Posts Tagged ‘Dilettante’

A few years back, the Dilettante had the real pleasure of ten or so days driving around Sicily, the setting of The Leopard.  It was the best travel experience I’ve had.  If anyone ever has the chance of going to Sicily: go; the mix of history and cultures – Greek, Roman, Moorish, Byzantine and so on – is incredible and the highlights are too numerous to mention.  Of course, as it is anywhere in Italy, one highlight is the food.  Food features constantly in The Leopard, and like his feasts, Tomasi’s sumptuous language is good enough to eat.

Set against the backdrop of Sicily’s ‘fall’ into the hands of the new kingdom of Italy, The Leopard deals with a major moment of change in Sicilian history.  It ponders large themes, such as the decay of the nobility and its loss of power, the rise of the middle class’s new wealth, the more general pitfalls of greed and decadence, and the question of how to come to terms with great change – does one resist or adapt?  There is an all-pervading sense of decay and death throughout the book; even the feasts echo the sense of decadence as the characters devour what remains of their past.  There are some wonderful lines that perfectly capture the change that is forced upon the Prince of Salina, Don Fabrizio: the Leopard.  His enigmatic nephew, Tancredi, is off to fight with Garibaldi’s invaders and states, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

The Leopard is forced to face up to his changing circumstances when the family travels to his summer Palace, Donnafugata, where the local mayor, Don Calogero Sedàra, a wily, tasteless upstart, has amassed a wealth that rivals the Prince’s.  However, it is his daughter, the beautiful Angelica, who captures the eye of everyone, including Tancredi.  They fall in love and are married; the two families are thus fused, but not before the Prince is forced to outline to Sedàra that his nephew, whilst of a noble name, is poor, for the Prince’s ever dwindling wealth will go to his daughters.  He can only marvel at the dowry Angelica’s father endows the pair, for his wealth is far greater than the Prince had first imagined.  The Prince now must spend time with Don Calogero and notices his growing affection for a man that should repel him.  He sees the skills with which the man has built his wealth and admires him, including his move to ‘buy’ the family an ‘old name’, that is, to buy themselves a noble past.

It is at Donnafugata where Angelica is presented to the Prince and Princess at one the dinners in all of literature…

… the aspect of those monumental dishes of macaroni … worthy of the quivers of admiration they evoked.  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.

Yum!  The food is so enticing the priest makes a sign of the cross, then “plunged in head first without saying a word”!

The Leopard’s impassioned rejection of an offer of a Senate seat given by an emissary of the newly declared Italian state, and his description of the character of Sicily is eloquent and powerful.  In his rejection he comes to see that the man who should be offered the position is Sedàra, and he counsels the emissary thus.  The Leopard finds himself “swung between the old world and the new” – the choice of the word ‘swung’ is perfect, aping the death throes of a man in his last days, of a time that is passing.  He is brutal when analysing Sicilians themselves, saying they have no want to improve themselves and only wish for sleep: “Sleep is what most Sicilians want, and they will always hate anyone who tries to wake them, even in order to bring them the most wonderful of gifts…”(!).  And the reason for not wanting to improve themselves?  “… for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery…”.

In response to the emissary’s final claim that “This state of things won’t last; our lively new modern administration will change it all”, Don Fabrizio sums up the destiny of himself and those who rule after him: “All this shouldn’t last; but it will, always; the human ‘always’ of course, a century, two centuries … and after that it will be different but worse.  We were the Leopards and Lions; those who take our place will be little jackals, hyenas; and the whole lot of us, Leopards, jackals and sheep, we’ll all go on thinking we’re the salt of the earth.”  Just as things may change, other elements of life and history will always be repeated.

The themes of avarice, gluttony, history’s passing, and death, all come to the fore in the wonderful, brief chapter entitled A Ball.  It provides a microcosm of the entire novel.  Despite the joyous occasion, the chapter is book-ended by images of death, and death is a constant presence.  On the way to the Palazzo Ponteleone the family’s carriage is stoped as they are passed by a “priest bearing … the Last Sacraments; in one of those barred houses someone was in a death agony.”  At the splendour of the ball the Prince nods in approval at the jewel-like rooms, but is overcome by a loathing for the rise of Don Calogero and his ilk, with their “tenacious greed and avarice”, whose prominence looms over the nobles’ palaces like death.  He becomes melancholic knowing that everyone at the ball, even the young who are dancing up a storm, will eventually die, but then finds compassion for them, “for how could one inveigh against those sure to die?”  Retiring to the library for a rest, he examines a painting entitled, Death of the Just Man, before being rescued by Tancredi and Angelica, with Tancredi prophetically asking, “Are you paying court to death?”   After a dance with Angelica, the Prince then surveys the spread of food which is, of course, amazing.  There are “waxy chaud-froids of veal … turkeys gilded by the ovens’ heat, rosy foie-gras under gelatine armour, boned woodcocks reclining on amber toast decorated with their own chopped guts, dawn-tinted galantine, and a dozen other cruel, coloured delights.”  The desert tray is similarly blessed.  At six in the morning, as things draw to a welcome close, the family leaves, but the Prince decides to walk home for ‘some fresh air’.  He finds solace in seeing Venus still ablaze just after he is passed by an open wagon “Stacked with bulls killed shortly before at the slaughter-house”.  The Prince sighs and wonders when Venus would “decide to give him an appointment less ephemeral”.

Tancredi was right, the Prince is indeed courting death, and though it soon arrives ‘for an elopement’ for us readers in the next chapter, a good twenty years have passed since the ball; it is now 1883.  Don Fabrizio has given us such an entrancing sojourn into the world of the nobility, that when he realises his death will mean the end of the Salinas, one cannot help but be moved and wish there was some other possible end.  But just as the Prince noted at the ball, death comes to us all, and soon the tinkle of the Last Sacraments are heard coming up the stairs and into his room.  After the priest leaves, as Tancredi holds his hands and talks of political manoeuvres going on elsewhere, the Prince is instead totting up a balance sheet of his life, “trying to sort out of the immense ash-heap of liabilities the golden flecks of happy moments.”  This is no time to calculate incorrectly, and he concludes that, “I’m seventy-three years old, and all in all I may have live, really lived, a total of two … three at the most.”  It is a scene of impeccable strength and imagery, made complete when a young lady he saw just the day before at the train station in a brown travelling dress, whose face has a “sly charm”, comes into the room where all his family have gathered, his doctor too, this beautiful representation of Death elbowing her way into the room, come to claim her Prince, the Leopard, last of the Salinas.

Said to live the life of a ‘literary dilettante’ – and thus clearly a kindred spirit of mine! – Tomasi was perhaps the only person who could have written The Leopard, being the last in line of minor Sicilian princes, and the events and characters depicted mirror both his own experience and that of his grandfather.  In letters to his family before his death – reproduced in the Forward of this edition – Tomasi concluded after his after his original thought of setting the novel in a 24-hour period in the life of his grandfather on the day Garibaldi landed at Marsala: “I can’t do a Ulysses”.  Instead, he’s achieved something just as great (and far more accessible!) in The Leopard.  Says Hartley on the back cover: “Perhaps the greatest book of the [20th] century”.  That’s a big call, and a debate I’m perhaps not equipped for, but it is a sumptuous, wonderful, defining book, and deserves its reputation and stature as ‘one of the greats’.  Unfortunately for Tomasi, he died in 1957 before it was accepted for publication (in 1958); he had left specific instructions for his family to continue to seek a publisher – and we are grateful that he, and they, did so.

For a further review, see the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club’s excellent panel discussion on The Leopard.

Lastly, if you’re ever in Taormina on Sicily’s east coast and you enjoy great gelato, then make a pilgrimage to the aptly named Gelatomania. It’s a real pleasure palace for those of us with a sweet-tooth; I promise you’ll be going back for seconds!  If you can’t make it that far, feast instead on The Leopard!

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Vintage Classics

ISBN: 9780099512158

230 pages (including Appendix, not including the 22-page Foreword)


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I’m a bit partial to magical realism and so relished the chance of tackling Japanese author Haruki Murakami.  In the case of Kafka on the Shore Murakami fuses magical realism together with fantasy, then adds a healthy dose of Kafkaesque surrealism, dashes of sex, horror, and well, talking cats, and characters in the form of Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders!  Welcome to the strange and mysterious world of Haruki Murakami.  For those who dislike magical realism and fear they might struggle with Murakami don’t give up – the fantasy quest, classical framework – in the form of Oedipus Rex – and thriller-style page-turning will keep most readers enthralled for the duration.  Only at the end will some of us wonder: what the hell just happened?  Cast firmly as a postmodernist, Murakami refreshingly states: “To tell the truth, I don’t really have a firm grasp of what’s meant by postmodernism, but I do have the sense that what I’m trying to do is slightly different. … I want to be a writer who tells stories unlike other writers.”  On that count most would say Murakami succeeds with some ease though he is of course following in the footsteps of Sophocles and Franz Kafka.  The book won the World Fantasy prize in 2006 and the Franz Kafka Memorial Prize, also in 2006.  

Kafka on the Shore commences by tracing two separate strands that eventually tie together.  We have the journey of Kafka Tamura, 15, who runs away from home to escape his father and finds himself in the Takamatsu prefecture, revelling in his freedom, narrating his adventure in the first person.  For many years he has held in his mind a photo of the private Nomura Library that is open to the public, a place he’d always wanted to visit since, and there he travels, building friendships with a girl on the overnight bus, and the helpful library assistant, Oshima.  But Kafka, as his name suggests, is no ordinary boy.  We soon discover that Kafka is a name he has chosen to hide his real identity.  We discover too, that he is cursed, although we don’t know how, and that he has a strange friend named Crow – or is it an alter-ego or some other personality? – who appears throughout to give Kafka advice.  The omen is very mysterious; Kafka refers to it casually, as if it doesn’t exist, for example: “I explain everything to her, from the time I left home.  I leave out the omen part, though.  That, I know, I can’t tell just anyone.”  You would think that such a dark omen would be one of the first things Kafka has to say about himself in the narrative, but Murakami deliberately obfuscates; it is all part of the ‘hook’ to keep our interest piqued.  This off-handedness is soon dusted off however, for as time passes the omen takes on more substance.   

We are also introduced at the start to a very strange event, in the middle of WWII, where a group of school children, out to pick mushrooms in the hills of rural Japan, simultaneously collapse into unconsciousness.  The military investigate, fearing a chemical weapon, but there is no explanation.  Of the sixteen children, only one does not regain consciousness and is whisked away to hospital.  His name is Nakata.  We then move to the present day where the strange Mr Nakata, cat-whisperer and storm-predictor, who is not very bright after his ‘childhood fever’ and who talks about himself in the third person, finds lost cats for an bit of extra money by interviewing other cats.  (This explains the black cat on the otherwise plain cover of the book).  Nakata has another problem – his shadow is faint, and after a while he realises he wants the other half back.  It seems that wherever he has been in this unconscious state, he has left half of himself behind.    

Meanwhile Oshima takes Kafka under his wing and soon Kafka is offered not just a job at the library but is allowed to live in a guest room adjacent to the library itself.  The way it is offered to him is odd though, for Oshima – who is not quite what ‘he’ seems – tells him he can become part of the library.  The word part is used several times as if to underscore some form of occult fusion about to take place.  Miss Saeki – the guide of the Nomura Foundation that runs the library – had released a single in the 1970’s and it was a smash-hit.  It’s name? Kafka on the Shore.  Not only that, but the room that Kafka stays in was the room of Saeki’s one and only love – her other half, a Nomura family member, killed when he was twenty.  Other connections become apparent too.  The mad Johnnie Walker turns out to be Kafka’s father, a world-renowned sculptor, and it is clear why Kafka would want to run away from such a beast.

All sorts of strange events take place.  Fish and leeches fall from the sky, seemingly following Nakata as he decides he must leave Tokyo and begin a quest of his own, helped by a truck driver named Hoshino.  Meanwhile, Kafka finds himself unconscious one evening, covered in blood, but unaware of how he came to be where he woke up and whose blood it is.  Pretty soon, we find Kafka playing Miss Saeki’s song and the lyrics – naturally bordering on the surreal – take on a special significance, including the ‘entrance stone’, gateway it seems to another realm and the archetypal fantasy device.  It seems Miss Saeki has found this entrance stone.   What’s more, Mr Nakata has determined after travelling from Tokyo toward Takamatsu – where Kafka is hiding out – that he too must find the entrance stone.  

A loop, where time folds in on itself and repeats seems to be at play.  But not just time, places too – there seems a parallel existence that people can come from and go to.  It is a place for lovers it seems, and as such, is a place of pain as much as pleasure.  But when Hoshino has an encounter with a black cat, we sense the loop begin afresh.  And so on one level we have a surreal fantasy quest – and it’s one wild and bizarre ride.  But on another, parallel level, we have Kafka living out the Oedipal story. 

Murakami dusts little wisdoms and philosophical ‘lessons’ into his writing like icing sugar.  There is Oshima’s advice to Kafka, when telling him of Plato’s The Banquet describes Aristophanes and his legend of how there are three types of people, and how God took a knife and cut everyone in half, so that they would have to spend their lives trying to find their other half.  The upshot is: “it’s really hard for people to live their lives alone.”  We have Mr Otsuka, a cat, talking to Nakata: “There are all sorts of cats – just as there’re all sorts of people.”  

And Yeats: “In dreams begin responsibility”. 

And Goethe: “Everything’s a metaphor.”

And Sophocles and TS Eliot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Berlioz – the list goes on, including a prostitute – pimped by Colonel Sanders no less – who quotes from French philosopher Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory, as well as Hegel.   In some ways, the educational aspect of all these historical and philosophical references reminded me a little bit of Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. 

For me, one of the most interesting journeys was that of Hoshino – the young man who helps Nakata on his wandering quest.  His transformation from self-absorbed truck driver without an interest in books or music to the thoughtful man he becomes is convincing and wonderful.  At the end this process he says to himself: “I think that whenever something happens in the future I’ll always wonder: ‘What would Mr Nakata say about this? What would Mr Nakata do?’” 

In order to give you some idea of how bizarre the events are: the Japanese publishers set up a website for readers to post questions about the book.  Over the course of three months, over 8,000 questions were posted and Murakami personally responded to over 1,200!  On his English website.  Murakami states that the key to understanding the novel lies in reading it more than once:

Kafka on the Shore contains several riddles, but there aren’t any solutions provided. Instead, several of these riddles combine, and through their interaction the possibility of a solution takes shape. And the form this solution takes will be different for each reader. To put it another way, the riddles function as part of the solution. It’s hard to explain, but that’s the kind of novel I set out to write.   

Of the song Kafka on the Shore, Murakami says that even he’s unsure what the lyrics mean(!).  (Music is a very important part of many of Murakami’s novels; for him, music is “an indispensable part of my life.”  Kafka on the Shore is rife with musical references: Schubert, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, The Beatles, Prince, Radiohead, and so on).  I think the mysterious events are best summed up in one character’s advice to Kafka at the end: “Better not try to explain it, even to yourself.”(!)

Symbols – such as the metronome, crow, labyrinth, and so on – are repeated as if some patterned underbelly of answers ties everything together.  But I’m not sure whether there is an answer.  The key question of why Kafka’s mother abandoned him as a four-year-old boy is not really answered.  There is the journey to forgiveness, but mostly, it seems to me, the story is about courage – the courage to overcome the burden of the past, no matter how cursed one might be. 

I don’t know if it’s a spooky coincidence or something more sinister – or indeed playful – at work, but as I finished reading Kafka I brought up the internet and on the first page I browsed there was an advertisement for … Johnnie Walker!! 

Oh, and for what it’s worth, dilettante is used by none other than Johnnie Walker when he says: “I’m not just some dilettante with time on his hands.”  Any book that uses a word that’s close to my heart deserves praise in The Dilettante’s humble opinion, although I confess to being rather concerned that Johnnie Walker has let the proverbial talking cat out of the bag in describing me perfectly: a dilettante with too much time on his hands!    

I’ll leave the last word to Murakami:

Every one of us is losing something precious to us … Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again.  That’s part of what it means to be alive.  But inside our heads – at least that’s where I imagine it – there’s a little room where we store those memories.  A room like the stacks in this library.  And to understand the workings of our heart we have to keep on making new reference cards.  We have to dust things off every once in a while, let in fresh air, change the water in the flower vases.  In other words, you’ll live for ever in your own private library.

What a nice life that would be!

The Dilettante’s Rating: 4.5/5

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami


ISBN: 9780099458326

505 pages

Source: Personal Library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.

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