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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Professor and the Siren

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

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To purchase The Professor and the Siren

Title: The Professor and the Siren
Author: Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Genre: Stories
Written: (1961) (Eng. 2014)
Length: 85 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: The Professor and the Siren - US
The Professor and the Siren - UK
The Professor and the Siren - Canada
The Professor and the Siren - India
Le professeur et la sirène - France
Die Sirene - Deutschland
I racconti - Italia
Relatos - España
  • Italian title: I racconti
  • First published posthumously
  • Translated by Stephen Twilley
  • With an Introduction by Marina Warner
  • Previously translated by Archibald Colquhoun in Two Stories and a Memory (1962) (also published in The Siren (1995)); also translated by Stephen Parkin, as Childhood Memories and Other Stories (2013)

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Our Assessment:

B : a great story, and some fine padding

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 5/5/2014 .
The Telegraph* . 7/8/2013 Nicholas Blincoe
TLS* . 3/1/2014 Joseph Farrell

* refers to review of previous/other translation

  From the Reviews:
  • "The recent memory of Italian fascism lurks in the background of these posthumously published stories, which, taken for what they are, reinforce Lampedusa’s acknowledged mastery of prose -- but only the title story extends it." - Publishers Weekly

  • "The fragment of The Blind Kittens is intriguing but goes nowhere. (...) What saves this volume is the story The Siren, a work of outstanding laconic eccentricity." - Nicholas Blincoe, The Telegraph

  • "The final tale, 'The Siren', found among Lampedusa's papers after his death, is an enigmatic, tantalizing and haunting tale of rare beauty which glints like a finely cut diamond." - Joseph Farrell, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Professor and the Siren collects three short works by Tomasi di Lampedusa that were only published after his death. Even with a decent-sized Introduction by Marina Warner, the volume comes in at well under a hundred pages -- and the title piece is really the only substantial thing in it. Still: what a story -- and the filler-material is also of interest.
       Warner's Introduction is thorough -- and rather too revealing. While these pieces have been previously translated and published in a variety of editions and hence are perhaps already familiar to readers, this is one of those introductions that might be better placed as an afterword; if you're unfamiliar with the stories, I'd strongly urge you to hold off until after you've breezed through the stories.
       'Joy and the Law' is a fine small, domestic piece about a struggling accountant and his year-end bonus, the small man's attempts to do the proper thing(s) never quite properly appreciated. 'The Blind Kittens' is a fragmentary piece, apparently the beginnings of a planned sequel of sorts to his grand novel, The Leopard -- just a glimpse of what Tomasi di Lampedusa might have planned, but of some interest.
       It's 'The Professor and the Siren', however, that is very much the centerpiece her. Set mainly in the late 1930s, it is narrated by Paolo Corbera, a then-young journalist for La Stampa. It begins with his two mistresses dumping him, much to his annoyance. Spending more time pouting in a local café afterwards -- "a sort of Hades" that he finds "a most satisfactory Limbo", given the circumstances -- he makes the acquaintance of one of the regulars, Rosario La Curia, a name which: "said a great deal even to an ignorant journalist". Internationally famous, this Classics professor was a leader in his field. Despite the differences in their age and interests (Paolo admits he fared poorly in Greek when he had to take it at school) the two hit it off and become friends of sorts.
       One thing that unites them is lost love, but Paolo's little affairs pale beside the professor's one grand passion, and it is the account of this that the story builds to. Eventually the professor opens up, and tells of that summer of 1887, when he was just twenty-four, studying madly in an isolated house lent to him for the summer by a friend. Given the intense studying he was preoccupied with, and the surroundings, he found that all together it: "wove around me a spell that predisposed me to marvels" -- and the appearance of young siren Lighea certainly qualifies.
       Many university-age students dream of being swept away by a preternatural beauty, but Lighea is rather beyond even unreasonable expectation, and for a short while the professor enjoys bliss with her, as:

in those embraces I enjoyed the highest form of spiritual pleasure along with the greatest physical gratification
       She was his ideal:
Oblivious to all cultures, ignorant of all wisdom, disdainful of any moral constraint whatsoever, she was nevertheless part of the source of all culture, of all knowledge, of all ethics, and she knew how to express this primitive superiority of hers in terms of her rugged beauty.
       It can't last -- this otherworldly beauty must return to her own -- but she notes that practically all her former lovers have, sooner or later, joined her world as well .....
       Though their relationship only lasted a few weeks, it made the professor the man he became:
she'd shown me the path toward true eternal peace, and also toward an asceticism based not on sacrifice but on the impossibility of accepting other, inferior pleasures.
       Tomasi di Lampedusa was hardly the first to write such a story, or feature such an unusual female figure in that role (Lighea is not your typical girl from next door), but from the great opening line -- "Late in the autumn of 1938 I came down with a severe case of misanthropy" -- to the sad closing one it is a particularly beautiful telling. The professor does get to tell his story in his own words, but most of the narration is Paolo's, and the now older and wiser man looking back on his slightly jaded, slightly hurt younger self is a nice contrast to the remarkable professor (and also to his even more remarkable summer-soulmate). Nicely balancing humor and seriousness, the entirely absurd tale is hardly believable and yet entirely convincing as a work of fiction.
       There's a more serious undertone to it too: not by accident does the almost ethereally idealistic professor share his tale in 1938 (even if the 'main' action takes place decades earlier), not by accident does the past haunt the present here, from the professor's specialty -- classic texts in a dead (well, he says it's anything but ...) language -- to the practically mythological creature Lighea and everything she stands for. The outcomes, seen from the present, after the war, -- what happens to the professor, as well as what he left behind -- are equally devastatingly telling.
       It's a very fine story, and easily justifies the volume as a whole. (Warner's Introduction is also helpful -- though, as noted, much better saved for afterwards.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 June 2014

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The Professor and the Siren: Reviews (*: refers to previous/different translation): Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa lived 1896 to 1957, but only became achieved literary renown after his death, with the publication The Leopard.

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© 2014-2022 the complete review

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