Posts Tagged ‘Sicily’

The Leopard at Perch Hill

July 14, 2014

The weekend was spent in a blur of food and flowers, as Emily’s Walking Book Club went to Perch Hill for its first Summer Feast. We feasted on an Ottolenghi dinner of lamb with pomegranate and tomato salad, delicious beetroot puree and aubergine delights. (We had made bets on the train down as to key Ottolenghi ingredients that would be included and we did very well indeed, as we managed to get: pomegranate molasses, lamb, aubergine, cardamom and za’atar – oh the horror on Yotam’s face when a naive punter asked, what’s za’atar?) Then came Sarah Raven’s breakfast and lunch, with everything picked fresh from the beautiful garden, including extraordinary nasturtiums, making the salad almost too pretty to eat.

And then came Emily’s literary feast – the walking book club discussed The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, paying particular attention to the abundance of food in it.

Perch Hill walking book club 1 - striding over the Sussex hills

It was a beautiful setting and we wandered through woods and over fields looking out at the Sussex countryside and thinking how different it was from the Sicilian landscape described in the book and how lucky we were that our summers were rather milder than those in Sicily, ‘as long and glum as a Russian winter and against which we struggle with less success’.

I wrote about The Leopard a few months ago, so here I thought I’d write more specifically about food in the novel.

We had better begin with the famous macaroni pie:

The burnished gold of the crusts, the fragrance of sugar and cinnamon they exuded, were but preludes to the delights released from the interior when the knife broke the crust; first came a spice-laden haze, then chicken livers, hard boiled eggs, sliced ham, chicken and truffles in masses of piping hot, glistening macaroni, to which the meat juice gave an exquisite hue of suede.

Delicious, and just about enough of a recipe to try to make it at home. In fact my brother recently attempted to concoct it, albeit without the truffles, with great success. It rather puts all our Italian pasta dinners to shame…

More interesting, however, is how Lampedusa describes the reception of the dish:

The beginning of the meal, as happens in the provinces, was quiet. The arch-priest made the sign of the Cross and plunged in head first without a word. The organist absorbed the succulent dish with closed eyes; he was grateful to the Creator that his ability to shoot hare and woodcock could bring him ecstatic pleasures like this, and the thought came to him that he and Teresina could exist for a month on the cost of one of these dishes; Angelica, the lovely Angelica, forgot little Tuscan black-puddings and part of her good manners and devoured her food with the appetite of her seventeen years and the vigour given by grasping her fork half-way up the handle. Tancredi, in an attempt to link gallantry with greed, tried to imagine himself tasting, in the aromatic forkfuls, the kisses of his neighbour Angelica, but he realised at once that the experiment was disgusting and suspended it, with a mental reserve about reviving this fantasy with the pudding; the Prince, although rapt in the contemplation of Angelica sitting opposite him, was the only one at table able to notice that the demi-glace was overfilled, and made a mental note to tell the cook so next day; the others ate without thinking of anything, and without realising that the food seemed so delicious because sensuality was circulating in the house.

Perch Hill walking book club 2 - feeling rather gluttonous with all that pieThis is real eating! I love the way they all give themselves up entirely to the food. There is a remarkable ‘sensuality’ in the way they eat dinner – everyone appreciates its sumptuous goodness, just as they do Angelica’s beauty. A far cry from the stuffy dinners of English country houses at the time…

The rich macaroni pie is a very good example of Sicilian cucina baronale – literally the cooking of the barons – and Lampedusa emphasises this by showing the organist thinking he could exist for a month on the cost of it. He would be used to the contrasting, rustic cucina povera. Indeed, later on in the book, the priest goes home and Lampedusa notes that the simple dinner there ‘was much enjoyed by Father Pirrone, whose palate had not been spoilt by the culinary delicacies of Villa Salina’. The Prince, on the contrary, is so used to the cucina baronale that he, with his refined palate, is the only one to notice the defect in the demi-glace.

Angelica, who turned everyone’s heads as she entered the novel a few pages ago is shown ‘grasping her fork half-way up the handle’, betraying the fact that while she may be beautiful and wealthy, she is certainly no lady. Tancredi is shown to be an infatuated young romantic, imagining tasting her kisses with each bite, but also – and this is key – a pragmatist, for he soon gives it up when he realises it’s ‘disgusting’, thinking he’ll try again with pudding. Of course it is Tancredi who has the famous line ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ He is open to change and compromise, happy to bend his ways with the times in order to come out on top, and his eating of the macaroni pie is no exception.

It is astonishing how many deft, minute character studies Lampedusa crams into this paragraph of macaroni eaters!

A similar sensuality of eating and food appears a little earlier in the book with the ‘foreign peaches’, grafted from German cuttings:

There was not much fruit, a dozen or so, on the two grafted trees, but it was big, velvety, luscious-looking; yellowish with a faint flush of rosy pink on the cheeks, like those of modest little Chinese girls. The Prince felt them with the delicacy for which his fleshy fingers were famous.

Brilliantly, these luscious peaches are next seen as they are borne by Tancredi’s lackey as a present for Angelica. Surely there could be no more fitting gift. You can almost read Tancredi’s mind, as he thinks her kisses would taste more of these peaches than of the macaroni pie.

Perch Hill walking book club 3

We wondered, on the walking book club, if there might be any significance to the fact that they were grafted from German cuttings. There is an earlier description of a rose brought from Paris, ‘degenerated’ thanks to the ‘strong if languid pull of Sicilian earth’ into something ‘obscene and distilling a dense almost indecent scent’, like ‘the thigh of a dancer from the Opera’. Here the message is clear that the Sicilian environment is so intensely sensual that it degenerates the refinements of Paris into something obscene. But what about the German roses, which ‘succeeded perfectly’ though yielded little fruit. Perhaps, suggested one clever lady, this is a reference to the alliance between Germany and Italy during the Second World War. An excellent theory, for the War was very much in Lampedusa’s mind as he wrote The Leopard in the years following. It even makes an appearance when he flashes forwards to the ceiling being destroyed in 1943 by ‘a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn.’ – just as Lampedusa’s own family Palazzo was destroyed during the War.

Indeed, food is often a metaphor for politics in The Leopard. My favourite instance of this is in his description of the rum jelly:

It was rather threatening at first sight, shaped like a tower with bastions and battlements and smooth slippery walls impossible to scale, garrisoned by red and green cherries and pistachio nuts; but into its transparent and quivering flanks a spoon plunged with astounding ease. By the time the amber-coloured fortress reached Francesco Paolo, the sixteen-year-old son who was served last, it consisted only of shattered walls and hunks of wobbly rubble. Exhilarated by the aroma of rum and the delicate flavour of the multi-coloured garrison, the Prince enjoyed watching the rapid demolishing of the fortress beneath the assault of his family’s appetite. One of his glasses was still half-full of Marsala. He raised it, glanced round the family, gazed for a second into Concetta’s blue eyes, then said: “To the health of our Tancredi.” He drained his wine in a single gulp. The initials F.D., which before had stood out clearly on the golden colour of the full glass, were no longer visible.

This is not just an account of a family eating a jelly, but a rather lavish metaphor for Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily as part of the Risorgimento, which is taking place at that very moment.

The Prince has recently bid farewell to Tancredi who has gone off to fight to aid Garibaldi’s landing at Marsala. Lampedusa even manages to slip in the name of this port, as the Prince is drinking a glass of it. The jelly, like Sicily, would seem to be impossible to scale, but is in fact penetrated ‘with astounding ease’. Garibaldi did indeed invade ‘with astounding ease’ (helped by the presence of British ships), and soon Sicily’s resistance was no more than ‘shattered walls and hunks of wobble rubble’. Tellingly the initials F.D., which stand for the last Bourbon King Francis II, become invisible.

Once again, I was reminded of how wonderful a book The Leopard is, and the walking book club concurred. As did this very sweet little sheep that first bleated at us from afar, no doubt keen to join the discussion, and then bounded over to us as we approached. Perhaps he always felt himself to be a misunderstood leopard.

Perch Hill Walking Book Club 4 a literary sheep


The Leopard

February 10, 2014

The Leopard by Tomasi di LampedusaThis is, put simply, one of the greatest novels of all time.

It’s hard to pin it to a particular century, as it was written in the mid-twentieth, yet takes place primarily in the late-nineteenth, and holds glimpses of both past and future. Perhaps it soars above the boundaries of time; somewhat ironic for a novel which is so preoccupied with time’s passage and the changing order of things.

Famously, Tancredi says:

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. D’you understand?

Do we understand? This novel is a sensuous, skilful unpacking of this paradox which must make any writer at once green with envy and incredibly proud to see words used so powerfully. As David Mitchell puts it in a fervent piece in the Telegraph:

The Leopard is truly exceptional. ‘Give it up, you poor hack,’ the novel advises me. ‘Retrain as a plumber and earn some real money, or you’ll waste your life and still not produce a book a tenth as good as me.’ But the novel can’t help adding, ‘Look at all this beauty, truth and emotion, created from nothing but words. Just words. How can you possibly spend your life not trying to do the same?’

The novel opens in May 1860, just as Garibaldi conquers Sicily as part of the ‘Risogimento’, the unification of Italy. ‘The Leopard’ of the title is Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina – a huge figure, intimidating, a womanizer, and something of an eccentric who applies his mathematical capability to astronomy rather than accounting for his family’s expenditure and debts. He is married with three daughters and two sons, but the novel’s key relationship is avuncular. Don Fabrizio’s nephew is Tancredi Falconieri, an orphan the Prince has taken under his wing. They are both fond of each other – Tancredi affectionately calls him ‘Nuncle’ and teases him that he’s too old to be going to brothels, while Don Fabrizo finds his youthful insolence endearing and admires his political flexibility.

‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ Don Fabrizio sees that Tancredi understands this and so is bound to succeed. Aristocratic but penniless, Tancredi chooses to marry the beautiful, decidedly middle-class but very wealthy Angelica, whose father wears ill-fitting suits and whose mother is completley illiterate. He chooses her over refined, noble Concetta, the Prince’s daughter, seeing that while he cares for her, she hasn’t the upwardly mobile social ambition, nor the money required for a suitable match.

Some of my favourite scenes are of Tancredi and Angelica’s courtship, as they explore the dusty forgotten rooms of Donnafugata, one of the Prince’s palaces. The house throbs with the sensuality of their desire, as they explore the ‘mysterious and intricate labyrinth’ of various apartments which had been uninhabited for many years:

The two lovers embarked for Cythera on a ship made of dark and sunny rooms, of apartments sumptuous or squalid, empty or crammed with remains of heterogeneous furniture … It was not difficult to mislead anyone wanting to follow, this just meant slipping into one of the very long, narrow and tortuous passages, with grilled windows which could not be passed without a sense of anguish, turning through a gallery, up some handy stair, and the two young people were far away, invisible, alone as if on a desert island.

These dreamy passages are a beautiful double metaphor for first love. The winding geography of the palace becomes a voyage to a distant island, a journey of discovery, as well as perfectly reflecting the newly discovered labyrinthine feelings of falling in love.

Lampedusa contrasts this match between aristocratic yet financially poor Tancredi and socially ambitious, wealthy Angelica – indicative of an acceptance that change is necessary to remain in power – with the Prince’s inflexibility. When he is asked to be a Senator of the newly unified Kingdom, a chance to represent Sicily in the country’s political affairs which is a great honour, the Prince declines. He says he supports the new regime but will not ‘participate’. He conjures an image of Sicilians who are old, ‘worn out and exhausted’, looking on the wonders of the modern world as:

A centenarian being dragged in a bath-chair round the Great Exhibition in London, understanding nothing and caring about nothing … thinking of nothing but drowsing off again on beslobbered pillows with a pot under the bed.

He continues:

All Sicilian sensuality is a hankering for oblivion … that is the cause of the well-known time lag of a century in our artistic and intellectual life; novelties attract us only when they are dead.

The Prince is old, and will not participate in change. Twenty years on, we see him sitting not in a bath-chair but in an ‘arm-chair, his long legs wrapped in a blanket’ taken out on to a hotel balcony, as he looks over the Sicilian landscape and feels ‘life flowing from him in great pressing waves with a spiritual roar’. He realises that he is the last true Salina, the last who understands traditions and refuses to bow to the changing times.

Throughout the novel there is the tension of the Prince’s heavy journey towards death – his ‘hankering for oblivion’, unchanging, doomed yet noble – against the nimble, practical, youthful energy of Tancredi, who will make the aristocracy’s traditions pliant in order to remain on top.

Interesting, this comment on ‘the well-known time lag of a century in our artistic and intellectual life’. For The Leopard begins in 1860 and was written nearly a hundred years later. Evidently Lampedusa himself was subject to this time lag, attracted to such ‘novelties’ as the decaying aristocracy only once it was well-and-truly dead.

The Prince feels himself to be a generation caught in-between generations – still alive in spite of his outmoded way of living and unable to adapt in the way that Tancredi can. It strikes me that this feeling of in-betweeness is surely felt by all generations. I know little of Lampedusa’s life, but perhaps he felt oppressed by the change brought by modern warfare – the Allied bomb of 1943 which fell on his Palermo palazzo, which is prophetically glimpsed in the novel:

From the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling as inexorable as a summer sky. They thought themselves eternal; but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn., was to prove the contrary in 1943.

Surely every generation suffers this neurosis of being at once ahead and left behind. For instance, my generation is endlessly bemoaning the fact that we are in-between in terms of the internet – too old to have been taught coding, yet not so old that we can get away with our ignorance. There is a feeling that if only we were older it wouldn’t matter if we knew no more than how to add an attachment to an email, but as it is we’re expected to be able to build a website, certainly to know basic html, and the fact that we don’t, whereas those just ten years younger than us have it all as second nature, is terrifying.

Perhaps that is in part why The Leopard is such a timeless novel, capturing the old order on the brink of collapse, while the new rises up – portraying how much is lost as well as gained in this evolution, while maintaining enough optimism not to be overwhelmed by the weight of such nostalgia. In each generation there is another old order giving way to a new, and surely everyone feels themselves caught between the annihilistic ‘hankering for oblivion’ and a naïve hopefulness. We are all faced with the statement: ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ It’s less a question of ‘D’you understand?’ than how one chooses to respond.

Oh and there is so much more to discuss. The power of the Sicilian landscape – perhaps this is what Forster so admired about it, as it reminded me of the brilliant end to A Passage to India; Catholicism – no doubt much here about death being ever present a la Brideshead Revisited; and all the food – including that infamous macaroni pie … The Leopard is a magnificent and enduring classic, even better on this rereading than when I first encountered it ten years ago. As ever, I’d love to know what you made of it. Daphne, alas, was rather startled by its leonine character:

Daphne and The Leopard