Friday, December 31, 2010

Reading group: The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

I've been so busy working on promotion for The Birth Machine and, for a time at least, trying to keep going with my WIP, that I just haven't been keeping up with the book group reports, and Ann has kindly offered to take over reporting for the November discussion (when we looked at M J Hyland's Carry Me Down). However, it's still down to me to report on our October discussion of The Leopard, and I'll do what I can, though I'm afraid that by now my memory of the meeting is sketchy.

Written in the nineteen-fifties by a minor Sicilian prince, the book is set in Sicily and primarily in the two years following Garibaldi's May 1860 landing on Sicily's south coast, which kick-started a revolution in the south and strengthened the Risorgimento, the movement for the unification of Italy and the destruction of the feudal system. The novel concerns Fabrizio Corbera, Sicilian Prince of Salina, who must come to terms with these social changes, and towards its end moves forward to 1883 and his death and finally to 1910 and the fate of his children. I hadn't had time to read the book by the meeting, and it may have been me, but I came away from the meeting with the impression that this was essentially the story of a love affair and a marriage: Don Fabrizio's daughter Concetta is in love with his orphaned and favoured nephew, the charming and wily Tancredi, and for a time Tancredi appears to be returning her affection. However, once he claps eyes on the beautiful and nouveau-riche Angelica, he decides to marry her instead. By the end of the novel and 1910, however, Angelica is a widow, and in their old age the two women have become friends, something which Jenny said she really relished, and where she felt the novel, which she had found rather hard-going, became more interesting and enjoyable.

In fact, when I came to find time to read the book I discovered that the story of Concetta, Tancredi and Angelica is an aspect and consequence of a much wider story, that of the ways, both politically and psychologically, Prince Salina handles or fails to handle the social changes taking place around him.

Opinion in the group was divided. Jo, who had suggested the book, and Doug both loved it, mostly for its vivid descriptions of the oppressive Sicilian climate and the plush and faded palaces. Clare agreed about the descriptions and was impressed by the symbolism - she mentioned in particular the precious grafted peaches which Don Fabrizio's gardener has grown and which Tancredi, without asking permission, has ceremoniously delivered to Angelica - but Clare was sorry, she just couldn't stand Don Fabrizio himself, she thought he was just an awful person, so sexist and bossy, which made her dislike the book. As far as I remember, Jenny and Ann found the book heavy going with its old-fashioned prose, though Ann was interested to find out about the politics of the period. I don't think Mark was keen, though as far as I remember Trevor liked it, and John was divided between the two groups, having found the book heavily historical without being very enlightening if you didn't already know the history, though he too found the symbolism interesting, mentioning the broken legs of the Salina heraldic leopard on a keystone.

Personally, although I would say the book was not an easy read with its dense prose and ponderous pace, I loved it for the delicious irony with which all of the characters and the political situation are portrayed. A direct literary descendant of Machiavelli's Prince, Don Fabrizio is an arch pragmatist - he deeply regrets the breakdown of the old order but sees the necessity of accommodating and absorbing the new, developing the philosophy that 'everything must change in order to stay the same'. He grieves the dilution of his aristocratic line but sees the inevitability of his penniless nephew's marriage into the bourgeoisie and thus works to enable it. Aptly he's an amateur astronomer with a wide view of that large picture, the heavens. But unlike Machiavelli, di Lampedusa ironises that pragmatism. A big man respected and feared by all including his family, Don Fabrizio is yet a touchingly ridiculous figure. He's so big he inadvertently breaks things; he performs mental acrobatics to convince himself that he's in charge of situations, nowhere more comically than the scene in which the priest, Father Pirrone, inadvertently enters for an audience as he is emerging naked from the bath:
...he hurried to leave the bath expecting to get into his bathrobe before the Jesuit entered; but he did not succeed, and Father Pirrone came in at the very moment when, no longer veiled by soapy water, not yet shrouded by his bath sheet, he was emerging quite naked, like the Farnese Hercules, and steaming as well, while water flowed in streams from neck, arms, stomach and legs, like the Rhone, the Rhine, the Danube and the Adige crossing and watering Alpine ranges... [Father Pirrone] stuttered an excuse and made to back out, but Don Fabrizio, annoyed at not having time to cover himself, naturally turned his irritation against the priest. "Now, Father, don't be silly; hand me that bath-robe, will you, and help me to dry, if you don't mind... And take my advice, Father, have a bath yourself." Satisfied at being able to give advice on hygiene to one who so often gave it to him on morals, he felt soothed... When the peaks and slopes of the mountain were dry ... the Jesuit sat down and [Don Fabrizio] began some more intimate moppings of his own.
Pragmatic he may be, but the Prince's aristocracy is doomed, and right from the beginning the prose signals this sense of doom: cicadas make a 'lament' that is like a 'death-rattle', a drinking well is also a 'cemetery' for corpses, the oppressive sun of the Sicilian summer is 'a deep gloom'; the ladies' ballgowns arrive from the dressmakers in cases 'like coffins'. Tancredi, the main agent of change for the family, is 'black and slim as an adder'. Ironically, however, the revolutionary spirit is also diluted: Tancredi begins as a follower of Garibaldi, but ends up an officer in the Piedmontese army despising the rebels. In one non-ironic moment Don Fabrizio explains the political inertia as a result of centuries of invasion and the oppressive climate:
Sleep, that is what Sicilians want, and they will always hate anyone who tries to wake them... our sensuality is a hankering for oblivion, our shooting and knifing a hankering for death...
The novel is ultimately despairing, I found: the truce, indeed loving friendship, between Angelica and Concetta is founded on a pragmatic repression of the past, but that past is briefly revived and Concetta must face the fact that she has lived with a personal legacy of emptiness echoing the wider political impotence that the novel portrays.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas catch-up

Season's Greetings to you all! I hope you've had a good holiday period, though I know a lot of people have been and are ill and I wish a speedy recovery to those of you who are suffering. Because of illness, we've had to cancel our usual family day over the Pennines this year, and I was saving my family copies of The Birth Machine to hand around then, so my mum and sister haven't even seen the book yet! (Ever get that Jekyll and Hyde feeling that comes from the fact that the thing by which you define yourself is not exactly the point about you for your family?)

I envisaged spending Christmas tucked up with my TBR pile, but I've been too busy cooking, pouring drinks, tidying up wrapping paper and dirty dishes etc (that's our Christmas pud above) - too busy even to report on a couple of end-of-year things I'll mention now. Firstly, I was delighted that The Birth Machine was one of Angela Topping's choices in the end-of-year recommendations by Horizon Review contributors. There are some smashing choices there, and books I'm thrilled to have mine alongside. Secondly, on the other side of the fence, I was asked to contribute my cultural highlight of the year to the Faber blog, and it was a foregone conclusion that I'd choose The Unit, a dystopian Brave-New-World type novel, though also unique, by Swede Ninni Holmqvist (Oneworld Publications). I was asked to endorse it earlier in the year and it impressed and moved me so much that I really couldn't praise it enough - read it, I do urge you.

Before Christmas, I attended some enjoyable literary events. At the end of November John and I drove on a misty afternoon into Derbyshire to the very nice launch of Insignificant Gestures, a debut collection of short stories by Jo Cannon - stories strikingly informed by her profession as a GP. There she is, below, signing copies of her book.
We also went to the stunning new Anthony Burgess Centre in Manchester for the launch of Hidden Gem, a new publishing company owned and run by Sherry and Brian Ashworth. Their first publication, in June, will be the debut novel of Emma Unsworth, and Emma read its vivid beginning and was supported by readings from Zoe Lambert and Claire Wallace. Just before Christmas we went to hear Mike Barlow, a wonderful poet, read at Chorlton's Manky poets:

As for my WIP: well, after the 2-month break I took to promote The Birth Machine, the thing I'd dreaded happened, and which I guess I'd known in my heart of hearts would happen: I'd lost the thread, the pulse of it. I churned away at it for a month or so, but really the whole thing was dead under my hands, and I got to the point one day when I looked at it and decided, This is just a pile of sh**! Now, before you all feel sorry for me, the very same day I suddenly saw a new way to do it (yet another new way - this story has not been the easiest to decide how to tell!), a way which simplifies the story and structure even further without ditching any of the complexities (I'd rather just write it than explain), so after all the break was a blessing in disguise. It's back to the drawing board once more, which may seem horrendous, but the last part-draft was useful - just a stage on the way - and I don't feel I've wasted time. Best of all, I feel a real new excitement about the book, and in my experience no piece of writing is ever really successful without that essential ingredient, excitement.

So that's basically what's lined up for me in the new year - immersion in the novel and not much else whatsoever! There will be one other event I'm really looking forward to, however: starting on 6th Jan, over on my other blog Fictionbitch I'll be working with the Faber Academy to host a discussion on the crucial subject, Why Creative Writing? Writers Sue Gee and Marcel Theroux, directors of an upcoming Faber Academy course for beginners, will contribute their views and answer any questions. It should be a must for anyone involved with Creative Writing!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Guest post at The Spectator

Here's a link to a guest post I was kindly invited to write by The Spectator's book blog editor David Blackburn, on the publishing history of The Birth Machine and the way it illustrates that it's not just literary talent that can make or break books and writers.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Guest on Nicola Morgan's soapbox: 'Talent will Out'?

Today I'm delighted to be over at Nicola Morgan's great blog Help! I Need a Publisher! as a guest on her soapbox. I'm talking about how the notion that 'talent will out' always gets me steamed up, and how the history of the publication of The Birth Machine confirmed me in my attitude.