The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (tr. Stephen Twilley)

Shortly before his death in 1957, the Sicilian author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote The Professor and the Siren, a beguiling short story published here alongside two additional pieces: a brief sketch entitled Joy and the Law, and the opening chapter of an unfinished novel, The Blind Kittens. Lampedusa is best known for his landmark historical novel, The Leopard, a book I have yet to read (it’s on my list for the Classics Club). In the meantime, I’m treating this slim collection as an appetiser, a little taste of things to come.

The titular piece, The Professor and the Siren, is the star of the show here, an enigmatic story of great elegance and beauty. Set in Turin in 1938, it is narrated by Paolo Corbera, a young journalist and a bit of a womaniser who is now seeking a brief respite from the fairer sex; unfortunately for the journalist, his attempts to maintain two separate lovers at the same time have recently come to the attention of the ladies concerned. In search of a retreat from his usual lifestyle, Corbera starts to visit a café in the heart of Turin, a traditional place frequented by members of the city’s old guard – colonels, magistrates, academics and suchlike. One evening, he notices a man at the next table, and his interest is immediately piqued.

On my right sat an elderly man wrapped in an old overcoat with a worn astrakhan collar. He read foreign magazines one after another, smoked Tuscan cigars and frequently spat. Every so often he would close his magazine and appear to be pursuing some memory in the spirals of smoke; then he would go back to reading and spitting. […] Once, however, he when he came across a photograph in a magazine of an archaic Greek statue, the kind with widespread eyes and an ambiguous smile, I was surprised to see his disfigured fingers caress the image with positively regal delicacy. (p. 3)

The two men strike up a conversation with one another, a dialogue that continues to develop over the course of a few weeks as the pair return to the café on a nightly basis. Corbera’s new friend is Senator Rosario La Ciura, an eminent professor in the field of Hellenic Studies, a somewhat grumpy and insolent man who eschews pretty much everything to do with the modern world and the permissive society therein. In many ways, the two men are complete opposites: one is young, the other old; one is liberal in his views, the other scathing, particularly when it comes to the young women of the day. And yet they have one vital thing in common: both men hail from the beautiful, mythical island of Sicily.

So we spoke about eternal Sicily, the Sicily of the natural world; about the scent of rosemary on the Nebrodi Mountains and the taste of Melilli honey; about the swaying cornfields seen from Etna on a windy day in May, some secluded spots near Syracuse, and the fragrant gusts from the citrus plantations known to sweep down on Palermo during sunset in June. We spoke of those magical summer nights, looking out over the gulf of Castellammare, when the stars are mirrored in the sleeping sea, and how, lying on your back among the mastic trees, your spirit is lost on the whirling heavens, while the body braces itself, fearing the approach of demons. (pp. 10-11)

One evening, the professor decides to tell Corbera the story of an idyllic summer he spent in Augusta, Syracuse, many years earlier in his youth – a story he hopes will explain some of the reasons behind his rather idiosyncratic behaviour and philosophy towards life. While in Augusta, the young La Ciura spent many hours studying on a boat, gently rocking to and fro on the peaceful waters. One morning, ‘the smooth face of a sixteen-year-old emerged from the sea’, a movement that was accompanied by a pull on the side of the craft as the youngster gripped the gunwale. Naturally, the budding professor was transfixed by this image, one he describes to Corbera in intimate detail.

This, however, was not a smile like those to be seen among your sort, always debased with an accessory expression of benevolence or irony, of compassion, cruelty, or whatever the case may be; it expressed nothing but itself: an almost bestial delight in existing, a joy almost divine. This smile was the first of her charms that would affect me, revealing paradises of forgotten serenity. From her disordered hair, which was the colour of the sun, seawater dripped into her exceedingly open green eyes, over features of infantile purity. (p. 29)

What followed was an intensely passionate encounter between the pair, one that undoubtedly left its mark on the professor for the rest of his life.

This is a very sensual story of eternal love, yearning and loss in which Lampedusa’s use of language perfectly matches both the subject matter and the setting. It ends with a slight twist, finishing on a bittersweet note which leaves the reader with much to ponder, particularly about the intensity of certain moments in life. At times, I was reminded of some of the scenes from Michelangelo Antonioni’s beautiful film L’Avventura. It has a similar tone, I think. There are nods to classical Greek mythology too. Either way, this is an excellent story, worth the entry price of the collection alone.

The next piece in the collection, Joy and the Law, is a brief tale with a moral message at the centre. It features a hard-up accountant, struggling to keep himself and his family afloat in the face of mounting debts. Luckily, as it’s Christmas, our protagonist has just received his annual bonus, something that will keep the wolf from the door at least for the immediate future.

Contained in the wallet was 37,245 lire, the year-end bonus he’d received an hour earlier, amounting to the removal of several thorns from his family’s side: his landlord, to whom he owed two quarters’ rent, growing more insistent the longer he was thwarted; the exceedingly punctual collector of installment payments on his wife’s veste de lapin (“It suits you much better than a long coat, my dear, it’s slimming”); the black looks of the fishmonger and greengrocer. (p. 40)

In spite of this, the accountant seems more chuffed with his fifteen-pound panettone, a gift he has received for being the most deserving employee in the business. Nevertheless, our protagonist’s joy is somewhat short-lived. When he arrives home with his bounty, the accountant is reminded by his wife that there are also other debts to pay, those of a slightly different nature but equally important. This is an enjoyable little sketch, ironic in tone, a pleasant interlude between the other two stories in this volume.

The final piece in this collection, The Blind Kittens, was originally intended to form the opening chapter of a follow-up novel to The Leopard. Consequently, it is best viewed in this context – as an introduction that was to lay the groundwork for an epic story to follow. Sadly, Lampedusa never had the opportunity to develop the narrative any further due to his untimely death (he was just 60 years old when he died). Nevertheless, The Blind Kittens is well worth reading in its own right. As an opening passage, it sows the seeds of a tale of intrigue set within the context of the Ibba dynasty, an influential Sicilian family headed up by the rather formidable and unscrupulous virtual baron, Don Batassano. In the first few pages of the story, we learn that Don Batassano has just acquired another property to add to his empire. As Batassano’s lawyer, Ferrara, peruses a map of the Ibba family holdings, he reflects on the underhand means behind the various acquisitions over the years.

Ferrara stood up to take a closer look. From his professional experience, from countless indiscretions overheard, he knew well how that enormous mass of property had been assembled: an epic tale of cunning, of lack of scruples, of defiance of the laws, of implacability and also of luck, of daring as well. (p. 52)

Once again, this piece is very different in tone from the preceding two. It is sharper, more cutting in style, rich in both detail and texture. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Emilia Pardo Bazán’s wonderful classic, The House of Ulloa, a novel I reviewed last year. What a shame Lampedusa never got the opportunity to finish this work – it could have been another masterpiece.

Guy and Karen have posted interesting reviews of this collection, just click on the relevant links to read them.

The Professor and the Siren is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

35 thoughts on “The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (tr. Stephen Twilley)

  1. Tredynas Days

    I like the sound of this collection, Jacqui. If it’s anything like as powerful as The Leopard it’ll be worth reading. Love the design of these NYRB books

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d like it, Simon, especially given your enjoyment of The Leopard. The cover’s great, isn’t it? A fitting match for the classic nature of these stories.

      Reply
  2. madamebibilophile

    This sounds really interesting Jacqui. I read The Leopard last year and its really stayed with me, I’ll definitely hunt this down as the quotes you pulled took me right back to it & di Lampedusa’s unique voice.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great. You might have to hunt around a bit as it’s not very easy to get hold of a new copy over here (mine came from the US). That said, I think there are some secondhand copies online. Happy hunting!

      Reply
  3. MarinaSofia

    Lampedusa is but a distant memory and I was probably somewhat too young at the time to fully understand and appreciate The Leopard, but this collection sounds really tempting. I have to revisit this author.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The Leopard does sound like the type of book that’s best read with a certain degree of life experience under one’s belt. I suspect these pieces are more accessible, the first two in particular. The titular story is so beguiling.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s how I first heard of him too, via other bloggers’ and readers’ recommendations of The Leopard. So it’s somewhat that I have ended up by starting with his stories!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Yes, a great pity. It would have been interesting to see how The Blind Kittens turned out, another classic in the making I suspect.

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    Great post Jacqui.

    You seem to find authors who sketch characters in such interesting ways. The Professor and the Siren in particular sounds very good. There is so much that an author can do with a dialogue between two characters. A recently read a lot of Anton Chekov stories where that author put the technique to very good use.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. I think you’d find these stories very interesting from a character perspective, especially the first and third pieces. It would be very possible to say too much about The Professor and the Siren here, but the images it evokes are really rather beautiful.

      Reply
  5. Caroline

    I don’t believe any book is better read at an older age. (I just saw some comments regarding Il gattopardo above). I read far more classics and modern classics when I was teenager and obviously because I studied literature. There are still tons I didn’t get to. That’s the disadvantage when one reads across genres.
    Be it as it may – a lovely review. I’m pretty sure I’d like it too as Il Gattopardo is one of my favourite books.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s fair enough. I guess I was just thinking of how my own tastes in literature (and my responses to certain types of characters) have changed over the years. Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, for example, which I read when it won the Booker Prize some thirty years ago, a book I quite liked but didn’t love. Looking back on it now, I suspect I was too young and inexperienced at the time to fully appreciate the novel’s many subtleties. My response to it would probably be very different now that I’m older and more attuned to the nature of life as a woman in Edith’s position.

      Going back to the Lampedusa, I think you’d love these stories, The Professor and the Siren in particular. It’s definitely a book I would recommend to you as the writing is so beautiful.

      Reply
      1. Caroline

        I agree, we experince them in different ways but, to me, a real classic can be read at any time, by anyone and be enjoyed. Big, universal novels. And especially the language. I don’t think I appreciate style more than I did at a younger age. Do you?

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          No, that’s a good point. I loved Jane Austen when I read her as a teenager and still feel the same way about her now. As you say, standout novels that have something to say to every reader irrespective of age and experience.

          Reply
  6. Max Cairnduff

    Aphrodite emerging from the waves on a coracle. I suspect I’ll read The Leopard first, but this does sound a rather nice intro to Lampedusa. Good quotes.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, you’re certainly heading along the right lines there. Well, by rights, I should have started with The Leopard myself as it’s on my list for the Classics Club…

      Reply
  7. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    You must be looking forward to reading The Leopard now that you got such a good “appetizer.” :)Reading some of the comments about how some books might be better for when one is older, I think there’s a difference between enjoyment and appreciation. For example, I’ve always enjoyed Jane Austen, but I appreciate her stories more now that I have a greater understanding of how life was when she was writing them. And while I have no doubt that I would have enjoyed a sensual novel when I was younger, I am sure that I can appreciate ideas about eternal love better now that I am older (and more sarcastic than idealistic).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think you’re right about there being a difference between enjoyment and appreciation. It calls to mind some of the points that came up in the conversation when I reviewed Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse. In particular, the feeling that as a teenager it would be natural for a reader to be on the side of the central protagonist Cecile, whereas older readers might be much less sympathetic towards her situation – or certainly the way she chooses to deal with it. I guess it left me wondering how I would have reacted to the book had I read it when I was Cecile’s age!

      As for the Leopard, I am most certainly looking forward to reading it. Maybe next year, just to put a bit of space between the two books.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          How fascinating! Many thanks for the link, it’s a great piece. Isn’t it interesting how our sympathies with various characters and situations can change over time depending on our own experiences? It never ceases to surprise me.

          Reply
  8. Scott W

    I quite liked this volume, and, like you, the title story especially. I read it shortly after visiting Sicily and found de Lampedusa’s descriptions exceptionally resonant. I have a difficult time imagining first approaching de Lampedusa from this side of his writing, instead of from The Leopard, so I eagerly await your review of that when you get to it! I like your mention of L’Avventura – a favorite; the setting is similar (at least those Lipari islands scenes from the film), though de Lampedusa’s having a woman emerge from the sea makes for a startlingly strong contrast to Antonioni’s having one disappear into it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the imagery in the titular story is so evocative, isn’t it? It conjured up memories of the island for me too although it’s been quite a while since I was there – probably ten years in fact. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the tone and feel of L’Avventura, the coastline scenes in particular. Nice point about the contrast between the two stories – I hadn’t thought about that!

      Reply
  9. bookbii

    Great review Jacqui. I keep meaning to get around to The Leopard, another long-time shelf languisher, having heard such a lot of good things about Lampedusa. I see you haven’t read The Leopard yet, but these stories sound like a tempting introduction to his work. I’ve never seen any of Antonioni’s movies, but yours is the second reference to him I’ve seen recently (the other in Anne Carson’s Decreation). What would you recommend?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. On the strength of these stories, Lampedusa is well worth reading so your purchase of The Leopard will not have been in vain! As for Antonioni, I would recommend you watch (in the following order) L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse – taken together they form his ‘alienation’ trilogy, a series of films about isolation/alienation in the modern world. L’Avventura remains my favourite, but all three are classics – definitely worthy of the investment in time. L’Eclisse has one of the eeriest endings I’ve ever experienced in the cinema. I’d love to hear what you think of them.

      Reply
  10. 1streading

    Having read The Leopard I was always wary of reading what little else Lampedusa had published in case it paled in comparison but your review convinces me it’s well worth seeking out. Speaking of which, I have to point out, much as I too like the occasional NYRB Classic, these are available with more of his work in Childhood Memories and Other Stories published by Alma in the UK.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great. I do think you would find them interesting, the first one in particular. And thanks for the heads up on that Alma edition of his work – I wasn’t aware of that at all!

      Reply
  11. buriedinprint

    Oooo, I’m loving this idea of arranging a book menu with one book as an appetizer and a main course scheduled to follow and, of course, dessert. I usually have “reading companions” but this appeals to me ever-so-much more: thanks for the lovely idea. And I hope you enjoy the rest of your Lampedusa spread!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No worries. Somehow the idea of reading The Leopard has always seemed a little daunting to me, so these stories were a nice way to get a taste of Lampedusa’s work without going for the full monty!

      Reply
  12. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

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