Not being a great fan of historical novels and lacking any in-depth knowledge of 19th century European (specifically Italian) politics, I approached The Leopard with modest expectations. The book was a present from my daughter who had urged me to read it and when I showed little enthusiasm, she gave it to me as a birthday gift a few years ago. I got around to reading it only recently and found myself irresistibly wrapped up in a 150 year old tale of baroque Italian politics - the delicate balance of class hierarchy, tensions between progressives and traditionalists and above all, the life story of an aristocratic man who viewed history, power, human relations and the inevitability of death with an almost telescopic distance and detachment.
The Leopard, written by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa was published a year after the author’s death in 1957. Based on the life of his great-grandfather, the benevolent Sicilian tyrant Don Fabrizio, the Prince of Salina, Lampedusa’s account is meticulous in attention, generous in admiration and tinged with half hearted regret for the loss of a certain way of life. I say half-hearted because it is not entirely clear whether the author, the penurious descendant of a once prosperous and proud feudal family, gently mocks his ancestor’s grandiose ways while harboring considerable affection for the man himself.
The title character, Don Fabrizio aka The Leopard (a nickname derived from the family’s coat of arms) is a fascinating character. Large and proud, possessing big appetites and enormous physical strength, the Prince was elegant, generous, occasionally unthinkingly cruel and often unexpectedly melancholy. He supported the brood of offspring he had spawned with his long suffering wife as well as a large retinue of servants and dependants. But he was not above casting a jaundiced eye on their minor shortcomings. His wife's hysterical sorrow exasperated him; his sons disappointed him; his daughters' emotional upheavals irritated him. Outwardly reverential toward the ever present Jesuit clergy (the Jesuit intially opposed the Italian revolution for unification that is the backdrop of the novel), he rarely missed an opportunity to mock the resident priest Father Pirrone for his piety and poor personal hygiene. In fact the only character in the novel toward whom the Prince was unfailingly affectionate and forgiving was his charming and ambitious nephew Tancredi Falconeri, a penniless aristocratic young man who fought on the side of Garibaldi’s Red Shirts who brought the battle for the Risorgimento to the Sicilian shores in 1860.
The novel, after its posthumous publication, became an instant sensation. It was embraced and assailed by both the left and the right of the Italian political divide. Many conservatives felt that Lampedusa had betrayed his own noble heritage by mocking the upper class while some progressives with socialist leanings interpreted his views as a repudiation of the Italian unification. Many prominent leftist Italian writers criticized him for telling a “straight” old fashioned story that was not edgy and did not make an unambiguous socialist statement - Lampedusa was not avant garde enough for their taste. But that it was a literary triumph was recognized by many others in Italy and abroad. When the French writer Louis Aragon, a leading Marxist intellectual, called The Leopard “the greatest novel of all time” that owed nothing to Joyce or Proust and was also left wing in its sympathies, the criticism at home subsided. Later the English author E.M. Forster called it a 'noble book,' that was not so much a historical novel but a 'novel which happens to take place in history.'
I myself did not see any overt evidence of Marxist leanings expressed in the novel although there is no doubt that Lampedusa, the author, was on the side of justice and fair play. But on whose side was the Prince, the novel's protagonist? Don Fabrizio took great satisfaction in his personal wealth and influence but still had a finely tuned ear for the nuances in the skittish voices of poor peasants and the unctuous and gauche etiquette of the newly rich aspiring aristocrats, climbing their way out of the working class. He despised his own cautious and traditionalist son and adored the cocky, populist nephew who fought on the side of the rebels. Unlike Alberto Moravia, many others among the Italian intelligentsia with communist /socialist sympathies saw The Leopard as a tribute to the common man – the peasants and laborers who were freed of their feudal yoke by Garibaldi’s uprising. The novel’s emphasis on the rigid class structure of the under-developed and poverty ridden 19th century Sicily impressed the left and many became admirers. Lampedusa’s account of the Risorgimento convinced Marxist director Luchino Visconti to turn it into a film. The political left’s fascination with the novel notwithstanding, the reader can not be entirely sure if Don Fabrizio saw the unification of Italy as a desirable outcome for Sicily or a disaster for his own family and cohorts. Whether he applauded the displacement of the aristocracy, making way for a more egalitarian society, is not a message that is loudly telegraphed. Was the Prince’s casual reference to the political theory espoused by "some German Jew whose name I can't remember,” enough for the leftists to claim him as their own? It is a rather slender hook on which to hang the hat of solidarity because what the Prince actually said about feudalism, social revolutions and Sicily, is more intriguing than any simple statement of left or right philosophy. For example, when an envoy of the new government travels to the Prince’s palace with the offer of a senate seat, The Leopard refuses and instead responds with the following impassioned outburst.
'You're a gentleman, Chevalley, and I consider it a privilege to have met you; you are right in all you say; your only mistake was saying "the Sicilians must want to improve." I'll tell you a personal anecdote. Two or three days before Garibaldi entered Palermo I was introduced to some British naval officers from one of the warships then in harbour to keep an eye on things. They had heard, I don't know how, that I own a house down on the shore facing the sea, with a terrace on its roof from which can be seen the whole circle of hills around the city; they asked to visit this house of mine and look at the landscape where Garibaldini were said to be operating, as they could get no clear idea from their ships. In fact Garibaldi was already at Gibilrossa. They came to my house, I accompanied them up on to the roof; they were simple youths in spite of their reddish whiskers. They were ecstatic about the view, the vehemence of the light; they confessed, though, that they had been horrified at the squalor, decay, filth of the streets around. I didn't explain to them that one thing was derived from the other, as I have tried to with you. Then one of them asked me what those Italian volunteers were really coming to do in Sicily. "They are coming to teach us good manners!" I replied in English. "But they won't succeed, because we are gods."
'I don't think they understood, but they laughed and went off.That is my answer to you too, my dear Chevalley; the Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery; every invasion by outsiders, whether so by origin or, if Sicilian, by independence of spirit, upsets their illusion of achieved perfection, risks disturbing their satisfied waiting for nothing; having been trampled on by a dozen different peoples, they think they have an imperial past which gives them a right to a grand funeral.
'Do you really think, Chevalley, that you are the first who has hoped to canalise Sicily into the flow of universal history? I wonder how many Moslem Imams, how many of King Roger’s knights, how many Swabian scribes, how many Angevin barons, how many jurists of the Most Catholic King have conceived the same fine folly; and how many Spanish viceroys too, how many of Charles III’s reforming functionaries! And who knows now what happened to them all! Sicily wanted to sleep in spite of their invocations; for why should she listen to them if she herself is rich, if she’s wise, if she’s civilized, if she’s honest, if she’s admired and envied by all, if, in a word, she is perfect?
It is not much of a stretch to speculate that the Prince was speaking as much about himself as of his beloved Sicily, its languor and inertia. Bone-wary of the rapidly shifting allegiances and reorganization of the power structure in high places, the Prince found in one of his subjects’ spontaneous views of the emerging new order, a more interesting foreshadowing of things to come.
At the end of the evening of the plebiscite the mayor of Donnafugata, the summer home of the Prince, had announced 512 votes for reunification and zero against, making the result unanimous in support of the proposition. During a hunting trip later in the week, Don Fabrizio asked the church organist and his plebian hunting buddy, Ciccio Tumeo, if he had voted yes or no for the Risorgimento. The organist, a poor man whose livelihood depended largely on his employer’s kindness, first replied sullenly that the Prince surely knew from the official result that “everyone” had voted “yes.” But after a while, lulled by the cool mountain air and the Prince’s patient but quizzical demeanor, Don Ciccio suddenly thundered that he had actually voted "against" the dismantling of the old system and the Prince understood without much surprise why the arduous effort of democratization had already failed the common man.
'I, Excellency, voted "no". "No", a hundred times "no". I know what you told me: necessity, unity, expediency. You may be right; I know nothing of politics. Such things I leave to others. But Ciccio Tumeo is honest, poor though he may be, with his trousers in holes' (and he slapped the carefully mended patches on the buttocks of his shooting breeches) 'and I don't forget favours done me! Those swines in the Town Hall just swallowed up my opinion, chewed it and then spat it out transformed as they wanted. I said black and they made me say white. The one time when I could say what I thought that bloodsucker Sedara went and annulled it, behaved as if I'd never existed, as If I never meant a thing, me, Francesco Tumeo La Manna son of the late Leonardo, organist of the Mother Church at Donnafugata, a better man than he is! To think I'd even dedicated to him a mazurka composed by me at the birth of that...' (he bit a finger to rein himself in) 'that mincing daughter of his!'
At this point calm descended on Don Fabrizio, who had finally solved the enigma; now he knew who had been killed at Donnafugata, at a hundred other places, in the course of that night of dirty wind: a new-born babe: good faith; just the very child who should have been cared for most, whose strengthening would have justified all the silly vandalisms. Don Ciccio's negative vote, fifty similar votes at Donnafugata, a hundred thousand 'no's' in the whole Kingdom, would have had no effect on the result, have made it, in fact, if anything more significant; and this maiming of souls would have been avoided. Six months before they used to hear a rough despotic voice saying: 'Do what I say or you're for it!' Now there was already an impression of such a threat being replaced by a money-lender's soapy tones: 'But you signed it yourself, didn't you? Can't you see? It's quite clear. You must do as we say, for here are the IOU's; your will is identical with mine.'
Given Italy’s rich and varied political history, it is tempting to compare The Leopard with Machiavelli’s Prince and Don Fabrizio with the Godfather of popular culture. But the book and its main character lack the theatrics and brutality of either. Don Fabrizio, above all, comes across as an introspective man, a man who would rather scrutinize the laws governing the constellations in the night sky (he was an avid and able amateur astronomer) than analyze the motives of earthly governments which he preferred to merely observe with admiration or contempt as the situation deserved, while letting history take its own course. When the old order crumbled before his eyes, the Prince turned to contemplating the stars and his own death which increasingly came to look like an escape hatch from the tedium of politics and familial and social obligations.
The book begins in the year 1860 and deals mostly with the frantic pace of the revolutionary years up to 1862. Then it makes an abrupt leap to 1883, when the Prince and the other characters are older and the former is on the verge of death. The book wraps up with a final chapter in 1910, describing the declining years of the Prince’s three spinster daughters who continued to live out their lives in the ancestral palace, by then, a decrepit shadow of its former opulent glory when their father ruled the roost.
The Leopard, by some accounts was an unfinished work. But it doesn’t have the jarring feel of one although the last chapters are sweepingly brief. In fact, it is one of the most astute, definitive and artistically crafted political novels I have read. Lampedusa’s extraordinary prose captures the beauty and harshness of the Sicilian landscape as expressively as it does the character of those who inhabit it. The Prince of Salina looms larger than life throughout the novel. Yet we know that far greater forces were at work in the background (Garibaldi never appears in person; his presence is mentioned only through anecdotes) which would change not just the Prince’s fate but also forever that of his family, close friends and the island of Sicily. By the end of the story, everyone had come to terms with the “revolution” including the Catholic Church. Erstwhile revolutionaries had become members of the establishment, their Red Shirt days only a memory; improved roads and newly laid railway lines connected the once forlorn southern island to the rest of Italy; the old feudal aristocracy had given way to new land owners who hid their modest roots by inventing a count or a prince in the family tree. The elements still battered Sicily’s mountains and surrounding seas. Farmers and fishermen continued to do what they had done for centuries. In other words, flamboyant revolutions can change the power structure, cause death, destruction and widespread euphoria or paranoia, but as forces of stable social transformation, they are overrated. Lasting peace and progress mostly require sweating the small stuff.
The Leopard is a wonderful book and at just over 200 pages, it won't take up much of your time - do read.
[A note about the translation: I don't know if The Leopard has more than one English translation. My copy was translated by Archibald Colquhoun, with an excellent introduction by David Gilmour. Not having read the original Italian (Il Gattopardo), I am ill equipped to comment on how true to Lampedusa’s work the translation is. However, Colquhoun’s superb literary effort makes it an excellent read in English. Although the narrative is set in the latter half of the 19thcentury, Lampedusa made several references to mid 20th century technology and politics in the form of futuristic commentary, enabled by 20/20 hindsight. This permits the story to be told in a formal, yet contemporary voice.]