The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

There are some books which come to you with baggage; glowing reviews, high status and a weight of expectation that you’re about to read something classic, important and brilliant. Often, this can have the effect of putting you off reading it, or at least make you a bit nervous, and I confess that I was a little apprehensive as I came to start “The Leopard” (and it did take me a few attempts to get going). I’d read such wonderful things about it on blogs I respect that I really hoped I would get out of it what others had!

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“The Leopard” is the only novel to be published by Tomasi di Lampedusa (it came out in 1958, just after his death) and Wikipedia says of the author: Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (December 23, 1896 ā€“ July 23, 1957) was an Italian writer. He is most famous for his only novel, Il Gattopardo (first published posthumously in 1958, translated as The Leopard), which is set in his native Sicily during the Risorgimento. A taciturn and solitary man, he spent a great deal of his time reading and meditating, and used to say of himself, “I was a boy who liked solitude, who preferred the company of things to that of people.”

Risorgimento (meaning resurgence) was the Italian movement to bring all the small sovereign states together into one united Italian nation. This is the political background of the novel and against this we follow the decline of a noble family from Sicily, that of the Princes of Salina, embodied by Don Fabrizio Corbera, the current Prince. The story spans the years from 1860 to 1910 which is a surprising breadth considering the length of the book (190 pages).

The Prince is the absolute patriarch of the family, with all its members (wife, sons and daughters, family priest Father Pirrone, servants and vassals, down to the dog Bendico) subject to his will. The one person seemingly able to get his own way with Don Fabrizio is his nephew Tancredi, a dashing and slightly irreverent young man who captures the heart of a number of women.

Don Fabrizio’s interests are astronomy and women, in which he can indulge at will (though one of these interests often causes his highly religious wife to have hysterics). He’s in total control at the start of the book, powerful and cynical, able to declare: “Love. Of course love. Flames for a year, ashes for thirty.” However, the winds of change are reaching Sicily in the form of the movement to unite Italy – Garibaldi is on the march and the Prince can but hope that once Italy is joined, the nobility will be untouched and the class system will remain.

We follow the family as time progresses – taking a holiday break at their estate at Donnafugata; following the affairs of the heart bothering the family; watching the change of status of the merchant class as money begins to take precedence; and seeing the awareness dawn on Don Fabrizio that the nobility will inevitably decline. The beautiful Angelica, with her lack of class but excess of money, will be pivotal in this change. As the story moves to its inevitable conclusion, we see the world switch before our eyes from an almost mediaeval one to the modern, familiar setting we can recognise.

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In some ways, a simple summary of this book is pointless, because it can never convey the richness of the writing. The prose is wonderful; the characterisation excellent; and reading this, I felt as if I was in the heat of Sicily, living events alongside the protagonists. Tomasi di Lampedusa brilliantly captures the subtle changes in the life around Don Fabrizio and his growing awareness of the failing of his dynasty.

We were the Leopards, the Lions, those who’ll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas; and the whole lot of us, Leopards, jackals, and sheep, we’ll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.

“The Leopard” definitely lives up to the hype; it’s wonderfully written, completely absorbing, elegiac, moving and poignant. The subtlety of the narrative, the weaving together of the strands of the tale and the incredibly atmospheric mood of the book are quite outstanding. It’s impossible, really, to do justice to it in such a short review and I can understand why it’s considered one of the most important Italian novels. Having hesitated a number of times before jumping in, I’m now so glad I’ve read “The Leopard”.

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