The Leopard

The Leopard was Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s only novel and he wrote it late in life.  So late, in fact, that he had no clue it would be published 18 months after his death. Family legend has it that he screwed up the courage to write only after seeing his cousin, Lucio Piccolo, start out late as a poet and win a prize for his work. Lampedusa wrote to a friend, ‘Being mathematically certain that I was no more foolish than Lucio, I sat down at my desk and wrote a novel.’ With typical abject humility he also said: ‘It is, I fear, rubbish.’ Lampedusa was a quiet, inconspicuous sort of person; a nobleman living with vastly reduced status but enough money not to have to work. ‘I am a very solitary person,’ he wrote. ‘Out of the sixteen hours I spend awake each day, at least ten are spent in solitude.’ From this solitude flourished his only true career as a voracious reader. Books were his cherished treasures and his main expense, and he spent his mornings trawling the meagre bookshops of Palermo, visiting his favourite, Flaccovio, every day for ten years. He always carried with him a bag packed full of volumes including one of Shakespeare, so that ‘he could console himself with it if he should see something disagreeable’, according to his wife, Licy. It is extraordinary – but surely also a tribute to the pedagogic power of reading – that he should have sat down and produced something as beautiful and strange as The Leopard on his first (and last) attempt.

the_leopardThe Leopard is the story of the long-drawn out decline of a noble Sicilian family. It opens in 1861 just as Garibaldi is leaping about the country, uniting its various factions through his military campaign. But all this vulgar action is discreetly left to its own devices, beyond the scope of the narrative, just as the Prince and his family withdraw to one of their country estates to avoid any hint of real battle. Their aristocratic stature encases them in security and tedium, almost-but-not-quite protected from the realities of life, like the disembowelled corpse of a soldier that briefly spoils the beauty of their rose garden. The tale is an inward-looking one, of a family at the height of its ripeness, full of flavour and texture, rich and resplendent and on the verge of decay. As it rots away, the story is redolent of nostalgia for what once was, splendid melancholy for its loss, and a hint of repulsion at what it must become.

The narrative occurs in a series of vignettes of family life. The first introduces the reader to the Prince, who is the beating heart of the story. The Prince is a wonderful creation, a man of overarching uselessness who is a petty tyrant with his family and a passionate astronomer on the quiet. Melancholy, proud and a bit petulant, he has no trouble reconciling his conscience with visits to his mistress under cover of giving the priest a lift into town in his carriage. His heart is only moved by his dog and his nephew, Tancredi. The young man has been left penniless by his family but by no means without resources; maverick, mischevious and brave, the Prince loves him for his genuine vitality, even though he is the embodiment of the modern spirit that will hasten the dissolution of old families like the Salina clan.

And as soon as they get to the safety of their country estate, Tancredi falls for the glorious Angelica, daughter of the local mayor who has a Medusa touch. It’s a sensible choice for a man of aristocratic birth who lacks cold, hard cash and the Prince is willing to sanction the union, seeing it as the first, inevitable step towards the new Italy. At first, though, the Prince struggles to come to terms with the sheer difference of Mayor Don Calogero, his lack of delicacy, his upfront pursuit of money, his awful clothes. But negotiating the marriage settlement, he shows himself to be generous and kind and the Prince is moved by exquisite relief:

The nobleman rose to his feet, took a step towards the surprised Don Calogero, raised him from his armchair, clasped him to his breast; the Mayor’s short legs were suspended in the air. For a moment, that room in a remote Sicilian province looked like a Japanese print of a huge, violet iris with a hairy fly hanging from a petal.’

Did I mention that the great charm of this novel is that it is so unexpectedly funny? The writing is wonderful; crisp, perceptive, witty, vivid. It’s the sort of novel where characters give long, eloquent speeches about the state of the church in Italy, and the Sicilian national character and although you sigh on the approach into them, you find you are laughing on the way out. There are some delightful passages, like the visit of the political envoy, the extremely anxious Chevalley di Monterzuolo, whose ‘head had been stuffed with the tales of brigands by which Sicilian’s love to test the nervous resistance of new arrivals’ and who fails to make the Prince accept a seat in the new governing council. And one chapter is filled with an evening at a ball, the epitome of the grace, the splendour and the futility of the old regime.

But the underlying force of the sumptuous prose is entropy, nevertheless. The novel captures the spirit and the soul of a generation on the cusp of its dissolution. It’s a book in which not a lot happens – increasingly less happens, in fact, as it moves through its stages – but it still happens with immense grace and clear-sightedness, wry good-humour and ironic self-interest. It is sad and splendid, rather like the man who wrote it.


Women’s Writing: Some Issues, Old and New

Christine de Pizan, one of the first chroniclers of women's writing

Christine de Pizan, one of the first chroniclers of women’s writing

Throughout history, women have written. But it has only been at the far end of the twentieth century, the tiniest sliver of a second on the great clock of time, that their writing has been seen to be in any way equivalent to that of men. Oh for sure, there was the occasional ‘miraculeuse’ as the social theorist Pierre Bourdieu termed women like George Sand and Simone de Beauvoir, women who made it through the ranks in a way that looked as if it might be possible for anyone to do so. When of course it wasn’t, and they were startling anomalies. And in the present day, the category of women’s writing, with its subdivisions of chick-lit and mommy-lit and light romance and historical romance, is often considered more frivolous and lightweight than the thriller or science fiction novel. All of which is to say that the literary world has never really been a place that welcomed women in, and it does so with reservations even now.

And yet stories have had a great deal more power over women’s lives than over men’s. As soon as we begin to look into the past, it’s obvious how constrained women have been by the story of the ‘good’ woman, who she is, how she behaves, what she may expect. The stories available to women as guidelines for living have traditionally been few and uncompromising: women were supposed to be quiet, well-behaved, charming, gentle, tender. They were destined to be faithful wives and devoted mothers. The romance was their only socially permitted adventure, and so they had to make the most of it (one of George Sand’s heroines delays her engagement for 8 years, about 250 pages of incident-filled narrative, before succumbing to marriage and motherhood in the final chapter, which Sand recognised would be the end of her freedom and interest to the reader). Those who deviated from these rules were severely punished by ostracism from the community, confinement in mental hospitals, excommunication from the church, public disgrace, scandal and death. All this because of stories handed down from generation to generation! So much constraint, so much restriction, because of this dreadful paucity of narrative possibility.

But still, women wrote. They wrote because writing was compatible with confinement in domesticity. What they wrote, however, was inevitably marked by the differences imposed upon them. They wrote out of a completely different relationship to power than men enjoyed. They wrote out of exclusion from the places in society where decisions were taken. They wrote out of a narrower view of the world and the things people could do in it. And where exceptions arose and amazing women found ways to travel and organise and become pioneers in a field, they deserve our awe and admiration while taking nothing away from the others who did not find those precious loopholes. They were not easy to come by. Today, in many countries across the world, the situation for women is still one of restriction, too often accompanied by suffering and fear. The obstacles may vary, but consistently, across time and space, women have found their conditions of life, the options open to them, to be different to those enjoyed by men. It’s an ongoing reality, and one brought home to us most vividly and powerfully by the stories women get to tell. We need every story, and each one asks us to listen, not to judge.

The consciousness raising campaign of the 60s and 70s

The consciousness raising campaign of the 60s and 70s

These past few weeks, reading for a whole month of blogging about women’s writing has been quite fascinating. I’ve been almost shocked by the differences between the feminist writing that came out of the 70s and 80s and the genre fiction of today. Whilst the feminists fought for the right to be free of domestic chores, to be less confined by marriage, to have the choice of meaningful work, to bring up children in less constricted environments, the genre fiction of today paints a world in which women have rushed back to the realm of the Stepford wife. A successful marriage, a pretty house, lots of nice material things, these are the hard-won goals. And motherhood remains the country that feminism forgot; it demands the absolute sacrifice of women’s personal needs, desires and activities. I’m not saying this is necessarily wrong or lacking in value – but what does the radical swing in social aspirations mean?

What has remained consistent throughout the recent period of literary history when women have been much more free to write whatever they chose, and to have lives lived according to their own principles, is the difficulty women have with accepting that other women may behave differently. In almost all the fiction and non-fiction I’ve been reading, the conflicts arise because women find it hard to live and let live. The choices and behaviours of others, if they run counter to their own, are too often understood to be offensive, wrong, threatening. This difficulty is very obvious in the reception of women’s writing, too. How often are female characters damned for not being ‘sympathetic’? For not behaving, in other words, the way that the woman reader wants them to? Still there remains the tendency to prescribe female behaviour – and it’s most noticeably done by other women. If the great historical battle of feminism was the right to be something other than a gentle nursemaid and competent housekeeper, why on earth should we spend so much time and energy squabbling over a new definition of how women should be? And worst of all, why should the mirage of ‘strength’ be the quality that dominates these prescriptions? ‘Strength’ if we mean constant energetic, fearless engagement in life, is an unlivable idea. Real strength, achievable and sustainable strength, is about flexibility, gentle discipline, understanding, compassion, and the acceptance of weakness.

But surely this goes a long way to explaining how come women survived – were complicit with – those endless centuries of history in which only a few stories were available for women’s lives. If there were one great overriding narrative, one way to be, women could measure themselves against it and feel secure, even superior to other women who did not match up so well. But that is to understand the meanness of women to one another as pure aggression, and I don’t believe that’s so. I think it’s actually about the unplumbed depths of women’s insecurity. When women fail to give each other the benefit of the doubt, it’s because the other’s difference awakens their insecurity. And by some twist of psychology, personal insecurity can easily become something that has to be avenged. If we could somehow alter this kink of mentality, if we could give women, not a vitamin pill, but a confidence pill, the unalloyed permission to be who they were without the constant fear of critical undermining by others, wouldn’t that make the world a better place? Forget the pill, we could do it if we somehow managed to make women better readers of one another. If they stopped looking for similarity and found in difference some interest, curiosity, learning. When women’s writing erupted into a glorious profusion of different, new, unheard voices back in the 70s, the sisterhood welcomed them all. We lost something vital when we believed we’d reached equality and started bickering over what it should look like.

people call me a feminist

Isn’t now the perfect moment to understand that each woman is her own story? And that the story is there to be listened to attentively for the pleasure of solidarity and curiosity, not judged for the pleasure of finding it wanting, or the fear that it might reflect badly on our own?

Ten Reasons We Love Spies

top secret

1. The original meaning of the word spy comes from the ancient Chinese and means ‘a chink’, ‘a crack’ or a ‘crevice’. Hence the iconic image of spying – the eyeball peering through a gap, seeing what is not meant to be seen. Transgressive viewing, voyeurism, finding out other people’s secrets… spying justifies what might otherwise be seen as naughty and wrong. Perhaps because we believe that what is best hidden is most vital and true.

2. This was why in the 19th century the spy was considered someone disreputable and shameful. It was not a gentleman’s profession. The twentieth century changed all that – partly because it embraced the antihero, along with the general disgracefulness of humankind, and partly because spying was rehabilitated as heroic, as the cult of the individual grew and grew.

3. There’s a spectrum of spying with James Bond at one end of the scale, the glamourous maverick hero, who is reckless but reliably successful, and at the other the sort of dreary, tedious and dispiriting work undertaken by some of Graham Greene’s chaps, where being flawed and mistaken and often drunk has its own seedy appeal. So we have every flavour of spy now, to identify with or fantasise about.

4. Spying celebrates disguise, dissimulation, deviousness and cunning, as well as the necessity of going ‘beyond’ the limits of the law, which is understood to be insufficiently protective or too slow in its workings. The spy embodies the duality in the human heart, combining the instinct for political responsibility and the instinct to hide from authority. And if it all works out, s/he gets to be rewarded for any successes whilst remaining anonymous and unpunished for crimes committed. These are the advantages of being a spy.

5. But there are disadvantages: a spy is never fully innocent, just as their situations are never transparent. S/he is called upon to negotiate complex events where right and wrong are not easy to discern, and might not be known until much later on. Ends justify means, and powerful negative emotions may be provoked by deceit and betrayal at every turn. Spies suffer a lot, both physically and emotionally, and paranoia isn’t an illness for them but a necessity.

6. Spies can give us a lovely sense of schadenfreude – how close we may have come to international disaster! How our lives may have been threatened! Only we never knew because someone was working silently and fearlessly for our protection. The greater the threatened danger, the greater our readerly comfort.

7. Spies are so good for stories because nothing in their circumstances may be as it seems, and yet everything is thick with potential meaning (codes are a fine example). We are drawn into a web of surmise and interpretation that may well be misguided, and yet lives depend upon it. Intelligence alone is not sufficient – the spy will need flair and luck, some sort of semi-mystical ring of protection in order to suvive.

8. In the spy story all the ordinary certainties are challenged – identity, truth, loyalty, patriotism. But nothing is destroyed. Instead: hello conspiracy theory! The implication is that below or beyond the obvious but deceitful structures lie deeper, disguised ones that are more efficient, more effective and much stronger. How awful to think that no one was in control and nothing was organised! Never fear – the spy will take us to that deeper level where the ultimate goodies and baddies reside.

9. As information becomes ever more cloaked in secrecy and harder to get hold of, so technology comes to rescue us with ever more miraculous inventions. Spies tell us just how much we love gadgets, and how much faith we have in them.

10. The 21st century is proving to be the era of the female spy. Some novels explore the idea of the ruthless female, others challenge feminine innocence and gentleness and put love and loyalty on trial. All the novels I’ve read or read about are set in the past, when women were invisible because they were considered not just harmless, but useless. What a foolish error!

The Song of Achilles

song of achillesFor the larger part of the Orange-Prize-winning Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, I wondered whether I was reading the same book as everyone else. I’d seen nothing but glowing reviews about how wonderful it was, and yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reading an – admittedly very well written – YA novel. If I’d had a teenage daughter, I’d have been pressing it into her hands. And I admit I was a bit concerned that a prize for women’s fiction had been given to a retelling of the Iliad that took a war-mongering masculine classic and domesticated it into a rather soppy love story. But happily my experience was redeemed by the last 50 pages, when the emotional train wreck Miller has been working up to coincides with the magnificent awfulness of the Iliad. Those last 50 pages were about as powerful as anything I’d ever read, though they are a bit of a sobfest. But still. In a story where honor is so very important, I was relieved that honor was restored to this version by the end.

So The Song of Achilles is actually about Patroclus, an exiled prince who becomes Achilles’ lover and steadfast companion. Patroclus is an awkward sort, a geeky, gangly boy who’s not much good at games and lingers on the edge of life, alienated. When he kills a boy by sheer accident, he is cast off by his parents and sent to the small island of Phthia, whose king, Peleus, is known for taking in orphans and training them up for his army. His son is the half-god Achilles, a fearless, golden youth to whom everything comes easy, and who knows he is destined to be Aristos Achaion, the greatest fighter among the Greeks. By a small miracle (for Patroclus) the two become friends, though Achilles’ mother, the sea goddess Thetis, is against it from the start. She is an over-possessive, overbearing mother with the divine power to back it up. But luck favours the pair, who are sent to Chiron’s crystal cave in the mountains for training, a place protected by the centaur’s divinity from Thetis’s intruding gaze. Here, they grow into young men and become lovers. When Helen is stolen by Paris and taken to Troy, Thetis intervenes, hiding Achilles away in the hope she can prevent him from fighting in the war and fulfilling the prophecy (which comes with a galling sub-clause, as prophesies tend to do). But Patroclus finds him, and before long the Greek kings do, as well. The Iliad will not be denied, after all.

Well, so far it’s been like a really good episode of Hollyoaks or Dawson’s Creek. The reader is invited to cast the young Brad Pitt in her mind’s eye as Achilles, with someone slightly scary like Cher for Thetis. Hmm, a gorgeous young man who looks marvellous in a tunic, with a domineering mother to whom he is too bound…. Is it just me, or does that invite a certain stereotype of homosexuality? And poor old Patroclus is the misfit loner of this particularly glamourous high school. The real mystery – of why Achilles should fall in love with him at all – is left entirely enigmatic. I desperately wanted there to be a reason, some quality that Patroclus could call his own, but he’s stuck with the girl’s part of embodying nurture and devotion. I can’t figure out if that’s a win for political correctness or not.

However, once the war gets going, the tone becomes darker and more serious and some necessary growing-up is done, by Patroclus if not by Achilles. I won’t give any more details away, but the ending is absolutely heart wrenching. I’d been worried for so long with this novel that it would be about nothing but a love affair. And that seemed thin and insubstantial when compared to the heavyweight Iliad, which is about why we live and why we die, and honor and pride and sacrifice and tragedy, and so much else. But by the end, love had taken its proper place, as the best and the worst reason for acts of heroism. And that did seem like a worthy union of a feminine perspective and a deeply masculine tale.