The story is set in Turin in 1938, narrated by a young journalist called Paolo Corbera. One evening he strikes up a friendship in a café with an elderly man called Rosario La Ciura, an eminent professor in the field of Hellenic Studies. The pair return to the café on a nightly basis to share stories of the past and debate the present day. La Ciura reminisces on a romance he had in his youth which still haunts him, a tryst with a mermaid named Lighea, daughter of Calliope. Her voice was irresistible to him, “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” – and so she became his first and only love. A meditation on loss, love and time, this is a bittersweet story which possesses the dreamlike, enigmatic feeling of a Fellini film.
First published in Italian by Feltrinelli 1961; first published in English in Two Stories and a Memory, Collins and Harvill, 1962, translated by Archibald Colquhoun. The Stephen Twilley translation is in The Professor and the Siren, The New York Review of Books Classics 2014
This short story was the last work the author completed before his death. Like Tomasi di Lampedusa’s famous masterpiece, the historical novel The Leopard, ‘The Siren’ was published only after his death; and, like The Leopard, it is a meditation on the past and the passage of time. What makes this beautiful story stand apart, though, is its streak of romanticism and eroticism, and its heartbreaking mixture of realistic and fantastic.
Two men become friends in 1930s Turin; they are both Sicilian-born, and their friendship deepens to the point that the oldest one, renowned classicist Rosario La Ciura, opens up to his friend about his past. He has a story to tell. As a young man, on a wild remote Sicilian beach, he once met the experience of true love. She was sixteen. She had beautiful pale lips. And she was a siren. The memory of that impossible love will haunt Rosario for his entire life.
First published in I racconti, Feltrinelli, 1961. Collected in The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, edited by Jhumpa Lahiri, 2019
Saturated with the same melancholy and desire as The Leopard, this is the story of a professor’s encounter with a mermaid. Marina Warner, in her introduction to a later edition from NYRB Classics, speculates that Lampedusa’s story is based on Ettore Majorana, a Sicilan physicist that disappeared at sea in 1938. It is a Homeric story written with a concision and voice that is impossible to forget once heard.
Included in Two Stories and a Memory, Collins Harvill, 1962; also available, translated by Stephen Twilley, as The Professor and the Siren, NYRB Classics, 2014