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The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa

Vintage, 2007, 234 p including 18 p Appendix (containing a 3 p Afterword and 15 p Fragments of the novel with some sonnets) plus xxiv p Foreword. Translated from the Italian Il Gattopardo (Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore, 1958) by Archibald Colquhoun. Foreword and Afterword by Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi. Foreword and Appendix translated from the Italian by Guido Waldman.

The Leopard cover

The good lady read this as it was one of David Bowie’s 100 Favourite Books and she subsequently passed it on to me. Its back cover blurb has a quote from L P Hartley saying it is ‘Perhaps the greatest novel of the century’. It is good but I wouldn’t go quite so overboard as that.

The setting is Sicily at and after the time when the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was absorbed into the new Kingdom of Italy during the Risorgimento. The leopard of the title is Don Fabrizio Cabrera, Prince of Salina, whose family emblem, carved as gateposts on his estate, is always translated as such. (More strictly speaking, a gattopardo is not a leopard but a serval, which appears on the Lampedusa family coat of arms.) The character of the Prince is based on one of the author’s ancestors.

It seems that despite its reputation as a classic the novel is also effectively unfinished. In the foreword we are told that from after first publication up till his death the author had been revising, updating and writing new chapters to be interpolated into the text. This edition contains all this new material with the fragmentary chapters plus some poems attributed to the Prince appearing in the afterword.

The Leopard is a chronicle of the decline of the old Sicilian aristocracy and its replacement by new money and new ways – a decline already in train but accelerated by the altered political dispensation. It delves into the relationships of the Prince with his family, his dog Bendicò, his mistress, the locals and the family priest, Father Pirrone. What plot there is centres on the marriage of the Prince’s nephew Tancredi, an enthusiastic follower of Garibaldi and favoured by Fabrizio over his own sons, to Angelica, the beautiful daughter of a local peasant made good (or in Don Fabrizio’s eyes, bad,) Don Calogero Sedàra. Perhaps in an attempt to broaden the book’s scope to wider Sicilian society one of the interpolated chapters describes a visit of Father Pirrone to his home town where he resolves a dispute involving land and a potential marriage.

A sense of melancholy, of things passing, pervades the novel, captured by the sentences, “A man of forty-five can consider himself still young till the moment comes when he realizes that he has children old enough to fall in love. The Prince felt old age come over him in one blow.” On the other hand the brashness of youth, its lack of knowledge that the bloom will fade, is illustrated when Angelica thinks, ‘“Boys at that age are like dogs; one has only to whistle and they come straight away.’”

Don Fabrizio reflects that the new Italy has had an inauspicious start when the local result of its confirmatory plebiscite is announced as having no votes against. The particularities of Sicilian experience are shown by his declaration, “‘We are old Chevalley, very old. For over twenty-five centuries we’ve been bearing the weight of superb and heterogeneous civilisations, all from outside, none made by ourselves, none that we could call our own….. for two thousand five hundred years we’ve been a colony…. ….we’re worn out and exhausted.’” But the Prince is not beyond self-criticism. “‘The Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect.’” However, the tone for me was lightened at one point when the assembled Salina family was served up a “macaroni pie”. To a twenty-first century Scot that designation has quite a different meaning than it has to anyone Italian…..

Later Don Fabrizio reflects, “We were the Leopards and Lions; those who take our place will be little jackals, hyenas; and the whole lot of us, Leopards, jackals and sheep, we’ll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth,” and realizes no Salina can really take his place, “The significance of a noble family lies entirely in its traditions… its vital memories, and he was the last to have any unusual memories.”

The book is in effect a threnody for the perceived lost glories of the Lampedusa family. In that, it may stand as a metaphor for any sense of loss.

Pedant’s corner:- bandoleer (I’ve not seen this spelling of bandolier before,) scrutator (the usual word for someone supervising an election is scrutineer,) “extortioners of their own dependants” (extortionists?) “the valise, which in the end was born by both knightly contenders” (was borne,) arch-type (archetype?) a missing quote mark before a piece of direct speech.

A Season With Verona by Tim Parks

Travels around Italy in search of illusion, national character and …. goals.

Secker and Warburg, 2002, 447 p.

A Season With Verona cover

Parks is an English novelist who has lived in Italy for many years. Long fallen under the influence of the Brigate Gialloblù (the Yellow-and-Blue Squad,) “ultras” who throng the Curva Sud of Verona’s Bentegodi stadium for home matches, he conceived of the idea of attending every game of the team’s 1999-2000 season, selling this to his wife on the basis he could write a book about it. The result, though, is not a book only about football and the experience of being a fan, but also an exploration of Italy, the strange divisions, attitudes, enmities and prejudices within that country.

Given that the team Parks is so devoted to is Hellas Verona, not one of Italian football’s superpowers, the book’s subtitle is a bit of a red herring. Goals (at least, Hellas goals) turn out to be in somewhat short supply. This is partly due to the loss of their previous manager, Cesare Prandelli, to a bigger club. His successor is not as accomplished.

As well as the Veronese dialect being derided in the rest of Italy, Hellas fans and Verona itself had at the time (and may still) an unenviable reputation, as racist. (As far as the football club is concerned the nearest British equivalent might be Millwall – “No-one likes us, we don’t care” – but that club’s profile is probably lower than Verona’s, its football history less illustrious. In the miraculous year of 1985, before Parks’s time as a fan, Verona actually won lo scudetto – imagine Millwall winning the English Premiership – but immediately after that incredible outcome the system of appointing referees in Serie A was changed.) A sub-theme throughout the book is the saga of a teacher in Verona who was the subject of an attack because he was a Jew. Most Veronese are solicitous and supportive of him but the national press and media weigh in with stereotyping of all Veronese as racist. The situation becomes ever more complicated when it is revealed that the man did not have the teaching qualifications he claimed, thus putting his job in danger. (But even this is turned against the Veronese.) Neither is any hospital report of the man’s injuries ever produced. The attack may not have occurred at all. However, Parks portrays the fans’ racism as more contrarian and reflexive than real, an assertion of defiance and distinctiveness. An afterword says that a black Colombian made his debut for Hellas two seasons later and was warmly welcomed by the Curva Sud. During the season covered the Verona fans encounters a certain amount of casual violence, both from opposition supporters and the police. (Veronese, being perceived as racist, are seen as fair game.)

The author’s novelistic background shows through at times. The chapters are structured with a fiction writer’s feel and the incidents detailed highlight the points he is making. All but a few chapters are tailed by the Giornata (results) and Classifica (league table) after the fixtures discussed within. Among his more general observations are that, “To do anything in Italy you don’t need to be capable of it. What you do need is a certificate. The document is crucial.” He adds, “There is no people more ready to imagine a conspiracy than the Italians.” Yet “everyone wants their team to win at all costs and everyone earnestly wishes the world to be fair.” Parks concurs with Leopardi who in a book published in 1828 stated that society in Italy is a “school for insult.” The description is even more applicable to football. While not sharing their enmities to local rivals Bergamo, Brescia and Vicenza, when Inter come to town Parks feels the indignation – familiar to fans of wee teams everywhere – of Hellas fans to those Veronese who have turned up to support Inter. “How can they do it?” Mixed in with this is the disparity in resources “the five reserves they” (Inter) “have on the bench are worth more than our whole twenty-five-strong squad put together.” On the iniquities of referees officiating in a match involving a big team at the Bentegodi, Parks says, “The more I think about football, the more I am convinced that injustice is an essential part of it,” adding that the fan of Verona, indeed the fan of a small team anywhere is lucky. “He gets it.” Also, “The truth is that whenever a provincial side come to Turin,” (to play Juventus) “they arrive expecting to be cheated. More than they would anywhere else.” (Welcome to Parkhead and Ibrox!)

The first game is a trial. Away to Bari, eight hundred and fifty kilometres down the Adriatic coast. Not as far as Lecce but bad enough. And held not on the usual Sunday of Serie A matches but as the anticipo at 3 o’clock on Saturday afternoon, and thus the first match of the entire Serie A season. This arrangement is for pay television purposes. A second anticipo is played on a Saturday night and a posticipo on the Sunday evening. I don’t like the concept. Football games ought to be played at the traditional time (football’s soul has long since been sold out, in some cases far too cheaply, for filthy lucre) but I do like the word posticipo. In a circumstance which will be unsurprising to also-rans in other countries only the provinciali, not the big five of Juventus, Inter Milan, A C Milan, Lazio and Roma, are delegated to play on a Saturday afternoon. Parks’s journey to Bari on the Zanzibar bus (the book is dedicated to its denizens, the Zanzibar is the bar from which the supporters bus leaves) is a nightmare full of interruptions and replete with Italian expletives – if you didn’t know what vaffanculo means before reading this book it wouldn’t take you long to work it out – with Parks’s credibility at stake, travelling for hours on a clapped out vehicle stocked with initially suspicious diehards. The game, too, is a trial for the most part but Hellas salvage a draw. For the later game at Lecce Parks uses his projected book as a means to travel with the club. Unable to get there any other way he flies with the team and officials, staying at their hotel. The players turn out to be fairly sad individuals, almost like little boys lost. The game, too, is lost and Parks swears not to travel with the team again.

It is only more than halfway through the book, when the reality of a relegation struggle has become clear, that Parks mentions what he had hoped to avoid, something unthinkable. Verona has another football team, from the suburb of Chievo. Traditionally poorly supported – Parks characterises this as more or less a woman, two men and a dog (I paraphrase) – and habitual denizens of the lower leagues, they have not long been elevated to Serie B, and so are now allowed to play at the Bentegodi but are exemplary, with two black players and fans who don’t invite trouble. Worse still for Hellas fans, Chievo are on course for promotion. Hence Hellas faces the imminent loss both of Serie A status and that of top dog in Verona. It is here that Parks rails at the fact that, without television money – with Serie B and European games added to the schedule it means that there is football on Italian TV every day of the week – Chievo would not be able to afford the players who have brought them success.

While not being beyond personal considerations – he greets the pathetic performances that threaten the club’s status with the thought that “they are destroying my book” – Parks is good on the trials of being a fan. When Bologna score first in the (for Hellas, must-win) third last game of the season he observes, “Then I realised that although I thought I had already abandoned hope before the game, actually I hadn’t. I had pretended to despair, precisely to keep alive the tiniest hidden hope, flickering deep, deep in my breast. Now it was extinguished.” A reaction familiar to all fans who have been in that situation. Then Adailton, “the only Brazilian who can’t play football, as the fans like to say,” (these fans and Parks have obviously never witnessed Rafael Scheidt) scores a beauty. Verona go on to lead the game but almost throw the win away.

The season ends on a triumph of sorts. Five points behind with three games to go was a situation never before retrieved in Serie A. Yet Hellas still ended in a three-way tie for the last relegation place. In the complicated way Italian football approaches these things there can only be one pair of teams to play-off. Lecce came top of the calculation of the relevant results so Hellas had to confront Reggina (to whom they had lost at home in the normal season while drawing away.) That normal away game was played in Sicily, in Catania, as Reggina were being punished for crowd trouble. So after a 1-0 win at home, Parks travels for the first time to Reggia di Calabria for the final game. Only one plane can get him there, the team’s, which of course he had forsworn. Nevertheless he has to go. At 2-0 down an away goal means survival. Its achievement is succeeded by an excruciating period of Reggina pressure and an heroic display by Verona’s goalkeeper, Ferron. An orgy of violence towards the away team, officials and fans follows the final whistle.

I note that Parks describes Luca Toni – playing for the opposition – as spending the game falling over, seeking to win free kicks. I once commented on another blog that the spectacle of said player resembled a tree trying to play football; a comparison that blogger described as inspired.

Pedant’s corner:- having if off (it,) national Italian team (Parks’s sojourn in Italy is perhaps in evidence here, the usual order in English is Italian national team,) for convenience sake (convenience’s,) indignance (indignation,) Seishelles (Seychelles – though the misspelling may have been a reproduction of that of one of Parks’s students of English,) place kick (free kick,) that can effect the timing (affect,) sung (sang.)

Black Opera by Mary Gentle

Gollancz, 2012, 680 p.

The book starts atmospherically with a prologue scene set around the eruption of the Indonesian volcano of Tambora in 1815, which provided the loudest sound in recorded history – an explosion so great that 1200 miles away it was thought to be artillery and threw so much ash into the atmosphere it resulted in “the Year without a Summer” in 1816. Perhaps the first sign that this is not a straight historical novel is that a party of “The Prince’s Men” is on hand – on an ocean-going steamboat.

The novel proper focuses on Conrad Scalese, a rationalist atheist who writes libretti for a living. His latest work has had a triumphant premier but lightning has struck the theatre where it was performed. The local (Neapolitan) Inquisition interprets this as a sign of God’s anger at the opera’s blasphemy and arrives to take him in for questioning. He is saved by the local police chief who conveys him to a meeting with the King of the Two Sicilies who assesses Conrad’s suitability to write the libretto for an opera which the King desires in order to counter a Black Opera which The Prince’s Men plan to perform in a few months’ time. The Black Opera is the secular equivalent of a black mass. Not only will it cause the eruption of Vesuvius, Stromboli, Ætna and other volcanic regions in between, thus devastating the Two Sicilies, it will summon up Il Principe, the God whom the creator God left in charge of Earth. Other intrusions of the supernatural into the narrative have Conrad’s father appearing as a ghost and people known as the Returned Dead – not zombies but fully functioning humans except for lacking the need to breathe.

The premise – that volcanic eruptions can be triggered by singing – is of course unremittingly silly but must be accepted for purposes of story. Invocation of gods or devils by incantation is time-honoured in fiction so their summoning by singing is not too much further of a stretch (but still too much for me.)

Gentle’s characterisation and plotting are excellent, though. The web of relationships around Conrad and the betrayals inherent in the set-up – the Prince’s Men are even more dangerous than the Cammora of Naples or the società onorata of Sicily – are finely detailed. Gentle’s knowledge of, or research on, opera seems solidly based to a non-buff. The collaborative nature of a first production, not only composer and librettist but also the singers, was well depicted.

As befits an altered history of the nineteenth century, the victor of Austerlitz and Borodino, the Emperor of the North, also makes two passing appearances.

Conrad’s sweet-bitterness towards his former love is pithily expressed, “It’s as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man,” and the perennial complaint, “why a sister and a sweetheart will invariably combine their forces to persecute the relevant male,” is aired.

Despite any negativity above Black Opera is never less than readable; even the supernatural stuff.

Pedants’ complaints:- “Sung” count: 1. Livestock is a singular noun. Plus we had a who’s for whose, lay for lie, a beaus for beaux and one, “I can’t explained.” Despite her Italian setting and liberal use of Italian phrases, Gentle employed librettos and palazzos as plurals rather than the Italian libretti/palazzi. (Both forms are, though, acceptable in English.)

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