I very much enjoyed The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. It is an intimate book written against the large-scale backdrop of a changing Italy. It’s about family, tradition, class, power, change, war, politics, love. It is by turns heartwarming and heartbreaking, sad and funny.
Published posthumously in 1958, The Leopard is often considered to be one of the most important novels in Italian literature. Sadly, Lampedusa had tried to get the novel published twice and was rejected both times. Maybe it is just as well he was dead when it was finally published because it seemed to make everybody angry. The conservatives criticized if for portraying the decadence of the aristocracy and clergy; the left didn’t like it because the novel criticizes Italian unification; and the Communist Party in Italy didn’t like it because of its non-Marxist portrayal of the working class. Nonetheless, the novel received great acclaim with the support of none other than E.M. Forster. And in 1959, the book won the Strega Prize, Italy’s highest award for fiction.
The story takes place in Sicily and is told by Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina. It is May, 1860, and the army of Giuseppe Garibaldi has just landed in Sicily, ready to unite it with Italy. Don Fabrizio is a bit miffed because his beloved nephew, Prince Tancredi Falconieri, young, handsome and debonair, has joined up with the unificationists. But as unhappy about it as Don Fabrizio may be, he sees which way the wind is blowing. He doesn’t want unification or a republic but he also knows that if he involves himself in the fight against it he will lose even more than his status and by extension so will his family.
In August the family retires to their estate in Donnafugata. The fighting done for now, Tancredi joins them. The arrival of the family sets off a serious of traditional welcome events staged by the town. The citizens and officials greet the family upon arrival, they attend Mass, and then the Princess invites the town officials to the traditional first night dinner. The new mayor, Don Calogero, requests permission to bring his daughter Angelica instead of his wife.
Angelica turns out to be very beautiful and charming. She has been sent away to school to polish the rough edges of the middle class. Her father, Don Fabrizio learns, will very soon become wealthier than he is. And there is more than one instance in the book in which the newly rich Don Calogero reveals his ignorance of upper class conduct and dress, making Don Fabrizio wince as well as a little depressed.
Don Fabrizio’s daughter, Concetta, was certain she would marry Tancredi. She loved him and he did show her favor so it was not an unfounded expectation. However, Tancredi had no money of his own and Concetta, who would have a large dowry, didn’t have quite enough. Angelica, however, would inherit all her father’s wealth. Doesn’t take a genius to know where that storyline is going.
But enough plot.
Don Fabrizio is a wonderful character. He values tradition, it orders his world and his life, it keeps things calm and steady and ordered. When change is inevitable he doesn’t exactly embrace it but he doesn’t fight it either. He just lets it happen. When his priest, Father Pirrone, expresses worry, Don Fabrizio tells him
We’re not blind, my dear Father, we’re just human. We live in a changing reality to which we try to adapt ourselves like seaweed bending under pressure of water. Holy Church has been granted an explicit promise of immortality; we, as a social class, have not. Any palliative which may give us another hundred years of life is like eternity to us. We may worry about our children and perhaps our grandchildren; but beyond what we can hope to stroke with these hands of ours we have no obligations.
At one point, Don Fabrizio, who is often described as moving like a cat or having paws, foresees that the Leopards and Lions will be giving way to the jackals and hyenas.
Don Fabrizio is a dying breed and he knows it. When he actually does die we move forward many years to Concetta and her sisters living in one of the family houses in Palermo in faded splendor. After being jilted by Tancredi, Concetta never married but became and old, bitter spinster holding onto the past. As Tancredi and Angelica move into the future and see their star rise, Concetta sinks into obscurity. Though in the end Concetta does realize that a good deal of her unhappiness is her own fault.
I felt sad for Concetta and sorry for the downfall of the Salina family. They were easy to feel sad about though because they were good people. Nonetheless, nobility represent an inherently unfair system and the bad and the good go down together. Is what followed any better? It did open things up a bit, at least for awhile.
The Leopard is a quiet book filled with detail that I could go on and on about. I will get to go on a little bit more as this was a Slaves group read. Check out the blog to see what others thought and feel free to join in or follow additional conversation in our forum discussion.