A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I first read The Leopard many many years ago and while I admired it I don’t think I really understood what I was reading. I was woefully ignorant of the history of Italy, knew nothing in detail about the Risorgimento, had heard of Garibaldi but had never been curious enough to find out exactly why he was so significant. As a result, I read it in a sort of vacuum, in which it seemed to me to be some sort of extraordinarily rich historical fantasy, written about a place and time that was conjured from the imagination.
Recently, I have been doing some catching up, having fallen in love with the idea of Italy, and with the very few parts of it I have now visited (all in the North – Sicily next for me, I think). I’ve been so intrigued by the weird juxtaposition of the antiquity of its heritage and the the sensation that Italy is a new state united when my great-grandparents were alive (I come from a ‘long family’), which gives rise to a mixed sense of pride and precariousness still today.
It is obvious to me now that The Leopard is an immense document of that pivotal historical event – a novel, yes, but also an authentic attempt to describe the forces at work and the effects on a people and a place with a long and embattled past. The author, whose sole published novel this is, was Giuseppe Tomasi, Prince of Lampedusa, a Sicilian aristocrat who died in 1957 before he could be certain that his work, so long in the writing, would be published. The eponymous Leopard of the novel is also a Sicilian Prince: Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina. He is a powerful figure in every possible sense – lord of endless dry, dusty acres, numerous palaces, and of the populace of whole towns and villages. He is tall, strong, immensely charismatic, has a beautiful, tiny wife and a numerous family. He is an extraordinary mixture of savage and civilised, and so is his vast domain. The novel starts in a uniquely clever way, in that we do not even get to meet the Prince until page 3 – the first living creature we encounter is his beloved Great Dane, Bendicó – just a hint that everything about the protagonist is going to be larger than life. Don Fabrizio is an intelligent and respected tyrant, absolute lord of his possessions, and a well-read scholar with a wider reputation as a mathematician and astronomer. He has some German heritage (anyone who wonders why on earth Burt Lancaster was the perfect casting for him in Visconti’s film just needs to look at page 3 of the novel) which goes some way to explain his physique as a fair giant among people who are far smaller and slighter. The tawny, powerful heraldic leopard could not be more apt as a symbol for the Prince.
Salina pays ironic allegiance to his monarch, the last King of the Two Sicilies, while failing to reassure him that the future is secure. He can see change coming as clear as day. It is the death of King Ferdinand II that knocks out the final defence against the movement for reunification of Italy spearheaded by Garibaldi. At the heart of the novel is the journey the Prince, this clever, charismatic, savage man, has to make from personal despotism to being part of the new Italy. The novel is written from his point of view, almost from inside his head, and we can follow the raging forces of tradition and progress warring in his mind and his decisions. He is not in denial: he is intelligent enough to respect the great minds and bold vision of those who are working for unity. He knows that the future for his class is circumscribed, and this gives some affirmation to his preference for his witty, ironic, brave nephew Tancredi, local hero of the Risorgimento and the face of the new Italy, and his contempt for his lacklustre sons with their sense of entitlement. It is Tancredi who can ease him into this new world, helping him to bend and not break.
At the heart of the novel is the family’s progress to its huge rambling summer retreat of Donnafugata, half palace, half ruin, the parts no longer needed by the family just left to decay. This time, he encounters the new public face of Italy, the parvenu Mayor of the town and his astoundingly beautiful daughter Angelica. Tancredi immediately abandons his tepid, almost imperceptible courtship of his cousin Concetta for extravagant pursuit of the Mayor’s daughter, enlisting his uncle in negotiating their engagement.
This for Don Fabrizio is the beginning of the compromises he is going have to make with his class, his status and his authority. He has to make peace with the bourgeoisie, for the sake of family happiness and the forging of the new Italy. It is brilliantly realised. The Prince’s sensuality plays a part – he sees the stunningly beautiful Angelica as a worthy reward for his brave protégé, and one he would have liked to possess himself, only on different terms in his old seigneurial guise. Superb set-pieces such as Tancredi’s and Angelica’s unbearably sensual yet chaste exploration of Donnafugata in all its ruined magnificence; and the ball, where Angelica and the Prince dance and everyone watches them, reveal the new Italy embracing the old Sicily. From then, there is no going back, and we see the Prince and his family quietly fading from view in the land they used to command.
I wish I could engage with the novel in Italian, but I cannot – however, it is well-served by one of the most brilliant translations of fiction of the 20th century, by Archibald Colqhoun, and it can be enjoyed to the full just on those terms alone. I remember why I read the novel all those years ago in its original Harvill edition – it was also a landmark in book design, the blood-red cover and the bold, rampant heraldic Leopard staring straight at the reader made it irresistible. There have been other paperback editions, but Vintage has the good sense to revive this cover design and share with the reader the impact of a true icon of jacket art. Wonderful. This edition also has an affectionate and well-informed foreword by Lampedusa’s nephew and heir, giving the intriguing and complicated publication history of the novel, and introducing some previously excluded material.
The Leopard is a unique work of art, that gave rise to another, Lucchino Visconti’s immense film starring Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale. I originally intended to talk about both, but have had far too much to say about the novel to detain you any further – something for a ‘part two’ post, I feel, as there is so much to say about how the novel was adapted into another form that (in my opinion, which is not the only one) is true to the spirit of the novel while being an artistic achievement of a very different nature. Meanwhile, I just want to urge you, if you have ever seen and been intrigued by this novel, to try it – in my view it is a neglected classic and there is no other novel quite like it.
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa: The Leopard. London: Vintage, 2007. 272pp (Vintage Classics series)
ISBN 13: 9780099512158
First published 1958; in English 1961