At the opposite end of the Continent to ourselves, Sicily has always been an attraction for the English who, from the vantage of Europe’s historically most stable society, have gazed with fascination at perhaps its least stable.
There were already links between us in the age of the Normans, who conquered Sicily at roughly the same time as they conquered us. The revival of classical learning in the Renaissance made the English increasingly familiar with the Sicilian connections of Homer, Plato, Archimedes, Aeschylus, Pindar, Empedocles, Theocritus, Virgil and Cicero, and with the island’s mythological and classical geography. Shakespeare set several plays there. English travellers and reprobates were among the first to make Naples and Sicily their playground. Nelson saved the island from Napoleon. The Inghams and Whitakers established Sicily’s wine trade. And in the 19th century the English and Germans between them made Palermo and Taormina the most romantic winter resorts in Europe.
Since we never ruled Sicily, it was also an escape. So it is not surprising to find this book packed with British writers who wanted to get away. Matthew Arnold, Samuel Butler, Coleridge, Lawrence Durrell, D.H. Lawrence, Edward Lear, Bertrand Russell, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilde and Yeats all cavorted from pillar to vineyard to crag, and as we discover, did not necessarily find the personal emancipation they craved. Aleister Crowley did — and was deported by Mussolini as a result.
Not far behind are the Americans. Bernard Berenson, Truman Capote, Hemingway, Arthur Miller, Ezra Pound and Tennessee Williams launched themselves at the legendary land whose mafia had done so much to enliven American society. As this book hints, it was criminal money remitted from the USA which more or less kept Sicily afloat during the poverty days before the arrival of postwar tourism, the mafia drug trade, and the EU. German writers (Goethe, Freud, Nietzsche) and French (Dumas, Gide, Maupassant) also came in search of that elusive pagan something which they fancied still lingered in Sicily.
There are some real surprises. I had no idea that Cervantes and Borges were travellers in Sicily, let alone Cardinal Newman, Tariq Ali and Alan Whicker. The tally is quite staggering really for an island which is often presented as a backwater. But of course Sicily’s problem has been rather the reverse: a strategic mass between the east and west Mediterranean. Every feasible civilisation crossed it, leaving bootprints, right up to the Allied landings of 1943, and it didn’t end there — currently it’s in the front line of the surge of boat people from Africa.
Before the Romans, Sicily was part of the ancient Greek world and has to this day something of that esprit, especially in the eastern part; whereas it was the western which was more thoroughly arabised when the Arabs took Sicily from Byzantium and ran it for about 150 years, introducing citrus, sugar and silk. The west is where the mafia strongholds traditionally are; and vendetta, omertá, honour killing, seclusion of women and clan warfare also testify to this Arab past. Such melancholy practices were only confirmed by over 500 years of direct and indirect Spanish rule and the languid feudalism of Sicily’s provincial Spanish aristocracy.
Italian writers have ignored Sicily like the plague, which doesn’t matter since, like Ireland, Sicily has produced more great writers than it should: Verga, De Roberto, Pirandello, Lampedusa, Quasimodo and Sciascia are the best known. There is also a tradition of comic writing not found elsewhere in Italy: Vittorini and Brancati for example. Again there is a racial aspect to this. Sciascia told me:
Western Sicily has, I would say, a great lack of ‘sense of humour’. [He used the English phrase.] But the eastern, more Greek, part has a great ‘sense of humour’ which topples over into comedy, fun. The great players were always born in eastern Sicily, and the great comic writers too.
But the bifurcation began at the very beginning, before the coming of the Greeks, with the more peaceful Sikels occupying the east and the more bellicose Sicans the west.
Strands of racial heritage are increasingly obscured in the technological age, but anyone visiting Sicily, the moment they delve into the past, will be fascinated by the conundrums of who brought what to the amazing fruitcake island. Much is changing. When I first went there in the 1980s it was still the most violent society in Europe, a palm which has now passed to Russia; and one of my friends, driving me at recklessly high speed across the island, said, ‘Motorways have taken the mystery out of Sicily.’
But I don’t think so. The dry intellect, the bountiful surprises, the awkwardness and originality, the locked palaces and empty hinterlands, the cultural overload and volcanic explosions, the healthy diet, hidden corruption and remote, bemused villages are all still there — as is the magical pagan kiss.
Andrew and Suzanne Edwards have created a colourful switchback of quotation and commentary which repeatedly astonishes us with Sicily’s differing reservoirs of experience, so that we do find ourselves asking: is there anything Sicily has not seen and does not know?
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £15.29. Tel: 08430 600033. Duncan Fallowell is the author of To Noto: or London to Sicily in a Ford.