BOOKS: FICTION: Homesick leopard

THE SIREN and Selected Writings by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa trs Archibald Colquhoun, David Gilmour & Guido Waldman Harvill pounds 14.99/pou nds 8.99
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The Independent Culture
ANYONE who loved the Prince of Lampedusa's book, The Leopard, published posthumously in 1958, will welcome these writings. Childhood memories describe the vast and beautiful family houses so familiar from the novel, and provide haunting images of that "lost Earthly Paradise" which the childless, ageing Lampedusa felt would die with him. Like Don Fabrizio, "he was the last to have any unusual memories, anything different from other families", and he raced against time to record them during the last 30 months of his life.

It is a poignant account, written to still the grief of losing his homes, particularly the Palermo palazzo destroyed by Allied bombs: "it will be very painful for me to evoke my dead Beloved". The depth of Lampedusa's feeling emerges in the anthropomorphic qualities he ascribes to these houses: "gentleness veiled its pride as courtesy does that of an aristocrat". He is sensitive to scents and tactile sensations, "the good feel of polished leather in its tack rooms", and above all to the changing light, filtered through closed shutters: "a real sorcery of illumination and colour which entranced my mind forever".

This selection also includes three short pieces of fiction, of which "The Professor and the Siren" is the foremost. Generous in its fantasy, wide in its embrace of ancient and modern, it contains passages of exquisite lyricism: "We talked of the enchantment of certain summer nights within sight of Castellamare bay, when stars are mirrored in the sleeping sea and the spirit of anyone lying back amid the lentisks is lost in a vortex of sky, while the body is tense and alert, fearing the approach of demons."

Perhaps best of all are the extracts from Lampedusa's critical writings, published here in English for the first time. Lampedusa's almost universal reading of European literature gave him a rare panoramic view; as David Gilmour records in his excellent biography, The Last Leopard, by Lampedusa's early twenties his knowledge of literature and history was so impressive that his cousins dubbed him Il Mostro - the monster.

There are no half-measures in his critical vocabulary: the astonishing, miraculous and supreme triumph over the superfluous or flabby. His writing is passionate and humorous: he divides Shakespearean characters, for example, into lawful and illicit loves - Hamlet is his wife, but Cordelia, Lady Macbeth, Desdemona and John Falstaff are mistresses "whom I maintain publicly with mink coats, smart cars and rubies from Bulgari".

Lampedusa never dreamed of publishing these notes, referring to one particular section as "an endless abomination". He even threatened to burn the whole lot - what a good thing for the history of literature that he did not.