‘The Professor and the Siren’ by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

 

‘The Professor and the Siren’ by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa   (!957) –   69 pages

 

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When Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa died in 1957 at the age of sixty, he was an unpublished writer.  His novel ‘The Leopard’ had been rejected by two publishers.  However, after his death, a few literary friends of his continued to work to get the novel published, and it was published the following year.  Despite some divided critical opinion, the novel immediately achieved worldwide popularity.  It became the top-selling novel in Italian history.

I have read ‘The Leopard’ and consider it one of the most powerful and likeable novels of the twentieth century.  It is a good-natured view of the history of Sicily through the eyes of one former aristocrat who has lost his place in society.

In 1963 ‘The Leopard’ was made into a movie by Luciano Visconti starring Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale.   The movie is one of those few rare cases where the movie actually does justice to the novel.  The movie is well worth watching and I would suggest you add it to your lists.

But most of all you really should read the brilliant masterpiece ‘The Leopard’.  It brings you back into the vivid and violent world of 19th century Sicily as only the very best historical fiction can.

The recent NYRB collection ‘The Professor and the Siren’ contains only a few trinket leftovers from Lampedusa.  Most of the collection is taken up with the long short story ‘The Professor and the Siren’ which relates the love affair between an antiquities professor and a mermaid.

“Her body below the groin, below the buttocks, was that of a fish, covered with tiny pearly blue scales and ending in a forked tail that slapped gently against the bottom of the boat.  She was a siren.”  

It is Lampedusa’s charm and wit that makes this story fun to read.  The author does not shy away from the physical aspects of this man and siren relationship.  Because the professor is an ancient Greek studies professor, we get the full story of Calliope and the Sirens in Greek mythology.

john-william-waterhouse-a-mermaid-1900-oil-on-canvasThe second story in the collection, ‘Joy and the Law’, is a pleasant enough entry at only seven pages.

The third and last entry, ‘The Blind Kittens’, is the opening of a final novel Lampedusa was intending to write but had only completed about twenty pages when he died.  The opening is quite engaging but is only a fragment and not a complete story.

This is one case where it might be advisable to skip the introduction by Marina Warner, since it is interminable and detracts from the playful light-hearted tone of the collection.

I do believe that ‘The Leopard’ is a must-read, but this collection would be only for those who want more Lampedusa after reading ‘The Leopard’.

 

Grade:   B       

 

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6 responses to this post.

  1. The Leopard is beautiful but I do worry that the film version is very slow and may put people off the novel. I got a lot of credit from reading it on the train (in English) when I was backpacking around Sicily so he is still much admired in his homeland.

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    • Hi Alastair,
      I did enjoy the film version but that may have been because I was still so enamored of the novel and also because I usually enjoy Burt Lancaster movies.
      I’m sure Lampedusa is considered a favorite son of Sicily especially since he was not a criminal. 🙂

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  2. I wouldn’t say that the film put me off reading The Leopard, it’s been more a matter of just getting round to it. But I did find it tedious. And, well, who can take any film seriously when it’s got Burt Lancaster in it?

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    • HI Lisa,
      Oh, Burt Lancaster had some good roles. I particularly liked ‘Sweet Smell of Success’ and ‘The Swimmer’. With ‘The Leopard’, we must have been watching different movies, because I did not find it tedious at all. 🙂

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  3. I didn’t know the history behind The Leopard. I’ve not read the book but when I worked in bookshops in Melbourne (which has a big Italian population) many moons ago I sold a lot of copies.

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    • Hi Kim,
      Not that I know many people who have read ‘The Leopard’, but I don’t know anyone who read the book and didn’t like it. The movie apparently is another matter. See comments above. 🙂

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