Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa- What can you read once you’ve read “The Leopard”?

 A round-up of some of the Italian author’s less well-known work.

Italian author Giuseppe Tomassi di Lampedusa remains justly renowned for his 1950’s masterpiece “The Leopard”. Since the book’s publication in the late fifties, a short while after the author’s death from lung cancer, it has won him a level of renown and respect that he never knew when alive. Sadly it is his only finished long work, one which demonstrates that this literary late starter had finally found his voice.  Readers who fall in love with that book (and we are legion) and who want to read more by him are therefore faced with a dilemma.  Luckily, he left behind other works, and what little else there is repays the effort for the devotee.  

For english-speaking readers there are quite a lot of editions of Lampedusa’s works around. Some of these are not in print, but most can be tracked down second hand. A very good place to start after “The Leopard” is any edition of his works that includes the autobiographical sketches usually translated under the title of “Places of my Infancy”. According to Ian Gilmour’s biography (see below) Lampedusa worked on these sketches while in the middle of writing The Leopard. The novel is based in large part on his own family’s history, so it seems that the necessary imaginative engagement with the past brought a significant number of memories to the fore. The sketches are pieces that see Lampedusa  reminiscing about the Sicily he knew in the very early twentieth century when he was a small boy.  The Leopard therefore opens a window on the world of Sicily and one of its aristocratic families in the mid- to-late nineteenth century, while the “Sketches” act as  a companion piece,  shedding light on the early influences of one particular Sicilian aristocrat. Before really getting to know Lampedusa’s work I was virtually ignorant about Sicily, having little to go on but a few cultural cliches (most of them I’m ashamed to say concerning the Mafia). While the Sketches aren’t as gory or gripping as “The Godfather Part II” perhaps, it is at least refreshing to learn that there was a part of Sicily that stood at as far and as genteel remove as it’s possible to get, while Lampedusa’s descriptions of the Sicilian landscape come close to the quality of description he attained in The Leopard. 

The short story “The Professor and the Siren” is often published together with the Sketches, and remains the other well know minor work. It’s one of my favourite short stories, and is set in Turin in the 1930s. It charts the odd friendship of a world-weary younger man and an older professor of the Classics. The Professor tells his new friend the story of a remarkable romance which occurred when he was a very young man back in Sicily, an entanglement which changed his life and influenced him even to the end of his days. As the story’s title suggests, the object of his affections was not entirely human and was a figure from Sicily’s ancient Greek past.  , The author harks back to the classical vein of storytelling, which saw gods and other immortals interact with men. It can be read as a fable, but it is just as easily read at face value as a tale of memory, love, loss, ageing, and passion. It’s quite different to The Leopard and indicates that Lampedusa was not just a one trick pony.

Less good is “The Blind Kittens”. This has been in print for years, and isn’t exactly a short story (though it can just about be read as one). It is in fact the remaining draft for the opening chapter for his next novel, which he was working on at his death. It was intended to deal with Sicilian society some decades on from The Leopard, but it doesn’t have the grace and ease of the earlier work. However, we must remember that Lampedusa was an ill man when working on it. It’s not a bad piece of work. It just suffers by comparison with a greater one. However, it continues in the vein of the author commenting on his fellow Sicilians, and echoes some of the previous novel’s wry and resigned descriptions of Sicilians and the national character.

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HP Lovecraft: bigger, badder, weirder.

Review of The Whisperer in Darkness: Collected Stories Volume 1, published by Wordsworth Editions. 

 

I have been aware of Lovecraft’s name for a long time but had never properly got round to reading any of his stories. Then I came across his story “The Call of Cthulhu” in an anthology of classic American supernatural fiction and I was hooked. The trouble is, there are quite a lot of Lovecraft editions out there, so where to begin?

A central aspect of his work is the “Cthulhu Mythos”, and in this volume Wordsworth Editions get right down to brass tacks by collecting together the main stories that fall into this category.

Downsides to this edition? Well if you like Lovecraft, after reading this you’ll probably render the book redundant as you’ll want to get the collected work. But Wordsworth books cost far less than the price of a packet of cigarettes or even a pint in some places, so this is hardly money wasted. There’s also the fact that the earliest stories in this volume are also among Lovecraft’s earliest work, so they’re not perfect and rehash certain narrative ideas and imagery.

A lot of what I’ve read by Lovecraft so far calls to my mind other writers. These are purely personal associations. I’m not accusing him of plagiarism, and I don’t even know if he read all of these writers. However, Poe is one who seems to loom large over a lot of Lovecraft’s work. He’s even mentioned in “At the Mountains of Madness”. But even simply in terms of being a writer who was unafraid to pitch things at the same high, nerve-wracking level, Lovecraft seems to have seen Poe as someone who threw down the gauntlet.  Little wonder Lovecraft’s work inhabits the same emotional landscape, and then gores even further.

MR James is someone else I like a lot, and who comes to mind when I read Lovecraft. Like James’s, many of Lovecraft’s characters have a scholarly background. “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Dunwich Horror” share the (M.R.) Jamesian device of scholars and other seekers of arcane knowledge go too far in their pursuits, thereby unleashing terrible forces. Like James as well, Lovecraft seems convinced that it is only the learned and well-versed who are truly capable enough to either a) solve the problem at hand (as in Dunwich) or b) at least make sense of it and to therefore warn others ( as in those ‘mad’ mountains).
H.G. Wells seems somewhere in the mix too, since the ultimate fate of the OLd Ones at the hand of their former slaves, in “At the Mountains of Madness”, has echoes of the future as foretold in “The Time Machine”. Then there’s the whole concept of malevolent forces arriving uncontrollably from outer space, a concept which exploded into the popular consciousness with “The War of the Worlds”.
I’m not at all trying to bring Lovecraft down a peg or two by highlighting what I find similar in the work of others. On the contrary. Whether he consciously borrowed from these men or not is by the by. What I’m trying to illustrate is how he took what already existed in horror/ supernatural fiction before him, and built massively built on those foundations. If Poe ramped up the horror and tension, Lovecraft proved he could go even further up the scale. In like manner, M.R. James’s gentlemen protagonists always seem to be scholars of independent means. If they are full-time academics their alma mater is barely alluded to (though the implicit assumption must be that they are Cambridge men). Lovecraft, however, went one better and created an entirely fictional educational institution, the wonderfully named
Miskatonic University, itself based on Brown University.
Also like James’s characters, Lovecraft’s are often well read and steeped in all manner of arcane lore, but the American weriter again adds a whole new extra dimension to this in his stories. This is by means of consistent reference to the secrets that many characters have learned by reading the dread book The Necronomicon by that “mad arab” Abdul Alhazred, printed in Spain in the sixteenth century, and now only found carefully guarded in a few select libraries. I love everything about this fictional book. There’s the idea f it being written by a demented oriental scholar,and the implicit pun in his name. (If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, total knowledge will drive you mad, it seems to imply.) There’s the book’s contents, which are so terrible that Lovecraft’s narrators can barely even allude to them. Then there’s the notion that the book was printed0 blasphemously so to use a key Lovecraft adverb- in a hostile place at a hostile time, Spain during the era of the inquisition. Then there’s the implication that those brave enough to dare its pages have their minds altered by its contents forever, such are the terrible secrets it tells of…
Great stuff, and just the kind of reading for a cold winter evening.
The supposed existence of The Necronomicon  gives greater weight to the whole cosmology of Lovecraft’s work, the macabre backdrop of the ‘Old Ones’ who were on Earth millions of years before mankind, and who wait patiently for a chance to re-enter our dimension to reclaim and dominate what is rightfully theirs. Such a massive fictional canvas makes ‘The War of the Worlds” in its way look like a little local skirmish.
If there’s a potential downside to all this for me, then it’s the fact that it’s on such a vast scale that it can seem overblown and silly. Yet that’s only if I cease to suspend my disbelief, and if I do that when reading this kind of stuff it’s fatal. I read these things for the thrill, and because ultimately it’s great entertainment. Besides, there’s the whole aspect of adventure and scale to his work. Take “The Call of the Cthulu”. If ther’s one short story that could claim to be epic in theme and setting that’s it.
By entering the gloriously mad fictional world of HP Lovecraft and suspending my disbelief, all I can do is cling on as best I can.

Coming late to Kipling.

Review of Rudyard Kipling, Collected [should read “Selected“] Short Stories, Everyman’s Classics.

Kipling remains a household name in all but the most book-bereft of homes, but how of much of him has the average reader actually read these days?

I don’t know if I’d be classed as an average reader,  but perhaps my experience of him is similar to other people’s. Had I been born at any time up to- say for argument’s sake- 1940,  I would probably have had a keen knowledge of Kipling. For boys and girls growing up in bookish households in the early and mid twentieth century, Kipling was part of the canon: the pick of the poems, Stalkey and Co, The Jungle Books and Kim were all childhood staples.

I am not suggesting that post-war children have not been reading Kipling. Far from it. But I think you could argue that the more general popular disregard of his work has led to fewer children reading him than he deserves.

Growing up in the 80’s, I suspect my own experience of Kipling was more the contemporary norm, in that I did not read Kipling, but knew the name. I remember going to see Disney’s “The Jungle Book” at the cinema around the age of 8 or 9 but perhaps I didn’t make the link. It certainly didn’t occur to me to read those stories, and I don’t remember Kipling being read to me at home.  At some stage a teacher in primary school might have read read my class some of the Just So stories.

Later on in my late teens or early twenties I began an oddly disjointed relationship with Kipling. He still remains popular as a poet, if only for one poem, “If”. I first encountered it around that time when it was voted “the nation’s (i.e. the United Kingdom’s) favourite poem”. However, I was vaguely aware that Kipling was the de facto “poet of empire”, and besides I saw Jim Davidson quoted in the paper as saying “If” was his favourite poem. So that was it as far as I was concerned. If Jim Davidson liked it, then I assumed that Kipling’s poetry was most certainly down at the cheaper end of British culture.

That could have been the end of things.

Except that around the same time, in my late teens, something strange happened. A local bookshop was having a closing down sale, and my mom came home with, among other things, a bargain copy of Mrs Bathurst and Other Stories publish by OUP.  I remember reading the title story as well as another neglected gem called “Proofs of Holy Writ”. The more mysterious and speculative of Kipling’s short stories are not the kind of thing you might expect a teenager to be reading, but I put prejudice aside and took them for what they were (“Mrs Bathurst” is a genuinely enigmatic and compelling story).

But I put the book aside again.  It was only years later, quite recently in fact, that Auden’s line from “In Memoriam W.B. Yeats” on how time “will pardon Kipling and his views” has come true in my case. Everyman books publish a “Collected Stories” of Kipling, which is as good a one-volume overview as you can get at the moment. Kipling wrote a great deal of stories, and there are a lot of selections out there. But if you want only one, or perhaps are new to the writer, then the Everyman is a very good book to have. Bear in mind, though, that the book is a ‘selected’ edition, and not a collected as claimed in the title. As for the actual selection on offer, I’d say it’s representative rather than definitive. Because Kipling was a master story teller who was also very prolific, any editor trying to make a selection is on a bit of a hiding to nothing, in that they’re bound to miss out something that some reader or other would consider essential. However, this is about as good an all-round collection as you could wish for. All the key periods of Kipling’s career are catered for, from the early Indian stories of his Plain Tales from the Hills period, to selections from “Stalkey and Co.” right up to some uncannily good later work. All of this goes to show what an under-rated writer of adult fiction he continues to be, especially in the United Kingdom.

I’ll just pick three examples from among many of the treasures to be found here, in order to convey why I like him so much. First there’s “Mrs Bathhurst” which is a tale of desire, and which  roams right across the British Empire. Then there’s “The Man Who would be King” which is one of the greatest stories written by anyone anywhere ever, and sums up far better than the poem “The White Man’s Burden” the dangerous obsessions with riches, power and prestige that continue to drive would-be empire builders to this day. And finally there’s a late, post- World War I story called “The Gardener” which deals with the emotional aftermath of losing a child in that dreadful conflagration. Even the most rabid anti-Kiplingite would have to admit that it is touching and heartfelt without ever succumbing to sentimentality. In fact here’s a trick to play on your literary friends. Read them “The Gardener” without them knowing who it’s by, and then see if they can guess the author. Kipling’s might well be the last name to spring to mind.

There is plenty more to confound expectation here, as well as stories to shock, delight, make you laugh, make you think, make you smile and to send a shiver down your spine. The settings for a lot of these stories will surprise you too. I can think of very few writers with the sheer imagination to write so convincingly about so many diverse kinds of people in so many diverse settings and epochs. He even tried his hand at a kind of proto-science fiction, an example of which is included. Above all these stories will make you realise that, for all his faults, there is far more to Kipling than “If”, the Jungle Book and his being the de facto poet of Empire. One thing I think any intelligent reader would have to agree is that at his very best he was one of the greatest english writers ever, and in having this book you will have most of his strongest work right there in your hands.

As if to square the circle, my son has recently started dipping into the  Just So stories. He is also the proud owner of a 1930’s edition of the Jungle Books, which we found in a second hand shop. After the reading the first couple of pages he found them irresistible. I think it goes to show that good writing is what matters, regardless of our feelings about the writer. So whether we see Kipling as a deeply dodgy relic of our colonial past, or as a misunderstood genius, it might be worth ‘treating those two imposters just the same’ and putting them aside once and for all, while we get on with the more serious work of judging his works on their individual merits.

Is this the truly essential Hemingway?

Ernest Hemingway, The Collected Stories, ed James Fenton, Everyman’s Library Classics.

For a number of years in the UK a book has been available called “The Essential Hemingway”, consisting of the whole of his novel “Fiesta”, excerpts from some of his other novels, and most of the major short stories. It’s a good collection, which has a decent stab at trying to be a version of “Hemingway’s Greatest Hits”. However, to really get to know this writer, and to know the full force of the smack around the intellectual and emotional chops that he can produce, you need to do yourself a favour and read the stories, preferably in order. I’m going to argue here that it’s the collected stories that make up the truly essential Hemingway.

The Everyman edition is  a beautifully produced hardback volume of all of Hemingway’s collected and uncollected stories. There are some major differences between this and the other claimant to the title of ultimate Hemingway story collection, the ‘Finca Vigia’ version. In the ‘Finca Vigia’, the editors include pieces that for the sake of argument they class as short fiction. However, the editor of the Everyman, James Fenton, doesn’t include these, arguing that they are excerpts from longer works which are available elsewhere (for example, sections from the novel “To Have and Have Not”).

As a result the Everyman contains the celebrated 1939 story collection The First 49 Stories, together with work uncollected there, some post-1949 short fiction and some items of jevenilia. I bought it as a replacement for my very old Jonathan Cape edition of The First 49 Stories, and I am very pleased with it.

It is worth investing in this book rather than the other collections of Hemingway’s short fiction for two main reasons. The first and most obvious one is that this book collects the short fiction altogether in one place. This simplifies things because Hemingway’s short work has been rounded up in various books over the years, and sometimes rather confusingly. Also, this book captures the essence of his brilliance, so much so that it is this book that truly deserves the title “The Essential Hemingway”. And although Hemingway wrote three indisputably classic novels (“Fiesta”, “A Farewell to Arms” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls”) I increasingly feel that this book contains his finest writing of all.

I think Hemingway is one of those writers you keep coming back to if you identify with his work. Personally speaking, my interest in other authors has come and gone over the years, but Hemingway is one of the very first ‘serious’ writers whose work I sought out in my teens, and my interest has remained consistent for 20 years. I might go a year or more without reading anything by him, but he’s always there, the yardstick by which all other prose writers- and a good few poets too- are judged in my mind.

No-one beats Hemingway for the clarity and precision of his vision of the world and the way he expressed this. It’s often overlooked these days, but this man really did change the way that a lot of people wrote. He learned from the best literary teachers in order to form his own pared-down, razor-sharp way of writing. Like other great artists he forged his own style, and it’s a testament to his talent that this is present from virtually the very beginning, in the “In Our Time” collection. This book still has the power to move a reader very much. I can only imagine the effect on the reader when it was first published in the 20s.

Hemingway once wrote of Nelson Algren’s work that “this is a man writing and you should not read it if you cannot take a punch”. This statement is not the product of the bullish machismo that Hemingway is still accused of (and, let’s face it, was guilty of in his laziest writing). Instead it’s really a statement that acknowledges how some writers are unflinching and extremely serious to the point of being brutal. The same statement applies to Hemingway. He was a great artist, and as such he tackled the big universal themes head on. Many of his very best stories deal with some of them: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is a portrait of three very different people, the eponymous American society figure, his faithless wife and the British hunter they engage to lead them on safari. In relatively few pages the story says more about courage, cowardice, shame, regret and human weakness than some writers manage in a whole novel. “The Snows of Kilimanjiro” tells of a dying writer who feels that he has dissipated his talent and laments all that he will never have the chance to write. “On the Quai at Smyrna” is effectively a monologue by a British Officer who witnessed the Greek evacuation of Turkey, but behind the seemingly offhand language and stiff-upper-lip understatement, the reader glimpses the full horror of a whole people forced to up sticks and move en masse. “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” is a profound vignette, being a study in hopelessness and loneliness, a piece that James Joyce no less considered to be one of the best short pieces ever written.

There are other stories in this book that are rightly hailed as classic, and others that are less well known. If you are a newcomer you will find plenty to engage you. If you know his work you will probably find fresh delights in this edition (upon receiving this book the first title that caught my attention was “The Capital of the World”, a story I’d either overlooked or just plain forgotten. When I read it it was a real heartbreaker!).

Another bonus of this edition is its focus on the work from the 1950s. There’s a school of thought that says Hemingway did his best work early, and then dissipated his talent through too much shooting, fishing and drinking, so that it only re-emerged in beautiful late flickers like “The Old Man and the Sea”. Well, the later stories prove that there was plenty of life left in the old dog, before his nerve and then his mind finally failed him.

The only thing this book lacks is Hemingway’s preface from the original edition of The First Forty Nine Stories, which contains one of the most telling phrases I know not just about writing but about anything in life worth doing:

In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dulled and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well oiled in the closet, but unused.