There is a line in Stephen Price’s 2016 novel, By Gaslight, which seems to suit his new novel generally: “Everything is about the dead.”
And another which seems even more appropriate: “The truth that is found in a story is a different kind of truth, but it is not less real for being so.”
Because Lampedusa is about all the members of a family who have come before and how one situates oneself between their lives, having been lived, and one’s own life, being lived but with an ever-increasing awareness of mortality as time passes.
But more specifically, Stephen Price’s novel is a story about a novel which was written by a real person to explore his feelings about loss of lineage and loss of life.
If that kind of circularity appeals to you, then you will need to know a little more about the origins of the original novel, the one that inspires Price.
The Everyman’s edition of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s 1958 classic novel (translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun in 1991) contains a short work of memoir after The Leopard. In only 30 pages, one begins to understand how important time and memory are to the author, personally and creatively.
Di Lampedusa’s novel about how life changed for a prince in 19th-century Sicily, dramatically and irreversibly, is also a meditation on how we, as human beings, face and experience change and how we cope with inevitability, as well as the larger questions simmering beneath (say, about authenticity and decline).
And also how we, as human beings, share this cyclical challenge with other animals, with four-legged creatures as well – the prince’s dog, Bendicò, begins and ends the novel – and, yet, there are so many things about being human which we prize (and sometimes claim to be unique to our species): literature, communication, friendship, love, art, beauty and understanding.
The palace described in such loving and rich detail in di Lampedusa’s memoir was his home for 47 years, until it was bombed in WWII (here’s a peek of it restored and, more specifically, a peek into the library restored). His wife’s family inhabited a picturesque and extensive property as well. This lavish and privileged world was disintegrating, literally, so the question of what remains, of a family and of an individual, has a particular urgency when one’s life has been so completely defined by wealth and status and those elements are stripped away.
Stephen Price’s novel does rely on the memoir that di Lampedusa wrote. Entire scenes (like the one in which he, as a boy, was greeted by Napoleon’s wife, Eugénie, although, at the time, he did not recognize her as such) are reproduced, in such a way as to be faithful to the original memory while also developing the emotional truth that one might intuit through the lens of The Leopard. (It’s another way of considering how fortunes sway. There are many layers to this story and they’re presented to readers to discover without the knot of connection being pulled tight.)
But di Lampedusa’s novel resonates more solidly with the present day because, although he was writing in the 1950s (and unable to secure a publisher for The Leopard before he died in 1957), the sense of loss is recognizable to those of us who see that we are losing great riches in this era, too, as the climate changes and related devastation unfolds. Aspects of life which have endured are slipping farther away. (There are other aspects of this theme which resonate too, particularly with a growing divide between haves and have-nots, but saying too much about these elements risks revealing the trajectory of the novel.)
In writing about Steven Price’s Giller-nominated novel, inspired by di Lampedusa and his novel, I’ve not yet said much about this 2019 work.
I could have used a quotation like this one, to demonstrate its relevance:
“Of course the new age ushered in by the American liberators, the age of the economic miracle, of the industrial north, was no less corroded, cruel, or wasteful than the vanishing feudal age of his novel. Was it possible, as Casimiro had intimated, that his novel was not really about the past at all? Certainly he had witnessed the dying of a social order, no less than the prince in his novel; certainly he had witnessed the rise of a new republic; and he had watched the sweet world of the belle époque vanish, though the old families could not see it.”
Or this one, to illustrate the way that time and change has an emotional and personal weight:
“But now he would have to go on, as he had always done, struggling not to disappoint those who would look to him to be, still, what he had always been unchanging, steadfast, mild.”
Maybe even pulled one of the bookish bits out, hoping to entice other readers concerned with the smell of old paper and the way that it feels to put words onto a page. Like this one: “As he made his slow way across the old quarter, to Flaccovio’s Bookshop, what he wanted was to lose himself in the aisles, unmolested, to forget Coniglio and his diagnosis and the bloom of sickness in his lungs, if only for a brief hour.” Or, this: “He had learned over a lifetime of reading that no word could be the only word and that art held value precisely because it answered nothing. All it could do was ask the old questions, over and over.”
But those passages will likely only interest readers who are already interested in some other aspect of this story, whether the historical or creative aspects, the political or emotional exploration.
Because Lampedusa actually turns on this passage: “There were truths inside the story that surprised him, that he had not intended. It felt at times as if he were overhearing the novel speaking to itself.”
Because reading Steven Price’s novel is like overhearing a conversation between stories. Readers are invited into this process by virtue of these “old questions” being of concern to them. But the reward of this read is in the eavesdropping.
SHADOW GILLER 2019: You can also follow the Shadow Giller Jury’s progress at Kevin from Canada’s site and read Naomi’s reviews at Consumed by Ink. Our reading schedule for this year’s shortlist is here, if you’d like to mark a particular title on your own calendar.