A shopkeeper in the Vucciria market in Palermo offers me a taste of local peccorino cheese on the tip of something that looks like a machete. It is a classic Proustian moment. The inner mouse accepts, nibbles at the wedge with a thoughtful face, and goes for three quarters of a kilo. Is there a conservative animal amongst us—I wonder as I stumble out with the greasy parcel under my arm into the dusty Sicilian springtime—who has not bought into a vice, a culture, or a way of life upon accepting a precariously balanced sample?
I recalled Lampedusa’s Prince, hurrying to his assignation with a mistress, whom he cynically describes as the family pet in a silk petticoat, through this part of town.
It was a short walk, but through a quarter of ill repute. . . . Sinister-looking youths in wide trousers were quarrelling in the guttural grunts Sicilians use in anger. In the distance echoed shots from nervous sentries. Once past this district his route skirted the Cala. In the old fishing port decaying boats bobbed up and down, desolate as mangy dogs.
Afterward, as he makes his way home, the Prince is “immersed in sated ease tinged with disgust.”
Years ago, when I had become conversant with the underworld of prostitution in London, I often saw the same incremental suborning of reason used...