Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Gavin Maxwell’s Sicily

La Conca d'Oro plain, towards Palermo

La Conca d’Oro plain, towards Palermo

Sicily has intrigued me for a very long time. As with other places of which I had developed a strong image in my mind (another was Venice), when I actually visited Sicily, the truth had some tenuous connection with what I had imagined, but it went far beyond it. It was like the distilled essence of what I had in my mind’s eye. Sicily has the power to inspire writers to create utterly original works – mainly, I now am coming to believe, because it is a place like no other, with a history and culture, a past and present like no other, that generates unique narratives in real life.

An obvious source of food for the visitor’s imagination is of course Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, and that novel, that I loved so much when I read it, was brought to life for me in so many ways during my stay. However, I also carried with me the recollection of another writer on Sicily who is firmly associated in the public mind with another part of the world altogether: Gavin Maxwell. I have already explored this fascinating and complex man in a review of Richard Frere’s memoir of him Maxwell’s Ghost. He is of course indelibly associated with the west coast of Scotland where it is closest to the Isle of Skye, and where he tried and failed to live out an idealistic dream of co-existence with otters as his companions. His autobiographical trilogy of that time, starting with Ring of Bright Water captured the heart of so many people who read it in the 60s and 70s. However, before that time of unparalleled fame, Maxwell had already forged a reputation as a superb writer and an excellent journalist. His speciality was to visit the wilder places in the nearby world and describe what he saw – the landscape and the way of life of the people, whose day to day existence he shared as far as possible. His spartan country upbringing in the Borders and his war service instructing special operations troops made him into a tough and resilient traveller.

A biographical note online about him indicates that he took an interest in Sicily just after the war, because he believed there was a family inheritance to be reclaimed there. When he got there, there was nothing left, and the family lawyer had bought the property and the noble title with the money he had extracted in legal bills. However, he was seduced by the wildness and beauty of the island and the tenacious survival of its impoverished people, and he wrote two books as a result of his time there.

downloadThe first, God Protect Me From My Friends (1956), is a terrific account of a near-forgotten figure in post war history, the Sicilian separatist outlaw Salvatore Giuliano. (Forgive me, I can’t resist the wonderful cover of the Pan paperback edition.) Giuliano was outlawed in 1943 aged twenty after killing a carabiniere when stopped for transporting black market grain. He took to the mountains close to his home town in Montelepre, west of Palermo, in the wildest and most remote part of the island. Maxwell carefully unpicks the strands of Sicilian life and culture to lay bare the complexity of this story. Giuliano wasn’t a simple bandit; he and his gang weren’t a manifestation of the Mafia, although they could not have survived so long or been so effective without their tacit approval, and their downfall came when that was withdrawn. Giuliano became an intensely political figure, adopted then abandoned by the Separatist cause, and when abandoned, continuing to pursue the campaign on his own account (his brand of Separatism was to separate from Italy, and become the newest State of the USA – and he wrote to President Truman to demand his support). Handsome and articulate, he created his own legend, and through his compassion for the poor in both rhetoric and practical action, he became a hero in the remote North West of the island, where he knew every inch and could melt away into the terrain, could survive there and thrive, and could get away with practically whatever he liked.

SalvatoreGiulianoMaxwell, superb writer that he is, tells this tale with elegance and stirring sense of adventure. While he does so, he gives one of the most effective condensed accounts I’ve ever read of why Sicily is as it is. He takes Giuliano and his story as the sum total of all these factors: history, conquest, oppression, resistance, poverty, inability to change. He reminds us that Sicily had been invaded and conquered sixteen times in recorded history, and that (when he was writing) it had formed part of Italy, and indeed had had any connection whatsoever with the North of Italy, which dominated national politics and economic interests, for less than 100 years. Its landscape is different, its terrain and agriculture are different, its language and culture are different. He explores the roots and manifestations of the mafia, and its reach beyond simple criminality into politics, the church and institutions. And all because this single handsome young hero, who died in the proverbial hail of bullets (or did he) in 1950 at the iconic age of 27, embodies all Sicily’s hope and despair, its potential to succeed and to fail. It is a tragic history, beautifully told.

To wait for one who never comes,
To lie in bed and not to sleep,
To serve well and not to please,
To have a horse that will not go,
To be sick and lack the cure,
To be a prisoner without hope,
To lose the way when you would journey,
To stand at a door that none will open,
To have a friend that would betray you,
These are the ten pains of death.

Second fruits,
Giovanni Florio, 1591

410z2S4y6CL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Later, Maxwell returned to Sicily, and undertook one of his trademark explorations. He had found his breakthrough literary success with A Reed Shaken By The Wind, his account of immersing himself in the life of the Marsh Arabs of Iraq and telling the story of their life as he saw it. In the same way, in Western Sicily he lived and worked in a community surviving on the very edge of subsistence, at Scopello, close to Castellamare del Golfo. During the fishing season, the men of the village decamped to the shore and trapped tuna fish in a time-honoured fashion. While Maxwell camped out with them in the fishery, he spent time with a range of characters in the community, and wrote a book intended to be very much in their own words, The Ten Pains of Death (1959). (Let me just pause for a second and admire Maxwell’s way with a title. All his books have the most magnificent come-hither titles, with such poetry and rhythm.)

The epigraph is at the head of this section, and sets the tone precisely for a book that he dedicates ‘… with profound affection and sympathy to the common people of Western Sicily, who know the ten pains of death.’ What follows is way, way harsher even than the landscape and life with its tribulations of God Protect Me. In this wild region, away from the relative civilisation of Palermo, he describes peasant families whose lives are totally governed by the past and its traditions, and who are shackled to the land and the sea in ways that do not allow them to change, so long as they stay there. He reveals the peasants’ poverty, their unchanging monoculture of wheat, grapes and olives, how they survive by sharing and scavenging. Some of his eyewitnesses are outsiders – the carabiniere from the mainland, the priest, the doctor and the schoolmaster with their (somewhat) more extensive education. They take a longer view of what makes Sicily so different, and what holds it back. He is intensely (almost pruriently) interested in sexuality, with its paradox of male incontinence and strict control of the honour of girls and women. It is a gruelling book, not nearly so much a ripping adventure and classic tale of tragedy. This is relentless everyday hardship, people at the mercy of a unique set of pressures, including those of a hidden hand. It is said that the poor have nothing to fear from the mafia, because money is the lubricant and they have none. But spreading way beyond and above the mafia is the notion of omertà, that governs every relationship and transaction, that makes every person inaccessible to the state, that makes national laws impossible to apply. This goes way deeper into the roots of Sicilian society and history, the fruit of 16 conquests and 25 centuries of survival in the teeth of enmity from outside.

I am not so sure that I like this book so well. It is somewhat disingenuous to say that it is composed of the voices of the people – I can feel a strong editorial pull here. His peasants are oppressed almost beyond description, and the professional men who have a duty of care for and a measure of power over them – priest, doctor, carabiniere, schoolmaster – are respectively oppressive, cynical, powerless and ground down. Maxwell I think feels he may have romanticised and glamourised a harsh environment in his earlier book, for Giuliano was nothing if not glamorous in the eyes of many, maybe even given the Mafia an easier ride than he should. Here, he explicitly recants all that. We are left with an impression of a society that cannot break free to join the rest of Italy, Europe or the modern world in its ideas of progress, that seems to display all its layers in an almost archaeological way – its ethnicity, its language with its borrowings from Greek, Arabic and Spanish, the way that its past is still laid out in the landscape of Greek temples, Roman altars, Byzantine harbours, Norman cathedrals, its agriculture scarcely changed since the Romans made it the bread basket for Italy. The 19th and 20th century escape route was to America. But for some the pull to come back home, with tales of wealth and social change, was just too strong.

All this was written in my lifetime, though nearly sixty years ago. On the face of it, Sicily is very different today. It is possible now to have a luxurious villa holiday in Scopello, within sight of the picturesque ruined tuna fishery, and the publicity makes free use of Gavin Maxwell’s name. I doubt though if reading The Ten Pains of Death is a comfortable prelude to a relaxing holiday. Tourism is the current salvation of Sicily, based on its beauty and its overwhelming historic patrimony spanning 25 centuries. The beautiful, mountainous interior is rather reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands – signs of clearances everywhere, abandoned dwellings, empty fields – which may have helped account for Maxwell’s affinity with the land and its people. And I am left with the feeling that nothing Maxwell describes in these two books is very far from the surface. It is salutary to travel in Sicily with him as one of my guides. He reveals the skull beneath the skin.

Gavin Maxwell:
God Protect Me From My Friends. London: Longmans, 1956. 255pp
The Ten Pains of Death. London: Longmans, 1959. 272pp
Both are out of print, but copies are available from second-hand sellers (Ten Pains is more scarce).

The photo of the Conca d’Oro plain, taken from the road towards Giuliano’s territory, is one of Hilary’s holday photos from March 2014.
The photo of Salvatore Giuliano is taken from Wikipedia. Clicking the image will load the source page.

6 comments on “Gavin Maxwell’s Sicily

  1. Kate
    April 9, 2014

    Oof. That was intense, but deeply interesting.

  2. Hilary
    April 9, 2014

    Thank you! Gavin Maxwell is a beautiful writer, never anything but intense.

  3. Michael Carley
    April 9, 2014

    I haven’t read Maxwell on Sicily, but what you say here certainly chimes with what other people have to say. A couple of things seem worth adding. Giuliano was certainly very complicated: his most notorious act was the massacre of communist party peasants at a May Day ceremony at Portella della Ginestra in 1947.

    Around the same time as Maxwell, Carlo Levi, who wrote the great book about the Mezzogiorno, Christ Stopped At Eboli, was visiting Sicily and writing about it. His pieces are collected in Le Parole Sono Pietre/Words Are Stones.

    There are also a number of Sicilian writers of the very first rank: Pirandello (a fourth cousin of Camilleri who is well known for the Montalbano books, but deserves to be well known for his other work), Sciascia (translations out from NYRB), Bufalino, and Vittorini, are all major European authors.

  4. Conor
    April 9, 2014

    Another brilliantly inspiring essay from Hilary! ‘Ring of Bright Water’ and NW Scotland were wildly exciting in my early teens, and Sicily and its writers have taken their place recently, so it’s time to find some of the scarcer Maxwell books and drink a long toast to Hilary’s fine writing.

    Sicily has produced a disproportionate number of the best Italian writers in their fields, such as Pirandello and Quasimodo, the novelists Verga, Vittorini and Lampedusa, and the mystery writers Sciascia and Camilleri.

    D H Lawrence was a great admirer of Giovanni Verga, and translated his short stories. He compares him favourably with Flaubert and Hugo in his fine long introduction to his translation of the novel ‘Mastro Don Gesualdo’. Q D Leavis in ‘The Italian Novel’ seems to think him the best Italian novelist by far (Collected Essays 2, C U Press 1985.

    So thank you, Hilary, for a tremendous addition to my reading — and I look forward to your Collected Works!

    PS Just seen Michael’s response, which has even more pleasures to follow up. ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’ is one of my favourite books, but the title is nicely misleading.

  5. Hilary
    April 9, 2014

    Thank you so much for your informative comments, Michael and Conor (you are far too kind, Conor – I don’t think I’ve done this subject real justice at all – but thank you for your lovely compliment).

    In particular, in response to Michael, I don’t think I’ve gone nearly far enough in exploring the incredible complexity of Giuliano’s career and political allegiance and significance. I can only urge anyone who wants to do so to read God Protect Me, which explores it in minute detail. In particular, Maxwell examines the massacre at Portella Della Ginestra, which both as an act of savagery and a strategic catastrophe was a turning point in his campaign. I’ve gone back to imply the fact, that I shot past, that his death in battle is mythical too – almost certainly staged after some other more treacherous murder.

    I’m very grateful for the recommendations for reading – fortunately, I’ve been to the London Library today, and (instead of the task I set myself) I’ve now managed to get hold of Sciascia’s Candido and A Simple Story, Verga’s Little Novels of Sicily translated by Lawrence, and Levi’s Christ Stopped At Eboli.

    Regarding Sciascia, it has been on my mind to read his work, since I read a quotation from him that seemed to sum up a deep-rooted yearning to believe that the Mafia has its roots far back in a code that transcends criminality – but a knowledge that it is no longer so, if it ever was: It hurts me when I denounce the Mafia, because a residue of mafia feeling stays with me, as it does in any Sicilian. So in struggling against the Mafia I struggle against myself. It is like a split, a laceration.

    Thanks again for your contributions!

  6. Pingback: Christ Stopped At Eboli, by Carlo Levi | Vulpes Libris

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