Ottawa Writers Fest: Steven Price is wrapped the skin of The Leopard

Steven Price will be at the Ottawa Writers Festival on Oct. 26. Photo: Photo credit: Chad Hipolito

When Steven Price was a university student studying literature and thinking about making a living as a writer he was surrounded by novels — hip deep in them likely. But one stood out and it just wouldn’t let go of his imagination.

The book was The Leopard. It was the only published novel of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Tragically, Lampedusa never got to hold a copy in his hands because he died before it was released to the world.

The book is, frankly, a publishing marvel. It is the bestselling novel in Italian history and is considered one of the most important novels in modern Italian literature. It won Italy’s highest award for fiction, the Strega Prize, in 1959. A film has been made of the book as well starring Burt Lancaster.

The Leopard tells the story of the unification or the Risorgimento of Italy led by Giuseppe Garibaldi in the middle of the 19th century. The central figure of the novel is Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, a 19th-century Sicilian nobleman. He is based on Tomasi’s great-grandfather Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi. another hero of Italian unification.

It seems The Leopard’s luck carries on. Price, who has written a compelling, intriguing look at the last years of Lampedusa’s life as he wrestled his novel to completion, is on the shortlist for the Giller Prize for fiction. His last novel, the suspenseful By Gaslight, made the Giller long list. The Giller seems to be a bit of a family affair for Price and his wife Esi Edugyan who won last year for her novel Washington Black. The couple live with their two children in the Victoria area near a place called Metchosin.

“I first came across The Leopard in my early 20s,” he said. “I was an aspiring writer and it was a book that was passed hand to hand by the students in the writing program where I was studying at the time. It was almost like a secret.

“The book amazed me. It was so different from (the CanLit) that I was reading at the time.”

He liked the setting of the novel in the 1860s but even more “it was the structure and the way it played with time. It was so different.

“When I finished it I put it down, but, as a young writer, I didn’t know what to do with what I had just read.”

He came back to it after grad school when he was working on his first book of poetry.

“It was the same book, but it felt very different from the one I had read before. I was noticing different things and taking different things away. Of course, this was because I had changed and the book had changed with me.”

He read it again five years later and it had the same effect.

“I like to think that, to some degree, that’s the definition of a masterpiece. It grows with you and you can always find something new in it.”

The book matters to Price “a lot.” But he only became inspired to write about it a few years ago.

“I was reading just for pleasure a biography of (Lampedusa). There really is very little out there in English on this guy. If he is written about he’s portrayed as someone who didn’t do much with his life, except at the end of his life he sat down and produced a pearl of a novel and then died.”

Price said he was surprised to find, in this biography, that Lampedusa’s life wasn’t boring at all.

“He led an interesting life full of remarkable things surrounded by fascinating and interesting people. When I got to the part when he was writing his novel in the last two years of his life, I remember this curious and growing awareness that I could take the events of those two years and lay them on top of the structure of The Leopard and with great ease you could write a novel structured like The Leopard in which the main character was Lampedusa himself.”

He could see the book and says that’s where his current novel began. The result is almost like a literary Hall of Mirrors.

“The focus of the novel is a character study of a man, an artist and someone who had never before created art but he always had this thing in him.

“If you strip away the 1950s la dolce vita surroundings and the fame of The Leopard, you are left with someone longing to make art, but who has not been able to do it, until one day he just sits down and really gives it a try.”

Price says his novel is “drenched with research.”

The biography, The Last Leopard, was written by an academic named David Gimour. There were also a couple of things written by Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi who is a character in the book and is still alive now. He is Lampedusa’s adopted son. Price met him on his travels to Sicily and all the other places in the book.

Price says he is still in touch with Gioacchino, who gave him a tour of the palazzo where so much of the novel is set.

The facts of the book are true, he said, but “the person I have dreamed up and who is filling in those facts, that’s my version of who Lampedusa might have been.”

Lampedusa was the last of a noble line that dates back to the Middle Ages. That kind of aristocratic tradition is something Canadians aren’t that familiar with.

He was the prince of a small island in the Mediterranean Sea which he never visited. The island of Lampedusa is better known today as a place where asylum seekers and economic migrants often end up on their journey to Europe after being rescued from unsafe boats.

Lampedusa, the man, Price said, was haunted by questions of living up to the legacy of his ancestors, especially the great-grandfather who was the hero of his novel The Leopard. Other ancestors were even sainted by the Catholic Church.

“He understood he had failed his line by not having children and he understood he had disappointed the promise of the Tomasi name by doing nothing extraordinary. Part of that disappointment must have come from the feeling that he could have done something great. I think that’s why he sat down to create this novel at the end of his life.”

Writing a book is a mixture of anxiety and hope, or a kind of faith, Price said.

“It takes a long time. You are sitting at your desk and working every day for to years trying to get a book written. You wouldn’t keep doing it without this inexplicable belief that it would come to completion.”

There are passages in the book that speak about the process of writing.

“When I was writing those passages I was trying to put into words my experience of writing — the degree of surprise that is involved when something is or isn’t working (for example).”

Price says that Lampedusa sat down to write after a cousin (and rival) won a poetry prize for a collection. Lampedusa is said to have said “Knowing I was no greater a fool than he, I sat down to write a book also.” Price believes this was part of the reason why, especially after Lampedusa met a lot of famous writers that he felt were not worthy of respect. Of course, at the same time he had received a diagnosis of advanced emphysema.

In a way, Price said with self-deprecation, Lampedusa offers a “reflection of my own failings as a writer.”

As a matter of fact, Price says, that, rather that dwelling on a specific deep psychological complexity, as a writer he tends to be more concerned about the rhythm of his sentences or the absence of an adjective or using the right verb. In this case the rhythm of the syntax of the novel was “very important to me for the feel of the book. I wanted it to have the feel of a first person ruminative.”

He has taken what he learned on this book and is now hard at another novel.

In town: Steven Price will be in Christ Church Cathedral during the the Ottawa Writers Festival on Oct. 26 at 6 p.m. on a panel with Jennifer Robson. Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.