What Aspiring Artists Can Learn From 'The Leopard'

As a long-time admirer of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard and the sumptuous film based on it, I was fascinated to learn its story for the first time in the November 19 Times Literary Supplement. Lampedusa's biographer David Gilmour writes in a review of an edition of letters in translation that after a few early starts:

Lampedusa did not begin writing again until 1955, when he was a sick and elderly-looking man of fifty-eight. Spurred on by Lucio's success, by the encouragement of his wife and by the realization that he was not well (he thought he had emphysema but he was later informed that it was lung cancer), he suddenly became a professional: in the last two and a half years of his life he wrote almost every day, producing two drafts of one novel, the opening chapter of another, two short stories and some chapters on his childhood. He told his wife that he was writing to amuse himself - yet he had also discovered his vocation.

Lucio was a cousin who won a minor literary prize; it was envy that inspired Lampedusa to start what became his great work. As he wrote in a letter to a friend:  "Being mathematically certain that I was no more of a fool [than Lucio], I sat down at my desk and wrote a novel."

If Lampedusa's sumptuous palace in Palermo hadn't been destroyed by an Allied bomb ("made in Pittsburgh," I recall from reading the novel years ago), if his cousin hadn't won his honor, if he hadn't felt time running out (which it was), if a childless marriage in a still-patriarchal society hadn't impelled him to leave a legacy, we would probably have lost a masterpiece.

Yet aspiring artists, and not only novelists, should also pay attention to Lampedusa's years of preparation. He was such a prodigious reader of great literature that his cousins called him "il mostro," the monster. Decades of absorbing other people's use of language was necessary preparation for his own, the deep roots of a late bloomer. The best way to do something original may be to immerse yourself for years in the greatest work of your predecessors. (Think of Cézanne's channeling of Poussin.) And there's another lesson: wealth and privilege, like poverty, can be overcome.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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