The Professor and the Siren (1961)
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957)
Translated from the Italian by Stephen Twilley
Only in the final two years of his life did aristocrat Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa turn to writing fiction, all of which was first published only after his death. Three of his short stories, newly translated, have been published by the New York Review Books (NYRB) in The Professor and the Siren. Behind simple plot lines the stories reveal often unspoken truths contained within the daily vagaries and rituals of human behavior.
A young journalist in Turin retreats to an out-of-the-way café to nurse his wounded pride in the title story of the collection. His attempt to juggle two relationships has suddenly and awkwardly collapsed when his two girlfriends learn of one-another’s existence, causing him to seek out an alternative to his normal haunts. Over repeated visits he becomes acquainted with another regular at the café, an aged fellow Sicilian, who turns out to be a famous professor of ancient Greek language and culture. The old man, cantankerous and rather misanthropic, gradually warms to his young acquaintance, eventually recounting a mystical experience of love from his youth that altered his life irrevocably. For the young man, the unexpectedly intimate story provides a deeper understanding of the professor’s previously arbitrary and cruel opinions of his fellow man.
In “Joy and the Law,” a poor worker who struggles to provide for his family unexpectedly receives a large fruitcake as a Christmas gift from his boss. He rushes eagerly home to share the treat with his wife and kids, only to discover that society’s demands have their own ineluctable claim on his treasured bounty.
The final story, “The Blind Kittens,” opens with the purchase of a plot of land by an avaricious Sicilian land-owner. Expanding on the lands inherited from his father --- who had turned a small homestead into an extensive set of holdings --- the landowner shows little interest in improving the land or its infrastructure, single-mindedly focused on increasing the size of his family’s estate. His jealous carping and uninformed judgments of Sicilian noblemen, whose status he dimly perceives as beyond his reach, are matched only by their in-turn wildly exaggerated and dismissive opinions of a man they consider hopelessly below their level. In this short piece Lampedusa deftly skewers the provincialism and pettiness of his countrymen --- and their counterparts everywhere.
The book includes an introduction that provides background on Lampedusa, and insight into the themes and settings of the stories. The title story is clearly the gem of the collection, a wonderful tale of mythical love. Though the remaining two stories are less fully developed, they are engaging in their own right, for the peek they provide into the human soul. Reading these stories, I was reminded of a quote from the French author Germaine de Stael:
Someday perhaps someone will speak with absolute sincerity about all the things he has felt, and the world will be astounded to find that most of its maxims and observations are mistaken, and that there is an unknown soul at the center of that soul about which all the stories are told.
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This is yet another wonderful selection from the NYRB Classics collection.
Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf