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 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.