The Leopard

The Leopard was Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s only novel and he wrote it late in life.  So late, in fact, that he had no clue it would be published 18 months after his death. Family legend has it that he screwed up the courage to write only after seeing his cousin, Lucio Piccolo, start out late as a poet and win a prize for his work. Lampedusa wrote to a friend, ‘Being mathematically certain that I was no more foolish than Lucio, I sat down at my desk and wrote a novel.’ With typical abject humility he also said: ‘It is, I fear, rubbish.’ Lampedusa was a quiet, inconspicuous sort of person; a nobleman living with vastly reduced status but enough money not to have to work. ‘I am a very solitary person,’ he wrote. ‘Out of the sixteen hours I spend awake each day, at least ten are spent in solitude.’ From this solitude flourished his only true career as a voracious reader. Books were his cherished treasures and his main expense, and he spent his mornings trawling the meagre bookshops of Palermo, visiting his favourite, Flaccovio, every day for ten years. He always carried with him a bag packed full of volumes including one of Shakespeare, so that ‘he could console himself with it if he should see something disagreeable’, according to his wife, Licy. It is extraordinary – but surely also a tribute to the pedagogic power of reading – that he should have sat down and produced something as beautiful and strange as The Leopard on his first (and last) attempt.

the_leopardThe Leopard is the story of the long-drawn out decline of a noble Sicilian family. It opens in 1861 just as Garibaldi is leaping about the country, uniting its various factions through his military campaign. But all this vulgar action is discreetly left to its own devices, beyond the scope of the narrative, just as the Prince and his family withdraw to one of their country estates to avoid any hint of real battle. Their aristocratic stature encases them in security and tedium, almost-but-not-quite protected from the realities of life, like the disembowelled corpse of a soldier that briefly spoils the beauty of their rose garden. The tale is an inward-looking one, of a family at the height of its ripeness, full of flavour and texture, rich and resplendent and on the verge of decay. As it rots away, the story is redolent of nostalgia for what once was, splendid melancholy for its loss, and a hint of repulsion at what it must become.

The narrative occurs in a series of vignettes of family life. The first introduces the reader to the Prince, who is the beating heart of the story. The Prince is a wonderful creation, a man of overarching uselessness who is a petty tyrant with his family and a passionate astronomer on the quiet. Melancholy, proud and a bit petulant, he has no trouble reconciling his conscience with visits to his mistress under cover of giving the priest a lift into town in his carriage. His heart is only moved by his dog and his nephew, Tancredi. The young man has been left penniless by his family but by no means without resources; maverick, mischevious and brave, the Prince loves him for his genuine vitality, even though he is the embodiment of the modern spirit that will hasten the dissolution of old families like the Salina clan.

And as soon as they get to the safety of their country estate, Tancredi falls for the glorious Angelica, daughter of the local mayor who has a Medusa touch. It’s a sensible choice for a man of aristocratic birth who lacks cold, hard cash and the Prince is willing to sanction the union, seeing it as the first, inevitable step towards the new Italy. At first, though, the Prince struggles to come to terms with the sheer difference of Mayor Don Calogero, his lack of delicacy, his upfront pursuit of money, his awful clothes. But negotiating the marriage settlement, he shows himself to be generous and kind and the Prince is moved by exquisite relief:

The nobleman rose to his feet, took a step towards the surprised Don Calogero, raised him from his armchair, clasped him to his breast; the Mayor’s short legs were suspended in the air. For a moment, that room in a remote Sicilian province looked like a Japanese print of a huge, violet iris with a hairy fly hanging from a petal.’

Did I mention that the great charm of this novel is that it is so unexpectedly funny? The writing is wonderful; crisp, perceptive, witty, vivid. It’s the sort of novel where characters give long, eloquent speeches about the state of the church in Italy, and the Sicilian national character and although you sigh on the approach into them, you find you are laughing on the way out. There are some delightful passages, like the visit of the political envoy, the extremely anxious Chevalley di Monterzuolo, whose ‘head had been stuffed with the tales of brigands by which Sicilian’s love to test the nervous resistance of new arrivals’ and who fails to make the Prince accept a seat in the new governing council. And one chapter is filled with an evening at a ball, the epitome of the grace, the splendour and the futility of the old regime.

But the underlying force of the sumptuous prose is entropy, nevertheless. The novel captures the spirit and the soul of a generation on the cusp of its dissolution. It’s a book in which not a lot happens – increasingly less happens, in fact, as it moves through its stages – but it still happens with immense grace and clear-sightedness, wry good-humour and ironic self-interest. It is sad and splendid, rather like the man who wrote it.



14 thoughts on “The Leopard

  1. Thank you for sharing the info on the author. I had no idea and love that bit about him carrying a Shakespeare book in case he read something disagreeable!
    I’m afraid I didn’t join in on the Slaves reading because I don’t have fond memories of this book. I remember trying to read it with a book group ages ago. I think my reading tastes have definitely broadened and after reading your review of it I think I should give it another go one of these days.

    • Iliana, it’s lovely to hear from you! I do hope everything is okay with you and your family. Having a previous bad experience with the book strikes me as a perfectly acceptable reason for not reading it! It is definitely one of those plotless novels that are not to everyone’s taste. And you have to be in the mood for it!

  2. “The Leopard” is indeed a classic, loved that book. I found the new novel “My Brilliant Friend” also a compelling read about more recent Italian life.

    • anokatony, funnily enough, Elena Ferrante is one of the authors on my must-get-to list. I own a couple of her earlier novels and they look powerful and intriguing. Thank you for the recommendation! And I’m so glad to find another fan of The Leopard.

  3. I started it but I didn’t want to rush it and it wasn’t the right moment. I’m sure I will like it, I suppose. I compared the English and the Italian and the tone is quite different but it’s still obvious how wonderful it is.

  4. What a beautiful post–now I am regretting not having picked it up to read along with the Slaves. Just plain laziness and a problem focusing on anything too serious or challenging at the moment. I want to read it more now than ever so will keep it close at hand–maybe after my crime fest this month? I see shades of myself in your description of him (though I would probably be carrying a mystery or a Mary Stewart novel or something on those lines around with me instead of Shakespeare! 🙂 ).

  5. I read this book as a teenager and loved it – it was so different from anything I’d ever read before. A beautiful evocation of change, loss and the slide into irrelevance. I still remember the stuffed dog all these years later!

  6. This has been sitting on my shelves for ages without my ever having felt inclined to open it – until today. Having just discovered that even ‘Cranford’ can astound me I must put aside any preconceptions I have and read this immediately.

    PS Clearly what Lampedusa needed was a Kindle.

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