The Phantasm of Hope: On Steven Price’s “Lampedusa”

November 22, 2019   •   By Melissa Holbrook Pierson


Steven Price

ON A BUS filled with commuters, I began reading this lustrous novel of biographical fiction, based on the life and work of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Italian author of the peerless 1958 novel The Leopard. There I was as out of time as the subject of both of these works, still in thrall to the world-bearing power of the written word. Even those passengers who did have books open on their laps communed with their phones instead. I alone was lost in bound pages, reading fiction that reimagines the writing of fiction.

Lampedusa is a prismatic work. Through one facet, it details the life of a Sicilian nobleman, last of his line, whose signal accomplishment was writing a novel published posthumously and immediately placed among the most highly regarded Italian literature of the modern era. Through another, it is fully its own work of art, unique and complete. By way of a third, it becomes an ode to writing itself. Its author, Steven Price, is also a poet, which shows in the concise grace of his imagery.

And he remembered passing through a deep snow-silent pine forest near the Soviet border while eating a pasta with prosciutto in the dining car. That. And the bite of the August air in the roar from between the carriages, and the surly Polish slang of the porters hollering to each other on the platforms of Kovno as they clattered past in the night. All that long journey he had felt like a man sliding sideways out of his own life …

Price’s vision is so aligned with both the author of The Leopard and Luchino Visconti, the director who later translated the novel to cinema, that it is frequently impossible to tell which of the works he’s invoking; recurrent symbols in all three include mirrors, draperies, and dust.

The author’s poetic prose is infused with empathic warmth for the emotional travails of writing in general, as well as the especially painful circumstances of a writer who managed only one novel, and while afflicted with emphysema, only to have it rejected by the two publishers to whom he submitted it shortly before he died of lung cancer. Thus, Lampedusa is also a meditation on failure. Did the man fail as a writer because he died with his talent unrecognized? Here is an implicit cautionary tale for all writers. Price recounts the same dunderheaded reception by a sheeplike publishing industry that would, say, reject Dubliners. (Indeed, Joyce was an avowed influence on Lampedusa.) It also keenly depicts the internal whiplash between hope and despair that often debilitates the literary psyche; Price has Lampedusa’s wife, Licy, as a psychoanalyst herself something of a professional empath, formulate the writer’s essence with astuteness: “You are filled with hope, my love, she said. And that is why you are sad.”

In these pages, Lampedusa is a melancholy youth who felt saved only when he disappeared between the covers of books; to the end of his life, books were as enticing as the copious pastries he allowed himself, the sight of a spine of one “shining up at him” during a depressing appointment with his doctor that is followed with a visit to a bookshop. There he longs only to “lose himself in the aisles, unmolested.” His cousins called him Il Mostro, for his monstrous appetite for reading. Books truly brought him the greatest happiness he would know: a mutual love of them kindled a deep affinity with “young student” Gioacchino Lanza, a cousin who in part became the model for the Prince of Salina’s vibrant nephew, Tancredi, in The Leopard. Lampedusa’s late-life adoption of the young man provided him unique joy, “a moment in time utterly lacking in regret or sorrow, and because of this he found he did not know what to do with it.”

As does the novel that inspired it, Lampedusa simultaneously performs and examines art’s imperative to commemorate the fleeting moment — the all there is. “Time is the one true clarity,” the last prince of Lampedusa says here to his beloved relative, in a wheeling echo of the source novel and Luchino Visconti’s epic film of it, released five years after the book’s eventual publication. Lampedusa continually refers to the heady concreteness of the Sicilian landscape, of youth, of the ungraspability of time that unceasingly rolls into memory — the central subject of both iterations of The Leopard. Only “[w]hat is created lasts forever,” which is the hope of the fictional Lampedusa and, by extension, Steven Price, in writing an obviously, if quietly, ambitious novel.

There are many ghosts in this finely realized story of loss and longing — the ghosts of possibility, of artistic hope, of remembrance, of the notion of immortality itself. But it took opening my daily newspaper last week to be struck by what may well be the real subject of this book, announced by nothing smaller than its title. There in immutable, elegant script across the cover is the word Lampedusa. What if it refers not to the scion of the noble family, the forlorn but triumphant novelist, but to the island in the Mediterranean? I read an AP squib under a photo showing an Italian coast guard motorboat rescuing a desperate migrant who had launched himself into the sea in the hope he might reach safety by swimming to Lampedusa. It is the closest point in Europe to Libya and now a primary entrance point for asylum seekers. The dry dusty island is the phantasm of all hope.

I go back and reread to find that the eponymous island haunts Lampedusa. The man who bears the title (not only “the title,” in publishing parlance) from which the landmass takes its name has never visited it. He views it only from afar, a place he can see but not attain, like literary recognition. “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.” That which saturates the story of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa — the sadness of personal loss, familial loss, class loss, cultural loss, wartime loss — also coalesces in the space of this forever-distant island in the sea. It is an unreachable dream. It is the ghost of a ghost.

In one memorable sequence Lampedusa meets an actress who has worked on a film shot on the island. When she explains to the nobleman what her director told her, realization slowly dawns:

Where we are going for the shooting can be reached only with difficulty. There is one ferry and one ferry only. Its passengers are few. The waters we must cross are wide.

You are going to Lampedusa, he said softly.

A rustle of cloth, like a wind withdrawing.

I was happy there, she murmured.

Lampedusa, too, was happy in the place he never quite arrived. It is the book he wrote.


Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of five books, including The Place You Love Is Gone. She writes about books and film for a number of publications.