You could count the number of great conservative novels from postwar western Europe on the fingers of one battle-mutilated hand. Even those books that aspire to laud the dignity and order of a lost hierarchy and tradition – such as Waugh's Brideshead Revisited – do so in the acute awareness that the gods have died and the graces fled. But no work comes closer to the real thing than The Leopard, that wondrous time-capsule of irony, nostalgia and regret from 19th-century Sicily, created in the 1950s by Giuseppe Tomasi, Duke of Palma and Prince of Lampedusa. Fittingly, his fellow-aristocrat, Visconti, turned the novel into one of the most achingly beautiful films ever shot.
The Prince of Lampedusa led an erratic and neurotic life before, approaching 60, he began his masterpiece. It included a spell of wide-eyed European travels from 1925 to 1930. Confusingly arranged, this selection of his letters home can test the reader's patience. Yet it gathers much brilliantly atmospheric writing from the future novelist, who embellishes as much as he reports. Most of the letters are crafted for the eyes of his cousins Casimiro and Lucio Piccolo, fellow habitués of the elite "Bellini Club" in Palermo. Expect, and discount, a fair amount of upper-crust banter, casual prejudice and cultish in-jokes, along with a more intriguing shared obsession (scantily glossed) with gay scandals.
Unsurprisingly, the Prince falls hopelessly in love with Olde England. Bewitched by the "honey-sweet hive" of London, with its hushed Pall Mall clubs, glittering embassy soirées (his uncle was Italian ambassador) and lordly bobbies, he then devises his own route through an ideal country of "venerable cathedral cities" and "peaceful seats of learning".
No industrial smog will blot this landscape: "divine" Ely, Lincoln, York, Stratford; days of "ecstasy" in Oxford. More unusually for an Italian (well, nearly), Lampedusa thrills not only to sights but tastes: Cheshire cheese "rosy as onyx", Stilton "green as aquamarine", and "thick slices of ham" from "the heraldic loins of the illustrious hogs of Yorkshire". Yet he tempers his heritage-trail swoon with humour: best of all, a running sketch about valuing a Sèvres tea service at the Wallace Collection.
In stark contrast to this Anglophile dreamland stands Weimar Berlin: the other real highlight. In England, he wallows in a picturesque past; in Germany, he collides with a sinister future. Hard-edged Berlin in 1930, with its fresh brands of "suffering and unease", leads Lampedusa to reflect that "no city... is more clearly, more cruelly, a metropolis."
Here nothing is sacred, everything for sale. In smart cafés rich old gents send notes via the waiter to "overly elegant... lads" before departing in their company. Within ten years, the aghast prince predicts, this people with its "desire for the absolute" will "send every nation a note, by means of the waiter". Given the eventual size of that bloody bill, Lampedusa's devotion to the stained glass of York Minster, the rhododendrons of the Surrey Hills, or the tang of ripe Stilton, glows rosily in hindsight.Reuse content