Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Art of Nostalgia: Di Lampedusa and Tanizaki

The Leopard (Il Gatttopardo)by Guiseppe di Lampedusa and The Makioka Sisters (細雪 Sasameyuki)by Junichiro Tanizaki

Oh call back yesterday…bid time return.
                                                                 William Shakespeare, Richard II, 3.2

It has been said that nostalgia is memory with the pain removed. If that is true, it is only true in part, for real nostalgia is nothing if not painful, involving as it does the haunting, sometimes exquisite disjunction between the world one knows and the world beating daily at one’s door. In fact nostalgia—a catch-all term coined by medical student Johannes Hofer in 1668 to describe the anxiety disorders displayed by Swiss mercenaries far from home—is a Greek compound comprised of νόστος, meaning ‘return home’ and λγος, meaning ‘pain’. While it is clear that nostalgia can be abused, manipulated for profit or nurtured jealously as a hedge against change, what seems less clear, what is perhaps more difficult to grasp, is that we—as people, cultures, religions, and nations—would be helpless without it.

At its best, and for all its obvious conceit, nostalgia is one of the essential means by which we, as individuals, reckon with our own mortality—with the weakening of our eyes and limbs, with the growth of our children, with the fading of hope and love. It is how we shore up and safeguard our position in a world now promiscuous with change, a sort of homing instinct for the heart and mind, so that in the end nostalgia is less about persuading others that life was better in the past (even if it was)—that children had manners, that everyone pulled his own weight—than about consoling oneself in times of struggle and pain. For nostalgia, like death itself, is an expressly lonely, deeply personal thing, best savored in private or in the dusty, shuttered worlds of novels, poems, and plays. I myself have always had a weakness for works of loss and remembrance; deeply sentimental, I have always had “eyes in the back of my head.” 

 “This is one of the great lonely books,” wrote E.M. Forster in an early review of Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard. I think I know what he meant, for I have returned to this novel again and again over the past twenty years, often when I’m feeling out of sorts with the world, its particular sadness as fine, as affecting as any sadness I know.

First published by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore in 1958, one year after the author’s death in Rome from lung cancer, the novel centers upon Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, one of the last scions of a decadent Sicilian aristocracy threatened by the forces of democracy and revolution known as the Risorgimento (Italian: “Rising Again”). Beginning in the year 1860, as Garibaldi and his Red Shirts (known as the “Piedmontese” or, more derisively, the “Garibaldeschi”), are laying siege to Palermo, the story of Prince Fabrizio—an elegy at heart—describes, in elegant, sometimes sumptuous detail, the passing of a corrupt, if exquisitely cultured man and his age.

With the unification of Italy in 1861, under King Victor Emmanuel II, the eight autonomous states by which the peninsula was then divided (including the Bourbon states of Naples and Sicily called the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) were united as one, much to the outrage and consternation of the Pope and his conservative allies. Often lauded as a triumph of liberalism, as propagated by the writings of philosopher Benedetto Croce, the Risorgimento is understood by others today—the unification of Italy notwithstanding—as an aristocratic and bourgeois revolution that failed.  

Even to Don Fabrizio, whose own future and that of the illustrious House of Salinas is gravely imperiled by the democratic militancy of Garibaldi and Mazzini, it is plain that, for all of the revolution’s smoke and fire, for all its egalitarian rhetoric, nothing for the peasants of Sicily will change. “Much would happen,” he reflects, near the start of the novel, in thinking about his beloved if wayward nephew, Tancredi, and about the rebels gathering force in the hills around Palermo, “but all would be playacting; a noisy, romantic play with a few spots of blood on the comic costumes…”  Indeed, while predictably reactionary in his politics and values, the Prince is as deeply scored by the fatalism of that parched and subject land as any goatherd, nursemaid, or priest. “Between the pride and intellectuality of his mother and the sensuality and irresponsibility of his father, poor Prince Fabrizio lived in perpetual discontent under his Jovelike frown, watching the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance without ever making, still less wanting to make, any move toward saving it.”

It is partly this, the Prince’s quiet resignation to the change then sweeping over the peninsula—his fine and melancholy wisdom, his love of the cosmos, his long and philosophical view of life—that makes him such an appealing character. Effete, surely, the occasional tyrant and womanizer, no doubt, he, like a priest, like a poet, redeems himself as a man and character by the gentle grandeur of his vision, his eyes (with the aid of his precious telescopes) searching the heavens for solace each night, patiently charting the movements of the stars.

“Anyone with a taste for traditional architecture must agree that the Japanese toilet is perfect,” writes novelist Junichiro Tanizaki in his lovely, sometimes surprising 1933 meditation on traditional Japanese arts and architecture, In Praise of Shadows. On the matter of toilets he waxes poetic: “…the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose. It always stands apart from the main building, at the end of a corridor, in a grove fragrant with leaves and moss… there one can listen with such a sense of intimacy to the raindrops falling from the eaves and trees, seeping into the earth as they wash over the base of a stone lantern and freshen the moss and the stepping stones… the toilet is the perfect place to listen to the chirping  of insects or the songs of the birds, to view the moon, or to enjoy any of those poignant moments that mark the change of the seasons.” This, to anyone familiar with the author, is classic Tanizaki, embracing as it does a somber affection for traditions past, an aesthetic—according to translator, Thomas J. Harper—not of a celebrant but a mourner. For Tanizaki, much of what he describes in this short book, and in his many novels that followed, “had either perished or was preserved, fossil-like, in surroundings that betrayed its true beauty.”

The Makioka Sisters, Tanizaki’s longest novel, begun in serial form in 1943 and not completed until 1948, tells the poignant, exquisitely detailed story of the aristocratic Makioka sisters and their struggle to preserve their dignity and traditions in the face of rampant modernization and war.

Set in the mercantile city of Osaka in the years just prior to World War II, a period of intense militarism and international aggression under Shōwa emperor, Hirohito, the novel traces, with nearly seismographic precision, the quakes and tremors of this new Japan. It is a cultural transformation writ small within the once-great Makioka family itself, with the eldest sisters, Tsuruko and Sachiko, representing the subtle forms and aesthetic of old Japan and the youngest, Taeko, with her doll-making business, her boyfriends, and her smart Western clothes, the foreign and flagrant and new. Focused primarily upon securing a suitable marriage for the third sister, the humble Yukiko, this fine and patient novel retails the daily lives of these four women and the painful compromises they are forced to make. Originally entitled Sasameyuki, meaning “lightly falling snow,” it is a story of great beauty that explores the timeless Japanese obsession with the transience and fragility of life.

As is the case with most great fiction, the illusion of eavesdropping on the action of these kindred novels is, for readers, the key to their success, indeed instrumental to the triumph of these wistful, nostalgic tales. For in both cases, and for all of their more public scenes, what we as readers are ultimately made witness to is the private grief of the authors themselves, through the characters, the proxies, they’ve made. 

Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa was born 23rd December 1896 in Palermo, from an aristocratic family (of the Princes of Lampedusa, Dukes of Palma and Montechiaro). At the end of 1954, he began writing  Il Garropardo; in June of the following year, he interrupted the novel in order to concentrate on another work Places of my Infancy: A Memory, only to take the novel up again in November. Later, he was to work on other books (Joy and Law, The Siren, the first chapter of his new novel The Blind Kittens): but in April 1957 he was diagnosed as having a tumour on his right lung, a condition that led to his death on 23 July of the same year (his body was buried 28th July in the family burial ground in the Capuchin brothers' cemetery). Rejected for publication by Mondadori, The Leopard was finally published in 1958 by Feltrinelli, thanks to the active interest and determination of Giorgio Bassani. Instantly a huge success, the book won the Strega Prize in 1959. (Italica)

Junichiro Tanizaki was born in Tokyo in 1886 and lived there until the earthquake of 1923, when he moved to the Kyoto-Osaka region, the scene of his novel The Makioka Sisters (1943-48). Among his works are Naomi (1924), Some Prefer Nettles (1928), Quicksand (1930), Arrowroot (1931), A Portrait of Shunkin (1933), The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi (1935), modern versions of The Tale of Genji (1941, 1954, and 1965), Captain Shigemoto's Mother (1949), The Key (1956), and Diary of a Mad Old Man (1961). By 1930 he had gained such renown that an edition of his complete works was published, and he was awarded Japan's Imperial Prize in Literature in 1949. Tanizaki died in 1965. (Random House)

Peter Adam Nash

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