Last words from ‘The Leopard’.

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Lampedusa, London, 1930’s: Publication and fame were still a long way off, but he demonstrated his ‘monster’ talent even then.

As I wrote the other day here the fact that Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa published only one full length novel is not grounds for too much sadness, since he did leave other literary remains behind.

The real Lampedusa fanatic will want to hunt down his various notes on literature. In the early 50’s he agreed to give informal lectures on writing and writers to a few select young acquaintances. Lampedusa was formidably well read and loved English literature most of all, and his lecture notes are the fruits of much of this reading. I don’t go out of my way to read literary criticism, but I enjoyed reading this and find it refreshing to get a non-english perspective on writers and writing we think we know so well based on our own received opinions and assumptions. If you can track them down it’s also worth reading Lampedusa’s perceptive notes on Stendhal, which I guarantee will make you want to look (or look again) into the Frenchman’s work.

If you want something a little less specialised, in recent years his Letters from London and Europe have been published. Between 1925 and 1930, long before The Leopard was even conceived of, Lampedusa travelled a little and wrote letters to his cousins back home in Sicily. Their nickname for him was the ‘monster’, and this is the term he uses to refer to himself throughout these letters. Most of them detail his travels around London and the rest of the UK.  Despite being a Southern European by birth, Lampedusa was an ardent anglophile. He loved our literature and our language, and these letters demonstrate how much he was fascinated by our country. Despite his status of published author lying a long way off in the future, even around the time he was writing the letters Lampedusa shows he was a born writer, with the power to engage his readers and bring what he describes alive. Just as well, then, because the Britain of the 20’s and 30’s was a radically different place. So not only do these letters reveal more about their author, but they also give glimpses of how life was in a very different time.

Anyone who loves Lampedusa’s work has to have a look at Ian Gilmour’s The Last Leopard, which is a fabulous book and first-rate biography. It combines a narrative of Lampedusa’s life with pithy commentary on his literary works, and relevant comments on the social and historical context. What I think truly makes Gilmour’s book a cut above is his seemingly total understanding of Italy, Sicily and Lampedusa’s works. Written with full access to Lampedusa’s archive (including items retrieved by the author himself from the bombed out shell of Lampedusa’s former Palermo home, some forty years after the US air raid that put paid to things) Gilmour gets right under the skin of this incredible writer. Coming in at just over 200 pages, this book has the additional virtue of being short (itself perhaps a reflection of the fact that Lampedusa’s day to day life was rather monotonous and his literary output pretty small). However, what Gilmour has to say he says with insight and authority and does full justice the man and his masterpiece. This being a shorter biography it gives you plenty of energy left to go straight back into The Leopard and other works. Lampedusa could have written more, but into his one novel he poured the experience and insight of a lifetime. His other works may be the literary equivalent of left-overs, but take everything together and you’ve got a whole banquet of words.

And  that’s that, surely?

Well thankfully. It seems the cupboard is note entirely bare just yet and I understand that Lampedusa’s letters to his wife are soon to be (perhaps even have been) published in his native Italy. Let’s  hope an english translation quickly follows.

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Seneca on the pleasures of receiving a letter from a friend.

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“They’re doing WHAT to the Royal Mail?!” Not even that old stoic Seneca can hide his concern.

Thank you for writing so often. By doing so you give me a glimpse of yourself in the only way you can. I never get a letter from you without instantly feeling we’re together. If pictures of absent friends are a source of pleasure to us, refreshing the memory and relieving the sense of void with a solace however insubstantial and unreal, how much more so are letters, which carry marks and signs of an absent friend that are real. For the handwriting of a friend affords us what is so delightful about seeing him again, the sense of recognition. 

Seneca, 40th letter to Lucilus, written in the first century CE.

 

There is a great deal of food for thought in Seneca’s letters to his young friend, but it was this passage that leapt out at me when I read it the other day. With the Government planning the sale of the Royal Mail into private hands, I for one can only see this as hastening the decline of the personal letter. Such is the way of British privatisations that consumers often ending up paying more to get less. It won’t be long before we’re paying £1 to send a letter. Once we’re through that barrier expect price rise upon rise, as the Royal Mail concentrates on the real cash generator of parcel delivery.

That said, I will always set great store by a personal letter. I can’t add anything of value to the great man’s words, apart from to add that with all the different ways of communicating now available to us, I see a personal letter as being even more valuable than the other forms. If you’re anything like me, writing a letter takes the most effort: setting aside the required amount of time, thinking of the right words, making sure your handwriting is consistently neat, having to go to the post office if you haven’t already got the stamps, and paying to send it off. If anything comes near it for bridging the gap between you and a loved one or a friend, then it’s a video call via Skype or something similar. But even then once it’s finished that’s it. At least with a letter it’s a physical object in your hand. That, together with the knowledge that someone’s gone to that extra effort to get in touch, will always mean a lot to me.

Whatever price the cynics may make me pay to send a letter in the future, at least I’ll have the old stoic Seneca to remind me of its true value.