The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Passing through London last month, I dropped into the LRB Bookshop and while happily browsing I stumbled upon this title. Having read and loved “The Leopard” earlier this year, I was keen to read anything else by Tomasi de Lampedusa, though I wasn’t actually aware there *was* anything else – my copy of “The Leopard” kind of implied that he wrote the one great novel and that was that. However, it seems that there are other surviving fragments (and when I dug about a bit more, there seem to be collections of letters too) – so “The Professor and the Siren” came home with me.

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This slim NYRB volume contains three pieces – the title story, plus two shorter pieces called “Joy and the Law” and “Blind Kittens”; the book also has an excellent introduction by the erudite Marina Warner, which is essential for understanding some of the imaginary in the main story.

“The Professor and the Siren” is narrated by a young Sicilian journalist living in Turin. In a local bar, he encounters the Professor of the title, one Rosario la Ciura, a distinguished Hellenist and also a Sicilian. Despite their differences in age, the men are drawn together by a common heritage, and strike up a kind of friendship. As this develops, the journalist (who appears to be a descendent of the family in “The Leopard”) discovers that the Professor has some odd views about life and love, and one evening, shortly before his departure by boat for a conference in Portugal, La Ciura reveals the secret of his past to his young friend…

To say any more would spoil the impact of what is a strange and beautiful story; the Professor’s life has been formed by the events in his past, and despite the time that’s passed he’s still possessed by it. The journalist has no choice but to believe what he’s told, and the resolution of the story is entirely convincing. It’s a haunting tale, and one which had me thinking of it for a long time afterwards.

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“Joy and the Law” is a lighter piece, about some good fortune falling upon a lowly clerk and the social niceties that decide how he has to deal with his luck. The final section of the book, “The Blind Kittens”, is most intriguing – conceived as the first chapter of a follow-up to “The Leopard”, it’s instantly recognisable as such, with a group of old and somewhat redundant aristocrats pondering on the wealth of a local merchant made good.

Tomasi di Lampedusa’s prose is just wonderful, and it’s such a tragedy that he didn’t write more. As it is, at least we have the greatness that is “The Leopard” and these lovely stories collected here are a welcome addition to that. Now to stop myself rushing off and buying his letters…

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