They Came from the East

Books that concentrate on distinguished visitors to Sicily tend to focus on Western Europeans and North Americans, with the occasional honourable exception. As a way of redressing the balance, and because they are fascinating characters, we thought we would write a piece on Eastern European travellers drawn to the three-cornered isle. We will start with the mighty edifice of Russian literature and one of its famed protagonists, Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev, aka Andrei Bely, best known in the west for his book, Petersburg, an evocation of that city in the run up to the proto-revolutionary events of 1905.

Andrei Bely
Andrei Bely in 1914

With his wild hair, balding crown and exuberant moustache, Bely looks every inch the fin de siècle intellectual. In 1911, he journeyed to Sicily with Asya Turgeneva, eventually producing a travelogue published as Opheira: Travel Notes. The book also encompasses his further wanderings in Tunis. Some have speculated that Opheira refers to biblical Ophir, a place of gold – perhaps a reference to Monreale and the golden mosaics of the Capella Palatina and La Martorana. Despite such riches, two of Bely’s chief reasons for moving on to North Africa were the relatively high prices and an unexpected period of bad weather. The modern day tourist might wince at some of Taormina’s menus, but is unlikely to whine about the weather. It seems the rouble of pre-revolutionary Russia couldn’t fully cover Andrei’s curiosity.

Apart from money concerns, Bely was fascinated with the island’s colours. In Gerald Janecek’s Andrei Bely: A Critical Review, he points out how the Russian developed a vocabulary of colour that he first recorded as the infinite gradations of the Sicilian landscape, a far cry from Lampedusa’s bleached terrain. It was also in Sicily, in fact Monreale, according to Rosamund Bartlett and David Wells, that Bely had something of a Rudolph Steiner induced anthroposophical epiphany. Steiner was the leading exponent of this belief, questing for a perception that opens doors to other more spiritual realms.

Another traveller, this time a Pole, interested in the esoteric, was Jan Potocki. If that name rings bells for Camilleri fans, it’s because Jan’s Manuscript Found in Saragossa was part of a plot twist in one of the Montalbano short stories. This strange, macabre and melancholic work is Potocki’s iconic book. Set chiefly in southern Spain, it recounts a gothic set of interwoven tales featuring an erray of cabalists, criminals, gypsies, aristocrats, beggars and princesses, the product of a prodigious but fevered imagination.

Jan had the means to travel without worry and in 1778-9 he turned his attention towards Sicily. Potocki may well have met the Palermitan snake-oil salesman, Cagliostro, in Warsaw, where the supposed Count had tried to work his magic on elderly ladies of the court, whilst messing around with various alchemical formulae in an attempt to produce the finest gold (apologies to Blackadder!). More than one Sicilian reference makes it into Potocki’s Manuscript, notably in the story of Giulio Romati, the son of a Palermo lawyer obsessed with philosophy. Giulio embarks on a tour of the island, following the coast from the capital to Messina. He then detours via Etna before pitching up in Catania, where he considers the aristocracy more enlightened than the Palermitani, although lacking in knowledge of the ‘exact sciences’ – perhaps redolent of Jan’s own experience? The story continues in Calabria where Romati meets the bandit, Zoto…

The strangest story of all, however, is Potocki’s own death, although perhaps not so strange for this ethnologist, esoterist, conspiracy theorist, political intriguer, aristocrat and novice of the Knights of Malta. In 1812, he came back to his Polish estate in Podolia where, depressed, he completed his Saragossa text. He became increasingly convinced of his own lycanthropy, the only solution he found to this werewolf syndrome was a suitably Hollywoodian silver bullet through the head, which he duly administered in a successful suicide bid at the not so tender age of 54.

Adam Mickiewicz
Mickiewicz in full Byron mode by Walenty Wankowicz

We know that Goethe toured extensively in Sicily and Byron briefly put in at Porto Empedocle. Compared to both these giants is another Pole, THE national poet, Adam Mickiewicz. A Romantic versifier, but also a translator, essayist, playwright, professor and activist, Mickiewicz was born in the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, then under Russian domination. In 1829, he left for Rome, becoming an émigré. It was from Rome that he decided to visit Aleksander Potocki in Naples, no doubt a relative of Jan’s. Ground down by feeling unwell and in a melancholic mood, he decided to head for Sicily on his own.

Roman Koropeckyj’s biography of Mickiewicz tells us that he experienced two earthquakes in Messina, one of which he apparently slept through and the other he failed to notice because he was being bounced around on a horse – both of which seem to smack of a certain romantic bravado. The intemperies of seismology and weather combined to prevent Mickiewicz from seeing Etna, blocked as it was by Libyan sand, but he was delighted with his solitude and the curious souvenir of a pepper tree branch he had plucked to prove his sojourn in climes where such botanicals could grow.

Rolling forward a hundred plus years, we come to Ivan Bunin, the first Russian to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Another son of the landed gentry, Ivan became a favourite of the critics from 1900 onwards and it was during this period he started to journey abroad. In his own Nobel summation, in the same breath as mentioning Sicily and North Africa, he states his writing philosophy as one in which he tries to leave the soul’s imprint on a closely observed world. Bunin also once admitted he felt drawn to cultures alien to his own.

The literary footprint he left for Sicilian posterity was two-fold, the 1912 work simply entitled ‘In Sicily’ and Poems and Stories, including ‘In the Straits of Messina’ and the 1909 work showing his immediate and moving reaction to the city’s earthquake, ‘In the Wake of the Messina Earthquake’. Ever the expatriate, owing to his flight from the Bolshevik revolution, Bunin eventually settled in Paris and he now lies buried in the Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois Russian Cemetery some 25 km from the French capital.

Not all of the illustrious Eastern Europeans reaching the island’s shores found their fame and muse in the world of letters. Some, like Igor Stravinsky, were composers. One such, lesser known than the Russian, was Karol Szymanowski, who attended the Polish State Conservatory in the early 1900s. He rose to gain some of his country’s highest honours, but also travelled considerably, both in search of work and pleasure. It was in Taormina that he found a setting suitable to his temperament and sexuality, describing to Arthur Rubenstein that the young men could be ideal models for a Greek sculptor. So taken was he by the atmosphere, he even turned to prose, penning a novel called Efebos that only now exists in a translated Russian fragment.

Roger II
Roger II from the Liber ad honorem Augusti

Szymanowski let Sicilian themes have most obvious reign in his opera, Król Roger, a work based on the life of King Roger II and recently staged at London’s Royal Opera House. The Spectator review compared the music to a clash between Apollonian virtues and Dionysian darkness as Roger wrestles with head and heart, his knowledge pitted against the bacchanalian forces of a sensuous shepherd. Critics have also pointed out how Szymanowski drew on Arabic musical concepts in the arrangements of certain elements, rooting the piece firmly in Roger’s Sicily. The opera was actually staged in Palermo in 1949, a rare outing, even a slim 23 years after its premiere, although it did return again in 1992 and 2005.

So far Poles and Russians have featured heavy in our listing. We’ll finish, appropriately enough, with an Eastern European journalist and revolutionary leader who ended his days in Palermo. We are referring to the Romanian, Nicolae Bãlcescu, who died in the Trinacria Hotel, where Lampedusa’s very own Leopard shuffled off this mortal coil. A forlorn plaque now remembers this event and is often passed with little comment by those in search of Giuseppe Tomasi’s last residence in via Butera.

Fomenting discontent against the Wallachian regime via an army conspiracy and a society of secret freemasons, Bãlcescu found himself gaoled. To pursue his revolutionary aims by literary means he went abroad, to France and Italy, in order to publish the Magazinu istoriku, which promoted Wallachian and Moldavian historical identity. His articles on land reform mark him out as a Marxist, almost but not quite avant la lettre. Returning to Transylvania, he was expelled by the Hapsburgs. His last years were riven by tuberculosis, poverty and the inability to stay put in any one location. Death caught up with him eventually, just 8 years before fictional Prince Salina would have to brace himself for the Risorgimento.

By way of a footnote and to bring things up to date, it’s worth taking a look at the poet, Adam Zagajewski, and his take on Sicily through late 20th century eyes. Some of his island poems are in English translation in the book Eternal Enemies.

Andrew and Suzanne are the authors of Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers. The Times Literary Supplement had this to say about their book: ‘Sicily is full of such delicious anecdotes: it is not only a literary signpost for travellers in an ancient island, but a cultural guide for anyone who finds themselves in the infuriating thrall of its contradictory and compelling extremes… Sicily is bound to become battered and dog-eared, blotched with caponata and wine stains’.

Andrew is also the translator of Alejandro Luque’s compilation of short stories set in Sicily, The Sicilian Defence. Diane Donovan in The Midwest Book Review called it ‘a magnificently crafted series of vignettes exposing the underbelly of choice and its consequences’.

The Sicilian Defence

Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers

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