Price writes like a vassal smitten with his princely protagonist and the era in which he lived. The effects are pleasantly intoxicating, like drinking an insinuating bottle of Sicilian red. Some of the Palermo street scenes come across as generic – alleys chugging with Vespas and vendors – but the novel is laden with fruits.
The Leopard, this book’s progenitor, has long been recognised as a classic of 20th-century literature. A novel that took a lifetime to write, it is not the sort of polished text a professional novelist turns out every few years. At the very least, Price has created a tributary that leads back to the river.
The Leopard is one of the great European novels of the 20th century. It was the only significant work by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the last in a long line of Italian aristocrats. In Lampedusa (Picador £14.99), the Canadian novelist Steven Price has meticulously recreated the author’s last two years, as he struggles against melancholy and ill-health to finish his masterpiece. Acutely aware that he is a relic of a world destroyed by two wars, Lampedusa yearns to leave some kind of artistic legacy.
Perhaps occasionally the poetry strives a little too far, as when Price compares a Palermitan sky to “the pale blue of a Tintoretto sea”. Did the great Venetian (who never saw a stretch of water larger than the lagoon at the end of his canal) paint many seas, except for a dark and turbulent Galilee (with Christ gesturing to his disciples) and a turgid brown space for fish to swim in the “Creation of the Animals”? Yet this is a petty cavil. Lampedusa is a beautiful novel, lyrical and wise. Reading it made me feel both melancholy and uplifted, as working on the biography did those many years ago. How could one not feel desperately sad when reflecting on a man who became a writer only when he was dying and who died in 1957 thinking he was a failure — a year before the world recognised that he had written one of its great novels?