Monday, July 21, 2008

Sicily As It Was

#93 The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

How'd you feel if you were kicked around for eternity?

I am Sicilian, yet I really do no know much about my heritage. Growing up, for whatever reason, I embraced and immersed myself more with the Irish half. I didn’t really have anything against the Italian in me, but it never really appealed as much. Possibly it was the language gap or the infatuation with style that held me back. In fact, until recently I didn’t even know that I was Sicilian (the other 25 percent is Neapolitan -- Naples, from what I hear, is pretty gross).

After graduating from high school, I traveled to Ireland. The love for the Emerald Isle grew, as did the indifference towards my Mediterranean roots. Following my sisters’ subsequent high school completion, they journeyed to Italy. Maybe that’s why they had a closer connection to my other homeland.

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa made me appreciate my father’s background a lot more. It also gave me a little justification -- and relief -- for not knowing much about the culture: the real Sicilian culture.

Lampedusa’s surprisingly insightful and captivating novel on the demise of Sicilian nobility made me realize that I’ll never be able to know anything about one of homelands without visiting it. The ancient, backwards island has been kicked by the boot of the modern society, in addition to the geographic Italian peninsula, for hundreds of years. The French, Romans, Turks and probably the Mongolians at one point all colonized the island, ravaged it of natural resources and individual sovereignty, and imposed their respective tradition on the Sicilians. Oddly, a main point by The Leopard's protagonist, is that the Sicilians relish their sufferings and hardships.

As I’ve seen in many of the stories on this literary list, the setting is important. This would only be natural with many great works focusing on revolutions (social or otherwise), great trends or social injustices centered in a particular place and time. However, only half of a setting’s characteristics are important: the place, not the time. The Leopard itself occurs the period before, during and after the Red Coats act of uniting Italy under the leadership of Victor Emmanuel. Revolutionary leader Garribaldi’s visage hovers above the novel’s characters as he transforms from liberating demagogue to corrupt demi-goat over a 25-year span. The point Lampedusa makes, though, is that despite revolution, Sicily remains the same. Day-to-day actions of the islanders are not altered. A lethargic, blasé approach to life avoids political affiliation. Resistance to change and adherence to past and tradition rule the Sicilian mindset.

That past tradition is dying away with the Leopard himself, though. I suppose the time does matter, but not as much as one would think. The crux of the story deals with Don Fabrizio Salina's (the leopard is on his family crest) life. It starts during his middle age, the hight of his comfort. He is rich, powerful and will never have to worry about losing any his prestige. Yet, he does; not so much for himself, but about the future. He feels he is the last in a line of great Salina nobility, and he's accurate. Like in many societies, the nobles probably could have survived, but they, through inaction, do not move, do not alter the status quo. And while their loss of power is gradual, it is noticeable. At one point in the novel, it is evident that a character of non-noble has more money than him, making Don Fabrizio only the second richest person in Sicily. But that is symbolic in it of itself. Fifty years prior, it would be impossible for someone to rise up and secure funds. The nobility was the state. For the Leopard, he is now only a part of the state.

Later, Salina is offered a chance to serve in the newly established Sicilian senate. He scoffs at the idea, though. His way of dealing with problems is throwing money at it, not by establishing social programs or making education reform. Why would he demean himself by consorting with the common man? If Salina had wanted his family to prosper in the future, he could have begun a long line of Salina senators. Instead, his resistance ensured their death sentence.

But enough of that silly stuff. Let's talk about the grungy, dirty sex. Well, sort of. A significant portion of the novel dealt with fiery passions and lust. Early on, Don Fabrizio leaves his comfortable home for an evening with a whore. A lengthy discussion ensues detailing his love for his wife, but how their passions has been distinguished. Their sex life is over. So he has a chippy on the side. The author made it seem as this wasn't uncommon in 19th century Italy. Later, his nephew and his fiancée romp around the mansion doing everything but the nasty. They don't want to ruin the supposed marital bliss and feel the deprivation will make their sex life better. He heavily foreshadows that their life during marriage will be anything but happy and even their sex life will suck. Believe want you want about sex before marriage, but I thought it was bold for the time period for Lampedusa to suggest such improprieities against marriage.

Great book, though. Easy read and relatively short. If you have any Italian blood look up this masterpiece centered around the new nation-state of Italy.


(#92) Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is next. Possibly by a guest blogger.

Monday, July 7, 2008

To Catch a Salinger...

# 94 The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Larry David is Holden Caulfield all grown up.

One’s perspective on a literary work is ever-evolving. To read a novel at 12 is monumentally different than at 15. Rendering an opinion at 21 yields an even fresher outlook that makes your previous readings elementary. However, no matter what age, when one reads a work for a third time, it is quite natural for more in-depth conclusions to be drawn.

This description describes my third stab at J.D. Salinger's novel, The Catcher in the Rye. Recommended to me by my grandfather at an early age, I became enamored with the piece. Re-reading it again in high school, the infatuation continued. Checking Facebook recently, it appeared that I would not be alone in my fondness for the novel.

That reason is exactly why I decided to tread very carefully for my third read through and subsequent review. I feel in a lot of ways that the books in Harry Potter series are the only novels read more by America's youth -- and possibly by the greater population as whole -- than The Catcher in the Rye. People don't like to read criticisms on things they cherish. (Check out Left of the Dial's review and comments for the recent Pattern is Movement album if you don't believe me.)

All that said, I still liked the story of Holden Caulfield's odyssey. A lot. But in many different ways than I did when I was 12.

One aspect the novel excels in is Salinger's masterful characterization of a teenager. Caulfield's language in narration accurately portrays how dumb teenagers really are, drastic their emotions can change in a second and -- despite claims to moral superiority -- hypercritical teenagers can be.

His constant inclusion of the word "ironical" was comical and something I overlooked as a child (possibly because at the time I thought it was a word). Other great words in his vernacular that he overused the shit out of include: "lousy," "terrific," "bastads," "flit," " sexy stuff," "pervy" and, of course, "phony." This really illustrates the limited vocabulary possessed by Caulfield and teens in general. Salinger's ability to capture this verbal immaturity rounds out Caulfield's character and gives insight to his stunted maturity level, as well.

Caulfield emotionally describes things that are important to him in one instant, than insignificant the next. He's the king of the mood swing. And very slight things set him off. Everything rains on his parade. Judgmental to a fault, he lets others personality aspects affect his emotions and stunts his individual growth. While eating lunch with two nuns, he becomes very upset initially because of the presence of a shabby-looking basket for charity collections. Despite the nuns reassurance to him that they are teachers and weren't collecting money, he dwells on this one detail and can't enjoy what would otherwise be a pleasant lunch. This occurs later when Holden runs into his brother's ex-girlfriend in a bar. Her new boy is an Ivy League chap, which instantly makes him a jerk. Holden leaves just because he's a fancy college boy. In a lot of ways, Holden is like Larry David.

Instead of expounding on Caulfield's hypocrisy (and teens in general), I'll just list a few that bugged me:

--Hates movies, but consistently goes.
--Lashes out at Ackley for standing in his light, later ignores Stradlater's request to move out of his light.
--Cringes at Stradlater's motives as always being sexy, then invasively questions Columbia kid's sex life in a bar.

There's more, but those ones stuck in my mind, weeks later.

Children play an important part in the novel and really give credence to my mother's theory that the phrase "the catcher in the rye" is about parenthood. The only people it seems that Holden can tolerate are children. Whether it be a kid playing in the street, two boys "being yellow" at the Museum of Natural History, a little girl asking for help with her skate key or any instance involving his sister Phoebe or deceased brother Allie, Caulfield only has peace of mind when dealing with children. He greatly wants to protect all those young (as seen in helping those boys in the museum, using the girl's skate key or wiping "Fuck" off the school's wall). He wants to be the catcher in rye making sure they don't fall off that cliff.

It is "ironical," though, because Caulfield himself is just a child -- his maturity level is so stunted that he can't tolerate being around people his own age who care about things unrelated to childhood. In no way can he help kids out; he needs to find his own catcher. He tries in vain to search for one, too. The old teacher at Pencey, Jean Gallagher, Stradlater, Ackley, Sally Hayes, his former English teacher now at NYU, a former student at a previous school, D.B., his sister are all potential catchers. Oddly his parents are the only ones he doesn't actively pursue for help. Sure, Holden is a basket-case, but he really is only looking for a little guidance.

Salinger may be a mystery and I hope sometime we find those manuscripts he's hid away since the 1950s, but his gift of Holden Caulfield to all teenagers (and to those lost in general) is enough of a literary contribution that will live on well past his death. Maybe The Catcher in the Rye itself serves as a self-help book for all those souls out there looking for something to relate with. Maybe that's why it's in everyone's Facebook profiles.

In the very least, it establishes proper etiquette on how not to talk to a pimp.

The next book will be (#93) The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa -- an I-Tall-Yan.