An Old Leopard Bares its Teeth

Photograph of an actual leopard via WikiCommons

Photograph of an actual leopard via WikiCommons

By Tony Wilson

I’ve spent the last hour on my knees in our shed, searching for VCE English essays that are 21 years old. Their 21st birthday hardly justifies the ridiculous decision to hold on to them through five moves and a renovation.

One of our prescribed English texts that year was Giuseppe di Lampadusa’s The Leopard. Without looking at the yellowed handwritten essay, here is what I remember about the novel:

  • Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa was a great name to say.

  • There was a lot of stuff about frescoes. For most of the year, I didn’t know what frescoes were, besides being the name of a Ringwood pizza restaurant.

  • There was a girl with a name beginning with ‘A’ who was quite hot.

  • It’s about a dynastic Italian family falling into disarray, possibly at similar rate to crumbling frescoes?

  • There are no actual leopards.

Reading the essays, I’m left slapping my forehead. How could I have forgotten you, Don Fabrizio! Your love of dogs. Your crumbling kingdom. Your forced embrace of the mercantile class, embodied by the betrothal of favourite nephew Tancredi to the royally hot, but not royally born, Angelica.

My essay is adequate, a 16/20 response to the famous Tancredi quote, ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change’. But the boredom is there on the page. The plight of 19th century Sicilian nobles was somewhat shy of what I would have called my ‘core interests’. And the essay gives absolutely no oxygen to the counterpoint view – that if we want things to stay as they are, things might have to stay as they are.

Even now, I hold a peculiar grudge against my Year 12 English texts. I’ll admit, it’s an irrational grudge. If The Leopard came into my life now it would have a fighting chance. But in VCE, the weight of textual analysis, the gleaning for themes, the memorising of quotes, the reading and re-reading, all exacted their toll. It’s not di Lampedusa’s fault that we were banging on and on about frescoes. He meant for frescoes to race by. To study a book is to brutalise it as a work of art.

That’s not to say books shouldn’t be studied. The great works that climb their way onto Year 12 booklists say things about the human condition that are worth thinking about. Having an experience of ‘close reading’ transforms the way we do this. My reading and my love of great literature boomed after 1990. I’ve devoured Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi, Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders and Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, books now on the 2011 curriculum. I’ve sat in audiences watching Cosi, The Crucible and A Streetcar Named Desire. I’ve rented Twelve Angry Men and caught Marlon Brando’s On the Waterfront as a late night movie classic. I’ve not only seen Witness, I’ve driven around the amusingly named town of Intercourse, Pennsylvania, pretending I wasn’t taking photos of Amish pony traps. I loved them all, especially The Secret River, which I rate alongside Christopher Koch’s Highways to a War as my favourite Australian novel.

With Texts in the City, the Wheeler Centre wants to expose you, the jaded class of 2011, to the love affair that people have experienced with these texts you hate. Or if ‘hate’ seems too strong a word for now, the texts you will hate by November of this year. Or at least be weary of.

We’re hoping that students will come along and see that, quite apart from the course requirements and the declared themes and the likely questions on November’s exam, these texts exist as books, plays and films – as pieces of art that inspire and delight people in the millions. They’re beautiful – inspiring even. For the Year 12 student, these works are barbecued to within an inch of their lives, but for us, they are gourmet delicacies.

And so class of 2011, come and share in the banquet. It’ll be fun. And maybe, just maybe, help you write an English essay that won’t be worth reading in 2032.

Tony Wilson will be hosting half of the Text in the City events. The other half will be hosted by the Melbourne Writers’ Festival’s Jenny Niven. Tony latest novel is Making News, which involves a Year 11 boy whose father is caught up in a tabloid inspired sex scandal. Twitter: @byTonyWilson