Giller Prize Special: The Chat with Steven Price

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We continue our Scotiabank Giller Prize special coverage in conversation with Steven Price, author of the novel Lampedusa. See also our chats with finalists Michael Crummey (The Innocents), Megan Gail Coles (Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club), Ian Williams (Reproduction), and Alix Ohlin (Dual Citizens).

According to the Giller Prize jury, “Lampedusa is a fairy tale about a dying prince, the last of his line, the real-life Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of the beloved Italian novel The Leopard. Steven Price powerfully imagines Tomasi’s final days as the ailing author struggles to complete and publish his treasured manuscript. Set in a post-war Palermo of bombed-out buildings and ruined palazzos, the novel contemplates what values are worth retaining in life and in art. A masterful storyteller, Price conjures Tomasi with language and images that evocatively fix him and his distant world indelibly in our minds.”

Steven Price is the author of two novels, By Gaslight (2016), longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and Into That Darkness (2011). Also an acclaimed poet, he has written two award-winning poetry books, Anatomy of Keys (2006), winner of the Gerald Lampert Award, and Omens in the Year of the Ox (2012), winner of the ReLit Award. He lives in Victoria, BC.

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Trevor Corkum: What was the first thing you did when you found out you were a finalist for this year’s Giller Prize?   

Steven Price: I was on a train platform, just leaving Kingston for Dorval; my phone started pinging. What can you do? I got on the train.

TC: Lampedusa is set in 1950s Italy. Your last novel, By Gaslight, was also set in the past. What draws you to historical fiction?  

SP: Oh, the past is so vast, incalculably so; there are so many lives lived, so many stories that have played out. It's mysterious and endless and fascinating to me. But I'm drawn to novels and stories set in the current moment, also. I do think any deep imagining of a character's life takes a writer by necessity into the past; sometimes that's just where the story gathers itself. I would add that historical fiction, and fiction set in the past, are not always the same thing; both By Gaslight and Lampedusa have always seemed to me examples of the latter.

TC: What drew you to the story of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, in particular?

SP: His wonderful, singular novel The Leopard. I read it as a young writer, and returned to it again and again over the years, always finding something new in it. The story of his writing of it, too—how he struggled to find a publisher, even as he was dying, and died believing it would not be published. And then of course, a year after his death, it was celebrated and admired and found millions of readers.

TC: Tell us about one or two challenges you faced bringing his story to life.

SP: There were so many! But I wanted to write a novel that would move differently from my last novel. I wanted a book that could still be engrossing, and compelling, but that didn't rely on suspense to move forward. The end of Lampedusa's story is already well-known—his death, the posthumous publication of his novel. It intrigued me, as a writer, to figure out how to write a story where the end is already well-known.

TC: Other challenges?

SP: One of the main characters in my novel, Gioacchino Lanza, is still alive; I felt great anxiety about writing him. I found the solution in Lampedusa's own novel—he had said, on several occasions, that his own character Tancredi was based on Gioacchino; in my earliest drafts I went through my copy of The Leopard, transcribing each description of Tancredi, and using it as the basis for descriptions of my character, Gioacchino. Though the descriptions shifted in revision, of course, the technique nevertheless allowed me a degree of confidence in capturing a young man as he had been.

TC: What’s the last Canadian book that changed your life?

SP: When Patrick Lane passed away earlier this year, I had the occasion to reread his Collected Poems. They are so delicate, powerful, profound, and beautiful.

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Excerpt from Lampedusa

January, 1955

In his smaller library he kept a broken white rock, like a twist of coral, taken by a sugar merchant from the natural harbour at Lampedusa. In the afternoons he would hold that rock to the sunlight feeling the sharp heavy truth of it. He was that island’s prince but like all its princes had never seen its shores nor set foot upon it. To visitors he would say, wryly: It is an island of fire, at the edge of the world; who could live there? He would not add: A great family’s bitterness is always lived in. He would not hold that rock out and say: This is a dead thing and yet it will outlive me. He was the last of his line and after him came only extinction.

As a boy he had listened to his governess tell him the dust of Sicily came from the Sahara and this he had repeated all his life though he did not know if it was true. He imagined it blown across the sea in shimmering red curtains of heat, the hot winds of the sirocco billowing it north, raking the island of Lampedusa in its path. Each morning he would rise and walk his terrace at Via Butera, his steps traced in the sand blown in overnight, leading to the low stone wall over the Foro Itàlico and there ceasing, like the footprints of a ghost, and he would stand peering out at the rising day with his back to Sicily and the southern sea beyond it and beyond that the fiery island of his blood.

He did not love Palermo, its dusty stone streets, its wreckage from the last war. Though he knew he would die in this city of his birth what he felt for it was not love but a fierce desolation that took the place of love. There were greater passions than love. Love was petty, brief, impossibly human. He had loved England, loved Paris, had loved in a doomed way his suffering in the Austrian prisoner camps during the first war, had journeyed by railway and coach north to Latvia loving the vast dark northern forests that scrolled past. Yet he returned always here, to an unloved city, to his mother the dowager princess when she was alive, to the ancient streets of his family name after she was dead. Even as a child in his father’s palazzo the city had seemed to him demonic, low-lying and red-hot. Its dust would boil up out of the sea while the ferries from Naples cut sluggishly near, the souls on board drugged by the heat. That alone had not changed. Now, already old, finding himself in the middle of a new century, living in a decrepit palazzo at the edge of the sea, he would stand high above the harbour and scan their white decks in the offloading as if seeking someone he had lost.

And in this way, still in his slippers and morning robe, brushing crumbs of sand from the top of the wall and rubbing his fingers absently together, he would try to banish the night’s unhappiness and find his way into the day.

In the years since the Americans had swept the island, he had lived with his wife Alessandra in one half of a small palazzo in the medieval quarter of Palermo, on the narrow Via Butera, their windows glazed and facing the sea. If asked he would admit it was his house, but not his home. His true home stood behind thick walls several streets away, in a slump of cracked stone and wind-rotted masonry from a bomb borne across the Atlantic, a bomb whose sole purpose was the obliteration of the world as it had been. That bomb fell in April 1943 and his wife’s estate at Stomersee far to the north in Latvia had been overrun by the Russians in the same month. They had found themselves homeless and orphaned as one. He walked now the streets of his city a different man, a man burdened by his losses, not freed by them. For he had been born on a mahogany table in that lost palazzo on Via di Lampedusa and had slept alone in a small bed in the very room of his birth all throughout his childhood and into his adulthood and for ten years even after he was married and he did not know who he might be without that room to return to.

The war had taken everything. There was no running water in their half of the palazzo and the ceiling of its ballroom had collapsed in the bombing twelve years earlier. He had filled what was left of that with the furniture salvaged from his destroyed palace. And each morning he would wash using a bowl of scummy water left out from the night before in a bathroom that leaked when it rained. A most extraordinary room, he would joke bitterly; no water in the taps, and yet water running all the same.

He thought of that often now, in the early light, when he would rise alone and wrap a blanket around his shoulders and tread softly past his wife’s bedchamber. His dying mother had returned to the Lampedusa palazzo after the armistice and lived out her last year in its ruins. His wife held no such attachments to the old world of Palermo. Alessandra Wolff entered a room like a door closing, blocking out the light. She was a linguist and reader of literature and the only female psychoanalyst in Italy and she worked into the night with her patients in their historical library and he loved her for her mind and for the solitude they shared. She was the daughter of the singer Alice Barbi, last muse of the composer Brahms, and when her mother remarried she became stepdaughter to his uncle Pietro in London. Upon meeting her he had been, he recalled, unable to speak. You will call me Licy, she had said from the first. He had liked her black hair and blacker eyes and her broad strong shoulders with the power of a stage soprano in them. From his first glimpse of her in London, thirty years ago, when she was still married to her first husband, he had thought her handsome and remote. It amazed him that so much time had passed. He saw in her now the same woman he had seen then, a woman older than he, more worldly, a woman who strode always some feet ahead of him in the street and spoke to him over one shoulder, without turning, and whose stern grace could be mistaken for arrogance. But there was such tenderness in her. And because she was intelligent and not classically beautiful her opinions had often made her company unbearable to men, and he liked that about her too.

Excerpted from Lampedusa by Steven Price. Copyright © 2019 by Ides of March Creative, Inc. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

October 24, 2019
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