As a zealous reader of the classics, I was enchanted to happen upon Lampedusa’s short story, “The Professor and the Siren,” an evocative retelling of the siren myth, and a weighing of the balance between gods and men. Lampedusa, best known as the author of The Leopard, a historical novel that won the Strega Prize in 1959, two years after his death, also wrote short stories that were not published in his lifetime. In his version of the siren myth, she is a sexy mermaid goddess, human above the waist, with a fishtail below, who seduces men, yet is capable of lasting love.
Published in a slim volume of three of Lampedusa’s short stories by NYRB Classics, the title story is a tour de force. The narrator, a lively young journalist, Paolo Corbero, lives in Turin in 1938, where fascism and censorship are on the rise. Paolo himself is more concerned with personal problems: he has just been dumped by two women. Girl 1 found out about Girl 2, and that was the end of his sexual affairs. Paolo now spends all his free time at a dark cafe that is not the most cheerful of bistros. Though he has no interest in classics, he humorously observes that the cafe is Hades.
It was a sort of Hades filled with the wan shades of lieutenant colonels, magistrates, and retired professors. These vain apparitions played checkers or dominoes, submerged in a light that was dimmed during the day by the clouds and the arcade outside, during the evenings by the enormous green shades on the chandeliers. They never raised their voices, afraid that any immoderate sound might upset the fragile fabric of their presence. It was, in short, a most satisfactory limbo.
This is not a place where Paolo will meet women. He is, as Lampedusa says, in limbo. But he is curious about the old men who frequent the cafe. One elderly man, Rosario La Ciura, is especially arrogant, so Paolo is intrigued when one day Rosario asks to borrow a Sicilian newspaper. Both men are from Sicily, and nationality is their bond. At the newspaper office, Paolo learns that Rosario is a world-famous, now-retired classics professor and a former senator.
The two become friends, and meet regularly to dine, walk, and chat. Rosario confesses he is relieved that Paolo hasn’t befriended him to discuss his love of the Greek aorist tense. Paolo laughingly admits he barely passed Greek, and that he studied law at the university. But Rosario’s apartment is so filled with Greek prints and bits of sculpture that it is like walking into a Greek myth.
While the fascists begin their war, Paolo and Rosario value the power of words, place, history, art, love, and myth. Paolo has wondered why Rosario was such a misogynist – was he still a virgin? – but when he sees a photo of Rosario as a god-like young man in his twenties, he realizes that Rosario must have known love.
And then Lampedusa cleverly begins a story within the story. On the night before Rosario travels to an international classics conference, he confides in Paolo the story of his love affair with a mythic siren. He was in his mid-twenties, and his 20 days with the siren were an idyll. And this story is also the story of the siren, who throughout history has known many men, and who has told him he can come to her at any time, when he is tired of life.
“The song of the Sirens, Corbera, does not exist; the music that cannot be escaped is their voice alone,” Rosario says.
And then he describes her voice.
“It was a bit guttural, husky, resounding with countless harmonics; behind the words could be discerned the sluggish undertow of summer seas, the whisper of receding beach foam, the wind passing over lunar tides.”
Myth provides the professor with everything modern life cannot. He despises the Italian fascists and the Germans, and is bitter about the degradation of the classics. The siren is a goddess, but is not human, and it is her distance from humans, her nearness to animals and gods, that make love possible for Rosario.
Paolo is the one who will survive the war. He has managed to save a few things of the professor’s but much has been destroyed, including his house. What is he left with? Memory, myth, and life. Paolo must deal with the present (war, law, journalism, rebuilding) while the late Rosario dealt with the past (classics, ancient myth, history, death).