The West of Sicily

sicily statue

Last year was crowded with incident, by my standards at least, and that, perhaps, is a reason why this blog has been neglected somewhat.

There are all the usual reasons why nothing has appeared here for some time, but none of them are worth really going into in any detail. Suffice to say things have been written, and submitted, and there have been quite friendly conversations with editors letting me down gently.

The highlight of 2018 was a trip to Sicily, meeting up with a friend during the six months he spent travelling, and driving around the Western part of Sicily for two weeks. My focus here, as always, will be with the literary aspects of this trip. But here is a picture of a beach we went to on the day after my arrival:

sicily beach

The water is incredibly blue, something which isn’t adequately captured in this photo, and it’s all like that, except when it’s simply unbelievably blue, somehow pale and bright at the same time. And swimming in the Mediterranean is something that I’m very glad my mate cajoled me into doing.

The food is exceptional and the people are friendly and it is a place well worth visiting, but when I return it might not be during the heat of July, which was taxing at times on a fair-skinned bloke who usually thinks of warm weather as something to hide from.

In some ways the story began before the idea had ever been raised by my wife Laetitia. I keep returning to Peter Robb’s book Lives, a series of biographical portraits, for the quality of the writing and because it can be a comfort when the my mind is too active and becomes a bit addled. It seemed a good idea to read more of his work and so I was given his Midnight in Sicily, which is about his time living in Palermo and going to places and meeting people all over the island. It’s part memoir and part history and part reportage as he traces the trial of the former Prime Minster Giulio Andreotti over his connections with organised crime. Again the writing is beautiful and I was reading this book when it was suggested that I do some travel and maybe meet my friend, if he was amendable to the idea.

He was, and planning swifly got underway. This process was daunting and exciting. It was an odd thing in some ways for Laetitia to suggest this, as I’m not really a natural traveller any more than she is, but I think she thought that flying overseas was something we wouldn’t be doing together very much as she she’s a nervous flyer. I’m more a nervous human than a nervous flyer, but by the time passports were issued and tickets bought the only thing to do was to just go, and I’m very grateful for her generosity in thinking of me in this way and helping me to make it happen.

I knew that the part of Sicily I was going to see had a lot of ruins and history and I’ve always been fascinated by the history of this place in any case. There are well-preserved Acient Greek temples and other remnants of the several civilsations which have been present on the island at some time over the last three thousand years or so. But, for me, preparation meant reading, and so I started with Sicily: A Short History, from the Greeks to Cosa Nostra by John Julius Norwich. It’s a fun book written by a serious and scholarly historian whith a very soft spot for the place. Having read it you want to read more, to know more, but it’s all there, albeit briefly – all the invasions and colonisations: Greek, Carthaginian, Byzantine, Roman, Norman, French and Italian. The Normans seemed most fascinating – their reign was multicultural and cosmopolitan, with Arabic and Byzantine influences in public administration and art and architecture – and this people seemed to interest the author too, for he wrote about their time in this part of the world earlier and in more detail, in The Normans in the South and The Kingdom in the Sun. But then he wrote about a lot of things over his long career, including Byzantium. Sadly John Julius Norwich died in 2018, but I shall be reading more of his works, when I can.

Of course there was a Lonely Planet guide and reading of that sort to do but I tried to follow up all the references which stood out and this meant fiction. The work of Leonardo Sciascia cropped up in a few places and so it seemed to right to have a look at him too. The Day of the Owl is a novella – he wrote short books, characterised by compressed expression and leaving out details he deemed to be not absolutely necessary – about organised crime and its investigation and the links to politics, and it is simply masterful. Sicilian Uncles is a collection of short stories worth a reader’s time. I want to read more of him.

It is often said that to understand Sicily one must start with The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, a novel about the period immediately after the invasion of Garibaldi and the beginning of the process of unification of Italy. The story deals with the effects of these historical processes on a noble family, based on Lampedusa’s own ancestors, but it is about so much more than that and this was already one of my most treasured volumes. So I read it again.  My view of The Leopard was that it was a truly great work of art, and that view is unchanged after another reading (or two). It should be read by more people, even those who aren’t “studying” for their vacation to Sicily. Reading the story led to a desire to read the life and so David Gilmour’s The Last Leopard: The Life of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa seemed to naturally follow. He was an odd man, in some ways, a quiet presence, even to those who knew him well, with a passionate interest in literature (particularly Shakespeare), and the fact that he created his work of genius late in life, and it was not published until after he died, is tragic but also gives hope to all those who feel like opportunities to make one’s mark are only given to the young. I have a volume of his Letters from London and Europe (1925-30) edited by Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi which I look forward to reading.

My mate surprised me one day by taking us to Palma di Montechiaro, a town not on our itinerary, as some key events in The Leopard took place at locations based on buildings in the town.

This is the Mother Church:

sicily palma 2

And this is the Benedictine Monastery:

sicily palma 1

This brief visit to this small town was one of the most thoughtful acts of generosity that anyone has offered to me and I really couldn’t thank my friend enough. I’m still not sure if he knows what it meant to me.

While I was gone – swimming and climbing monuments and taking photos and eating splendid food – Leatitia held the fort, worrying for my safety and building several Ikea drawers and shelves, transforming the room we dress in (it’s also the room I’m writing this in now).

When I arrived home, Laetitia was waiting for me, with a scarf and gloves, as it was still winter in Sydney, and there was chilled Guinness and wine in the fridge and classical music playing in the refurbished dressing room on the new radio she had bought me, and I couldn’t tell her how much all these things meant and how much I had missed her. We hadn’t been apart for more than a day or two before this fortnight of separation.

The next overseas advanture should be together, and hopefully it will be somewhere with half as much history and art and reading and I won’t have to tell her about it because the experience will be shared. In the meantime, there is so much reading to do.