Lampedusa, by Steven Price (Hardcover, publisher: McClelland & Stewart, Aug. 27, 2019, 336 pages, Biographical Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction)

Do you where Lampedusa is? Or what it is? Steven Price’s historical novel, Lampedusa, is not actually about the island of Lampedusa, which lies between Italy and the coasts of Tunisia and Libya. It is about a man to whom the island becomes a symbol of his impending death, and of the past, of time passing, and of his own lack of a legacy. In fact, in the novel he never goes to Lampedusa where his ancestors lived. The island is like a spectre, a name which comes up all the time, a landscape which strongly defines the man, in as much as the island was defined by the man and his family. The faraway, hot, dusty, windswept island becomes another character in the novel, speaking to the reader in whispers.

Who is this man, whose life is about ancient history, breeding, power, wealth, confusion, timidity, loneliness and fear? He is the last Prince of Lampedusa, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. He is a real historical figure, and while author Steven Price keeps very close to the historical records of the person and his family, his inner life is of course invented, but wonderfully well realized. It takes a great deal of skill and forethought to weave a story around the daily life of one man, and not have too many flashbacks, without it being boring. Lampedusa is not boring. Every chapter is engaging. During the weeks that I allowed myself to indulge in a few pages every day, my mind was filled with the atmosphere of Palermo, Lampedusa, Sicily and the houses and palaces where “Giuseppe” (in quotation marks, referring to the character in the novel, as opposed to the real person) spends his days. 

Tomasi’s creation, The Leopard…

This novel by Canadian author and poet Steven Price is made richer and more layered by the fact that it portrays the period in which Giuseppe Tomasi wrote his world-famous novel, The Leopard. It is therefore an embedded narrative, and Lampedusa is a story within a story. But Price does not quote from The Leopard or attempt to recreate it. Instead he depicts the mental process that Giuseppe Tomasi went through to conceive and produce his book, which coincides with particular events in his life and is contextualized by the situation in war-ruined Italy in the 1950s. It is a revealing and insightful description of the writing process, of what writing means to people, and how a novel is created. While I disciplined myself not to look up anything about the novel, the island, or the man while I was reading it, I immediately did so once I had done with it. And I now want to read The Leopard (Il Gattopardo in the original Italian), which Tomasi finished writing in 1956. He died in 1957, from cancer. He started writing the book after he was diagnosed with emphysema, a condition that eventually led to complications and cancer.

…versus Price’s Lampedusa

What makes everything in Price’s Lampedusa heavy with meaning and drama is the fact that Tomasi was a Prince and a Duke, the son of a man who was a Prince, a Duke and a Baron. His father was  Giulio Maria Tomasi, Prince of Lampedusa, Duke of Palma di Montechiaro, Baron of Torretta, and Grandee of Spain (1868–1934). His lineage could be traced back to the first prince of Lampedusa and Linosa, who was Don Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi, who received the title from Charles II of Spain in about 1630. Tomasi is described in reference works as a “minor title” in Sicilian nobility (talk about a backhanded compliment), and in the novel it is clear that Sicily and Italy are rife with aristocracy and ancient, powerful and wealthy families, most were more wealthy and powerful than the Tomasis. The Prince, “Giuseppe” of the novel, is impoverished. He has the title, making people who are old enough to remember the far past awestruck and respectful:

“Gió came up to join them. This is Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Father, he said. He has come to visit the Tomasi patronages.
The transformation in the two men was instantaneous. The archpriest raised his face and studied Giuseppe’s features intensely, colour rising to his cheeks, and then he took off his spectacles and bowed. You are most welcome, Excellency, he said. Forgive me for not recognizing you. You bear a resemblance.” (p. 85)

Awe and respect aside, “Giuseppe’s” lands and palaces have been ruined by the wars in Italy and by the fact that for most of his adult life, he roamed Europe and wasn’t even living in Sicily. Like other Sicilians who returned to their homes after WWII, he and his wife, “Licy”, Princess Alexandra (Allesandra) von Wolff-Stomersee, a Baltic German noblewoman and a student of psychoanalysis, live in a half of a small, bomb-damaged palazzo where things, like the stove, don’t work anymore. There is no running water. The ballroom ceiling collapsed in a bombing raid. In this state of genteel poverty, “Giuseppe” and “Licy” pass their time, he with wandering down to the local cafe for a coffee and a pastry, then back home to read voraciously, and she with studying psychology and seeing patients.

The purpose of writing a book

The novel is very much about literature and what makes great literature. “Giuseppe” is devoted to reading and studying the best writers and books ever written. He is an expert in literature and has published a modest paper. His cousin, the poet Lucio Piccolo (an actual person too), has had his poetry published and praised, which makes him quite a celebrity. “Giuseppe’s” friends and other members of the formerly wealthy nobility also devote themselves to art – painting or music. They have the time for it. But it’s one thing to comment on the artistic creations of others, but entirely another matter for a member of a scorned upper class to want to publish a novel. Who’s to say it will be any good? Which company will ever publish it, when so many authors are clamouring for fame? And begging to be heard? And what will his cousin, the rat-faced, insecure and vain “Lucio” say about this perceived competition? And worse, “Giuseppe” knows what brilliant writing is – how will he be able to match such skills?

When I noticed the words “The Leopard” in the blurb on the back cover of the book, even I, someone who did not study in Europe and knows no Italian, recognized it. It is as famous as, for instance, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, or Nicolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, or William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In other words, it’s a literary treasure and people often quote from it, and it is often misquoted. Like many novels, The Leopard was made even more famous by its film version, a 1963 Italian epic period drama directed by Luchino Visconti.

But “Giuseppe” in the novel has no idea what his book will become. He certainly does not foresee fame or lots of money. He is an overweight old man, quietly spoken and introverted. He has large, sad eyes, a small moustache and wears old-fashioned suits. He is absolutely charming, an intriguing person. But tragedy has definitely dogged his family.

Giuseppe Tomasi, the real Principe di Lampedusa, Duca di Palma di Montechiaro, with his ubiquitous cigarette, formal suit, spectacles in his breast pocket, and little smudge of a moustache. He sits there alone on the bench which is appropriate since he was, by all accounts, a solitary man. The photograph is undated, but he was probably in his late fifties. Judging by his appearance he did not age well and was already ill. (Source: Wikimedia, file licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.)

Because he is the last of his line and wants to leave some sort of legacy, he begins to write The Leopard. It has a few historical characters and a fictional protagonist, but “Giuseppe” bases it on his great-grandfather, Don Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi, another Prince of Lampedusa. However, as his wife recognizes, it is also about himself, his voice and his very similar experiences and philosophies. In other words, “Giuseppe” is also “the Leopard”, exotic and almost extinct. “Come here, my leopard,” his wife says to him. He writes with painstaking care, rewriting and honing each sentence until it is perfect.

“He was surprised at how easily the sentences came, one upon another, once he began, and he wrote with a kind of anguish, afraid he would lose the thread or that the sentences would twist back upon themselves. He had not written before with the rigorous imagination needed of art and he had always supposed a guiding intelligence necessary on the part of any artist but here the story came almost ready-made, as if certain of itself, as if he were both writing it and being written by it.” (p. 37)

But his labour of love will be a hard sell in post-war Italy where the subject is unpopular. No-one seems to care about old princes who lived in Italy in the “Risorgimento” in the 19th century, when the  different states of the Italian peninsula were consolidated into the single state of the Kingdom of Italy.

“No book made any other less necessary. Yet the novelists he met or listened to at the San Pellegrino Terme asked nothing and seemed to believe the modern novel superior to what had come before. And what had come before? he would silently ask their assembled backs. He was surprised to find himself neither impressed nor intimidated by such writers and he felt a melancholic anger come up in him at the thought of their books. He would listen as they discussed their successes or spoke bitingly of the successes of others but few condescended to meet the eye of a dilettante such as himself and none asked after him.” (p. 80)

The novel is the result of a deep melancholy and depression that “Giuseppe” feels – the death of his mother, the murders and accidents that happened to his mother’s sisters, the trauma he suffered during the war, the lack of a child for him and “Licy” to carry on his name, and the destruction of his family’s homes, particularly the Lampedusa Palace in Palermo:

“If asked he would admit that it was his house, but not his home. His true home stood behind thick walls several streets away, in a slump of cracked stone and wind-rotted masonry from a bomb borne across the Atlantic, a bomb whose sole purpose was the obliteration of the world as it had been. That bomb fell in April 1943 and his wife’s estate at Stomersee far to the north in Latvia had been overrun by the Russians in the same month. They had found themselves homeless and orphaned as one. He walked now the streets of his city a different man, a man burdened by his losses, not freed by them. For he had been born on a mahogany table in that lost palazzo on the Via di Lampedusa and had slept alone in a small bed in the very room of his birth all throughout his childhood and for ten years even after he was married and he did not know who he might be without that room to return to.” (p. 5)

His mother had died alone, sitting in her chair in her bombed out, ruined palace of Lampedusa. “Giuseppe” takes a great deal of convincing to visit his ruined properties. All that convinces him is that he needs the money from renting out his properties and has to assess the condition of the estates. Eventually, he takes a trip to the 17th century Tomasi family castle and estate at Montechiaro, near Palma.

“A soft wind was slicing through the long grasses among the rocks far below. A gull was crying over the drop. He could not see Gió or Francesco and he supposed they had returned to the car. Through the crumbling arch of the window the coins of the sea glittered. He squinted, shielded a hand at his eyes. Somewhere beyond in the blue haze of the horizon lay a blue island, an island of nothingness.
Lampedusa.” (p.78)

The nature of lineages

The novel is what keeps “Giuseppe” going, but he also decides that if he cannot leave his lands to anyone, since, actually, he has none to give, he will ensure that his title is passed along.

“It surprised him sometimes to think about the nature of blood, and title, and how his name Tomasi did not belong to him but was only borrowed from those who had gone before, to be held in trust for those who would come after, like the great houses themselves, all of which were gone now.” (p. 263)

Thus, he and “Licy” formally adopt the son of “Prince Fabrizio” a distant second cousin, called “Gioacchino” or “Gió” (in real life, Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi – who the real Giuseppe Tomasi did adopt). While “Giuseppe” is in his late fifties, and already ill, “Gioacchino”  is in his twenties, lively, intelligent, and devoted to them. “Gió’s” parents are still alive and consent to the legal adoption which makes him the next Duke of Palma. (In Dec. 2019, the real Duke Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi was 85 years old.)

In a pivotal moment in the novel “Giuseppe” says of his mother, stubbornly living out her days in the rubble of the palazzo, the Casa Lampedusa, “She did not understand that a house could be not only one’s past but also one’s present and one’s future; what she grieved for was already gone.” (p. 269) In the end, “Giuseppe” may have lost his wealth and lands, and almost all his family, but his novel – without him knowing it – became his present and his future. As a result of that novel, he will never be forgotten.

Price’s writing style

There are more than the usual number of quotations from the novel in this review since every line in the book is worth quoting. There is not one sentence or word that is wasted, superfluous or overstated. Price’s writing style is flowing, yet precise. I felt that I wanted to draw out the reading of it and not get to the end. But the ending is exactly what you would expect, except more tender and sadder than you would have imagined. The question I had was what would happen to “Giuseppe’s” novel that he left in the hands of his poet relative “Lucio Piccolo” to submit to Italian publishers? “Lucio” is jealous of “Giuseppe’s” novel. He has his own worries about the publication of his poetry. Will he actually promote “Giuseppe’s” novel or will he sabotage its publication? I read with bated breath to get an answer:

“Tell me honestly, Lucio, Frederici said. What is your opinion of it?
Lucio paused. He took the lemon from the rim of his ice water, crushed it into his glass. Then he looked up. It is a masterpiece, he said.” (p. 253)

Phew. Thank goodness. But that is not the end of the novel.

Price emulates and honours the classic novel by Tomasi, and Tomasi’s legacy, with this carefully crafted, elegant, skillfully written and richly imagined book. This novel has legs, as they say in the advertising industry. Work of this calibre will stand the test of time, and in decades to come, people will still read Lampedusa for the definitive portrait of “Giuseppe di Tomasi”, even though it is a novel, not a biography.



PS – The Legacy of Giuseppe Tomasi

Photos of the real Palazzo Lanza Tomasi, where “Giuseppe” and “Licy” live in the novel, show the restoration of the building to its original grandeur. The palace is now available for accommodation and events. The original Palazzo Lampedusa, on Via Di Lampedusa in Palermo, was also restored from 2011 to 2015, but is not open to the public. There are some interior photos that you can see on Google Streetview. Everything that has a connection to Giuseppe Tomasi and The Leopard is feted and treasured in Italy and the world, the buildings, estates, possessions, manuscripts, etc. Tomasi could not have foreseen that. In the novel, Lampedusa, Price writes that “Giuseppe” realizes that the days of power being conferred by a noble birth was over, and that in the new Italy, power would come from commerce and celebrity. However, history has proved that the princely title, and everything associated with it, are still desirable and fascinating.

As for Lampedusa Island that became renowned for its history, crystal-clear, turquoise blue sea and white sand beaches, its main claim to fame these days is that since the early 2000s, being the European territory closest to Libya, it has become a prime transit point for irregular migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia wanting to enter Europe. Thousands of irregular migrants pitch up there every year and hundreds drown en route. And so it goes on, with no end in sight.

When you have finished reading the novel, which you really, really should do, then read this informative article, In Search of Lampedusa’s Sicily, about Steven Price’s research into Lampedusa and the Tomasis. Then you will see how real it all is and how historically accurate, and true to the real events in tone and intention, the novel is.

Interior of Palazzo Lanza Tomasi, the palace where Tomasi wrote The Leopard. Having been bombed out during the war, it was restored, first by his widow, Princess Alexandra (Allesandra) von Wolff-Stomerse, “Licy” in the novel, and later more completely by Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, “Gió” in the novel. (Source: Steven Price, In Search of Lampedusa’s Sicily, in FSG Work in Progress, a compendium of original works, exclusive excerpts, and interviews with authors from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Rtrvd. 2020-06-29.)

About Steven Price

Steven Price is an award-winning Canadian poet and novelist, who has currently teaches poetry and fiction at the University of Victoria, on Vancouver Island. Wouldn’t you love to be a student in one of his courses? He lives with his partner, novelist Esi Edugyan, and their two children, in Victoria on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. I find it so fitting when a couple are both authors. They must have a very stimulating and supportive environment in which to write. Esi Edugyan has twice won the Giller Prize, for her novels Half-Blood Blues and Washington Black.

“Writers Esi Edugyan and Steven Price at the dining room table in their Colwood home. The map at back, an antique map of London, England, was a gift from Esi to Steven when he was writing his novel By Gaslight, which was set in London.” (Don Denton photograph, in At Home with Writers Esi Edugyan and Steven Price, in Tofino-Ucluelet Westerly News, Black Press Group Ltd., Sep. 6, 2018, rtrvd. 2020-07-01)

Price graduated from the University of Victoria with a BFA in 2000, and from the University of Virginia with an MFA, in poetry. His first novel, Into That Darkness (2011), was short-listed for the 2012 BC Fiction Prize. His second novel, By Gaslight (2016), was longlisted for Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2016, and his third, Lampedusa, was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2019.

His first collection of poems, Anatomy of Keys (2006), won Canada’s 2007 Gerald Lampert Award for Best First Collection, was short-listed for the BC Poetry Prize, and was named a Globe and Mail Book of the Year. His second collection of poems, Omens in the Year of the Ox (2012), won the 2013 ReLit Award for Poetry. Price does not have a website or blog, and his Facebook page is way out of date. But there’s more than enough articles and news about him.


About the header: The image is of a pretty little ocelot in an ornate room in the Palazzo Lanza Tomasi – purely imaginary. Giuseppe Tomasi’s novel is called Il Gattopardo in Italian, but it is thought that Tomasi did not mean this title to refer to a leopard, which is the literal translation of “gattopardo”It is possible that “gattopardo” refers to the American ocelot, Leopardus pardalis, a smallish wild feline, found throughout South America. The ocelot is related to the leopard, the lynx, and the puma, and is often confused with the African serval. The ocelot is the most plausible option, since these animals were brought to Europe from the colonies, were often kept as pets by wealthy people, and were hunted for their beautifully marked coats. Ocelot hunting is now banned, and in 1986, the European Economic Community banned import of ocelot skins. Tomasi’s “gattopardo” is a metaphor for the indolence and decline of Sicilian aristocracy, and the threats to that society, according to the character “Don Fabrizio” in The Leopard. How and if the ocelot and related wildcats became extinct in Italy and Sicily is a whole different discussion.

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