By Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
I failed. You can keep your presents, because my War & Peace challenge collapsed under the weight of sport, alcohol, hot legs and most tellingly, a hangover. See, when I read Les Miserables in 48 hours, I was living in an underground and picayune apartment in the middle of Athens, Greece, doing my best to become a 'poet' by chain-smoking Marlboros and refusing to lower myself by holding down a decent occupation, and spending what little money I had on nothing but cigarettes, floozies and books. There was no footy, and in the darkened flat, common society could easily be shut out. Reading Les Miserables in 48 hours was no more difficult than making the bed with hospital corners.
Not so in a country town where everyone knows my door is open and the fridge is filled with beer, and where I have FOXTEL which means every footy match is accessable. I had every intention of completing the War & Peace challenge, but Friday night I just had to watch Wallace's last game as coach of Richmond.
"No matter," I thought, "I'll start War & Peace Saturday morning, and finish it Monday morning..."
Noble aims are extinguished by ignoble lusts.
I was hammering through the book with a young man's zeal, managing to keep abreast of the long Russian names (all seemingly starting with 'A' or 'B') and their nickname variations, underlining great passages, throwing myself into early 19th century politics and all the while smoking Stuyvesants and drinking so much coffee that there was more caffeine in my blood than blood.
Then The Mermaid popped in.
The Mermaid is a local girl, 19, hot, sweet and a good friend. She lives in Melbourne now and goes to Uni, but when she used to live here she would house-sit for me when I went away. We get along well because she's very bookish and is highly attracted to my book collection, and she smokes and drinks red wine, and even modelled in a mermaid outfit for one of my band's photo shoots (hence the nickname). Besides all that, we are the only two goths in the village.
She had come down for the weekend and suggested having dinner. At this point, I should have said, "No, I'm reading War and Peace in 48 hours to impress a group of people I know over the internet but have never met in real life and they are going to send me presents if I do so." But how can you say that to a mermaid goth? You can't. I actually said, "No worries. Glass o' wine?"
This then lead to hours and hours of food, alcohol and poetry reading (yes, poetry reading - she's very, very bookish) and an impromptu photo shoot around my kitchen at 1am. Arty camera wobble? No. Drunken.
With stockings like that, what was I supposed to do? Read a book? No, I made the mistake of keeping up with her drinking, and she's good at it. I walked her home at 2.30am and she kissed me on the cheek, thanking me I suspect for being the only man on Earth that she can spend time with that doesn't try to fuck her, and then I walked home and went to bed.
The hangover next day was crippling. CRIPPLING! War & Peace was put aside and the footy was turned on. Thank you to Melba for the casserole.
So anyway, I only got 350 pages into it, and I'll attempt to finish it this week, work depending, which is still pretty good. In the meantime, let me discuss this book, The Leopard.
This is one of Salman Rushdie's favourites, and he reckons it's also the best book to movie translation. A mate of mine, El Tel, also had this book in his top 3 ever. And, well, it was pretty fucking good but I'm not putting it into my Top 20. The writer di Lampedusa wrote this (his only book) just before he died and he never got to reap the benefits of the fame it brought him. It is considered in Italy especially one of the greatest, if not the greatest Italian novel of all time.
It also happens to be factual, in that it is based on the author's grandfather, the last of a long line of Sicilian Princes whose royal stature fell by the wayside under the unification of Italy in the mid 1800's. It is always fascinating... every page is mind-numbingly interesting, and he certainly captures the transition between the feudal/royal power and that of the upper middle-class aspirational bureaucrat.
Of the group taking power from the allegedly 'corrupt' lords, he writes that they were "...very like those living in the monasteries below, as fanatical, as self-absorbed, as avid for power or rather for the idleness which was, for them, the purpose of power." Cue comparisons with every other revolutionary movement, ever, from Brutus to Peru's Shining Path.
But the Prince (whose family logo is a leopard) is a realist and is one who is looked after by the unifiers as he doesn't try to fight them and in fact, uses his popularity to help them bring Sicily into the Italian fold. He understands that hundreds of years of royal lineage means nothing against the flow of democracy and unification, and they allow him to keep his prestige and wealth in return for lack of power. However, by being so friendly to the revolutionary forces, his prestige is diminished in any case. He marries his nephew off to a wealthy landowner's heiress (new money), and in one poignant scene, invites a commoner to dine at the palace which "...began the decline of his prestige."
It's the death of empire, told on a microcosmic level, and the tour we take through the Leopard's palaces with centuries' old orgy rooms, now locked, classic libraries overrun with dust, dilapidated monasteries and the last vestiges of an ageing man's lust all serve as metaphors. But what's great is that di Lampedusa, who died penniless, doesn't write with any bitterness. He doesn't lament his family's fall from royal prestige, he is just saying, "This is what happened to my family," and also, "This is what happened to Sicily."
But in one outburst by the Prince to a Roman representatitve who has come to beseech the Prince to join the Senate, he points out that no matter who is in charge, Sicily, and indeed any person anywhere in the world cannot ever be fully integrated into a far-off political machine. He says of Sicily:
"...water is either lacking altogether or has to be carried from so far that every drop is paid for by a drop of sweat; and when the rains come, they are always tempestuous and set dry torrents to frenzy, drown beasts and men on the very spot where two weeks before both had been dying of thirst. The violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything, and even these monuments of the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us and yet standing around us like lovely mute ghosts; all those rulers who landed by main force from all directions, who were at once obeyed, soon detested and always misunderstood; their sole means of expression works of art we found enigmatic and taxes we found only too intelligible, and which they spent elsewhere. All these things have formed our character, which is thus conditioned by events outside our control as well as by a terrifying insularity of the mind."
The only thing I didn't like about the book was the amount of weight given to the falling in love of the Prince's nephew and the landowner's daughter. It took up half the story, whereas it should have been a little sub-plot taking up no more than a couple of pages.
Still, I recommend the book, and give it a B+.