feelings of failure.What will he do with his remaining time? Has he used his life wisely? He worries about the way the world is changing, and what he will leave behind. It’s a sad thing to think that Giuseppe will not live to see his book published – the one thing he hoped to accomplish. The Leopard did, however, get published after his death and became the top-selling novel in Italian history. Contrary to what Giuseppe believed, I like to think that he was watching.

Literature had been a good and consoling guide since his boyhood and he had heeded it all his life though he had failed, he knew now, to comprehend its singular truth: to live.

Warning: Not for readers who prefer a lot of action.

I read this book as a member of the Giller Prize Shadow Jury. Visit Buried in Print to read Marcie’s thoughts on the book, and you can follow all of our Giller shadowing at Kevin from Canada.

Further Reading:

Review at the Quill & Quire: “Lampedusa gives a necessary context to one of the classic novels of the 20th century, but it also stands as its own work. It asks us to consider the paradox of death, how its spectre is often the force that leads us to create something new in this life. It asks how we handle the things that come to us later than we expect in life… and how we rise to the challenge even when we think we are too old or unworthy. Mostly, it asks us to understand the same lesson that The Leopard tries to instill: that even as the world changes, human impulse and habit stay the same. Just because we know how a story ends doesn’t mean it’s not worth telling.”

The Chat with Steven Price at 49th Shelf: “I wanted to write a novel that would move differently from my last novel. I wanted a book that could still be engrossing, and compelling, but that didn’t rely on suspense to move forward.”

CBC Books:For 20 years, I read and reread The Leopard, finding something new in it each time. It was only a few years ago, when I read a biography of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, that I realized how much his own life resembled his fictional prince in the book. My novel started to dream itself up when I understood that.

23 thoughts on “Giller Shortlist: Lampedusa by Steven Price

  1. Jane says:

    I read The Leopard earlier this year and didn’t get on with it very well, I think this might be a good companion and hopefully, help me understand why it’s considered such a classic.

  2. madamebibilophile says:

    i was about to say I’d read The Leopard quite recently, then I checked and it was 3 years ago! I’d be really interested to read this, but now I’m thinking a re-read of The Leopard might be in order first to see what I’ve forgotten 🙂

  3. Karissa says:

    I really liked this book. I thought it was such a fascinating portrayal of life and why it matters and what we leave behind. And I completely agree about feeling transported to 1950s Sicily!

  4. buriedinprint says:

    Although I’m not sure it would be a good match for your reading group, I kept thinking about their marriage and how it would make for a good discussion. Such a respectful and devoted couple. And right from the beginning (although it wasn’t a typical courtship by any means). It’s too bad that you weren’t able to find a copy of The Leopard, but I’m glad you found elements to enjoy anyhow. I still think back to this story periodically!

    • Naomi says:

      I was interested in their marriage, too. I did a lot of googling to see if I could find out more. Especially because the book took its time to tell their whole story. Wouldn’t it be fun to read the story from her perspective? And also to get a peek at her professional life?

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