Sicilians with a desire for lingonberry jam have a problem. There is but one Ikea in all of Sicily.

 

“The Sicilian language is the only one in Europe that has no future tense.” Albert Mobilio, “Introduction” to Leonardo Sciascia, The Wine-Dark Sea.

 

When I commented that the hotel numbering did not have a Room 17, a Sicilian man responded that seventeen is considered bad luck in Italy.

 

As I placed a Sicilian history onto a bookshelf in a hotel lobby, I immediately concluded that I was not going to exchange it for the Italian copy there of Bartleby the Scrivener.

 

Aristotle’s Poetics “is remarkable for many reasons, including the pleasure to be found in reading Aristotle on tragedy, as if it has just been invented, speaking confidently about how no one knows the origins of comedy, but that probably it is from Sicily.” Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.

 

Before going, I consulted a reading list about Sicily. It contained more books than I was willing to read. I decided to eschew travel guides like Michelin and Fodors, but even so the listins of histories, travel writing, books about Sicilian art, architecture, or food, and novels and short stories set in Sicily was long. I used a happenstance method to make my selections. First, I went to my local library and read anything they had on Sicily. (See post of June 19, 2017: https://ameliasdad.blog/?s=barrett) Then I went to my favorite bookstores to see what they may have that was on the list. (See post of December 22, 2017: https://ameliasdad.blog/?s=strand)

The histories taught me that Sicily was subject to many foreign rulers: Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, Bourbons. I read about Sicily in World War II and how the Sicilians treated the Allies as liberators as they pushed Germany off the island. I wondered how the Sicilians reconciled that response with the fact that Italy was fighting side by side with Germany. I read shocking histories about the Sicilian mafia; I read a memoir of an English woman who wrote charmingly about the house she inherited near Taormina and her guests there; I read a cultural history which blended many different aspects of Sicilian culture and history; and I was introduced to a writer of significance who was new to me.

From my reading, I learned that two Sicilians had won the Nobel Prize for literature. One was the poet Salvatore Quasimodo, whose name I tried to learn how to pronounce on the trip. (See post of November 19, 2018.) I had not been aware of him before, but I seldom read poetry, and I did not seek out any of his works.

The other was Luigi Pirandello, who lived from 1867 to 1936. I had read his controversial play Six Characters in Search of an Author in college (see post of May 9, 2018: https://ameliasdad.blog/?s=Downer) and consequently thought of him as a playwright, but I now learned that he wrote novels and short stories. His works, however, did not appear on the Sicilian reading list. He was born in Sicily, but he moved away and did not write specifically about the island. Sicily may claim him, but he was not so much a Sicilian writer, as an Italian writer.

Pirandello was akin to the opera composer Vincenzo Bellini, who died at the age of 34 early in the nineteenth century. Bellini was born in Catania, Sicily, but he left for Naples when he was eighteen where he lived for eight years. He then moved to northern Italy, London, and finally Paris. His operas were not composed in or about Sicily, but Sicily claims him. He died in Paris and was buried there, but forty years later his body was disinterred and taken for reburial in Catania.

Bellini was famous and successful in his lifetime, but his works became less popular in the first half the twentieth century. That changed with Maria Callas, who often sang his operas, most notably Norma, which contains one of the most famous and difficult of soprano arias. I have not seen much opera, but I have seen Norma twice. Both were notable. The second time for the beauty of the music; the first time for an audience reaction. A famous soprano had the title role (I don’t remember who), but she was aging, and the aria had been transcribed down for her. The opera world seems to love controversy, and this was controversial. Decades ago when this happened, the Metropolitan Opera House had a room for a private dinner club before performances. The members were all men and all in formal attire. They sat together in the first ring. As the aria was about to begin, they stood up in unison and silently filed out of the theater.

“Norma” is now the designation for a pasta in Sicily. Pasta alla Norma consists of sautéed eggplant, a light tomato sauce, basil, and ricotta salata and can be found on almost any Sicilian restaurant menu. (I also saw pizza Norma.) This is apparently a traditional Sicilian dish, but its designation seems to be a recent creation. On the trip, we visited an old farmhouse surrounded by olive and almond trees. We had a cooking demonstration by the charming owner, who was, I guess, about seventy and had lived her whole life in Sicily. Somehow pasta alla Norma came up, and she scoffed at the designation. She said she had first heard that term only in the past two decades. I asked what the dish was called when she grew up, and she replied, “Fettucine with eggplant, basil, and ricotta salata.” Sicily is an ancient place with many venerable traditions, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t succumb to some modern marketing too.

(concluded Dec. 3)

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