Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Leopard

The Leopard is a strange novel. It was the only book written and published by Giovanni Tomasi di Lampedusa, last scion of a decadent Sicilian noble family. He wrote it towards the end of an indolent life and didn't live to see it brought into the world by the publishing house, Feltrinelli. It doesn't have a plot; to recount what happens would make it sound like a biography leavened with social history. It is a book about an aristocrat by an aristocrat recalling the passing of an age of aristocracy, and yet one that would have made a lot of sense to the Marxist literary culture of 1950s Italy. Its outlook is one of weary disillusionment that holds out little hope of social improvement or even personal contentment. It sounds dreadfully depressing, doesn't it? Lampedusa himself said once, "It is, I fear, rubbish." Actually, it is neither.

At its heart, there is one character: Fabrizio Corbero, Prince of Salina, The Leopard. It is in the portrayal of this man, and through his eyes, that of Sicily and its people that the quality of The Leopard lies. Lampedusa's eye is very sharp and sensitive to the smallest fluctuations of mood and motive, to the currents of history that pass through, or by, the characters and to the contradictions that sit comfortably together in every moment. One example of many. Salina is out hunting with the parish priest and they bring down a rabbit. They are out of sight of any human habitation in a land that would have looked the same to the Phoenicians, Dorians and Ionians 2,000 years before. The two hunters approach the fatally wounded prey and Don Fabrizio is fixed upon by

eyes that showed no reproof, but were full of a stunned shock towards the whole order of things ... the animal was dying tortured by an anxious hope of salvation, imagining its escape when it was already done for, just like so many men...a shiver went through the small body and it died; Don Fabrizio and Tumeo had had their sport; the first had even felt, in addition to the thrill of killing, the comfort of compassion.
In the space of two paragraphs, one incident and a meeting of eyes, Lampedusa is able compress the relationship of a landscape to its inhabitants, the reactions of men to history, the smallness of individual lives, and yet also the greatness of one life passing and the contradictory feelings of those who have caused it to pass.

You will have also noticed that he also does a mean one-liner. It is in this book that a character (Tancredi, Fabrizio's nephew and protégé) explains why he is supporting the 'revolution' in this way: If we want everything to stay the same, everything must change. ("Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come è, bisogna che tutto cambi.") It should not be thought that it is merely a taste for paradox that inspires him. It is entirely right that Tancredi should say this in 1860, however inexact it turns out to be. There's another nice moment when the Salina family make their annual visit to their distant property of Donnafuagata. The arrival is governed by immemorial custom, a great comfort to Don Fabrizio, who nevertheless, in the spirit of the New Age, is the one to step outside the prescribed roles, and announce that "after dinner, we'll be happy to see all our friends". The town talked for many days about this unprecedented cordiality, but "from that moment, imperceptibly, began the decline of his prestige."

There is mush else in The Leopard: a love story combining cynicism, class survival and pure eroticism; a country tale involving Salina's 'house priest', the Jesuit Father Pirrone and his family; the frustrated lives of the daughters of the house; the rising middle classes. Each chapter is devoted to a day or couple of weeks stretching from June 1860 to 1910 - from the exploits of Garibaldi and the Thousand to last days of the spinster daughters and the fiftieth anniversary of the establisment of the Kingdom of Italy. Though there are lapses, particularly when the author gives way to the social theorist and delivers lectures on the qualities of the Sicilians and its aristocracy, the quality of vision that Lampedusa's writing grants to the reader makes this book one of the 20th Century masterpieces of Italian literature.

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