Diminished expectations for ‘Professor and Siren’

“The Professor and the Siren” by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, translated by Stephen Twilley.

New York Review of Books, 2014. $12.95.

Last scion of a noble Sicilian family, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957) pondered for years writing a novel about the impact of the Risorgimento (the unification of Italy) on his native island.

When he finally began, he was already dying from lung cancer and did not live to see “Il Gattopardo” / “The Leopard” (1958) hailed as a masterpiece and turned into an unforgettable film (1963) by Luchino Visconti starring Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale.

During his lifetime, Lampedusa was better known for his perceptive literary criticism, but he did write a few pieces of short fiction. As in “The Leopard,” they reveal a dark cynicism, solitary and pessimistic. Three of them, “The Professor and the Siren,” “Joy and the Law” and “The Blind Kittens,” are newly translated in this brief paperbound volume.

Expect the worst: “If Sicily remains as it was in my time, I imagine nothing good ever happens there. Nothing has for the past three thousand years”; “... the fact of violence, when unpunished, was at the time considered estimable, the halos of Sicilian saints being bloody.”

Women have a fugitive attraction: “Her voluptuous chin. . . and eyes experienced in conjugal passion disappeared into a bloom of lard”; “Maria had once been pretty ... [but] the incessant scanning of a horizon filled with fog and reefs had extinguished the brilliance of her eyes.”

Young men are licentious: “... this is the theatre of your vile exploits, ... your sort are always the same, slaves to your decadence, to your putrescence.”

Old men grow dull and feeble: “[The café] was a sort of Hades filled with the wan shades of lieutenant colonels, magistrates, and retired professors.”

The only salvation is a return to the ancient mysteries of the Classical Age.

A famous Hellenist, professor, now senator, Rosario La Ciura, tells of his encounter, 50 years earlier, with a siren from the sea, Lighea, daughter of the muse Calliope, “a beast and at the same time an Immortal,” with whom he “enjoyed the highest form of spiritual pleasure along with the greatest physical gratification.” Now in his old age, he will not resist the call to join her in the dark waters.

Lampedusa’s melancholy suits an age of diminished expectations.