on 24 January 2005
Every once in a while you stumble upon a book so magical, so beautifully and carefully written and so engrossing that the boundaries of what you thought were great literature are so rendered pointless that you reassess your opinions on all of the books you have read before. Lampedusa's 'The Leopard' is one such book. It was on reading an interview with Martin Scorcese about the birth of the mafia in Scicily that the book was brought to my attention; it is with a huge debt of gratitude that I tracked it down and dove into its beautiful depths. Never has a book moved me and made me thirst for more as this. The central character, Fabrizio, is a masterful creation; in turns a swaggering relic of the past and pathetic and useless bulwark against the onslaught of modernity encapsulated by Garibaldi. The pathos which threads through the novel is perfectly mirrored by the knowledge that Lampedusa wrote no more than this; a tragedy, which qualifies this as the greatest novel of the 20th Century. If you love literature, life and great works of art, read this.
on 8 July 2007
Beautifully written, this book kept me hooked with a moving story of the fading powers and fortunes of Sicilian aristocracy amid the fast-changing powers and politics of Italy in the late 1800's.
I found it a deeply reflective book with many metaphors for our changing world today - and the impact of changing old regimes for new - class systems, ruling powers, business politics, different generations of people.
The characters feel real and timeless, and the book helps in understanding Sicilian culture and history and why the once-beautiful palaces were left to crumble.
The writing often appears to ramble-off in different directions with the abstract thinking of the characters - which at first I found a weakness of the book - but now I think this is its' strength - as you get inside the heads of the characters and realise their weaknesses, hang-ups and sources of despair.
The book has tremendous balance of light and dark - 'light' with flashes of beauty describing a garden, joy at dogs playing, decriptions of rooms, furnishings and food (described so well I could taste), situations or characters that made me laugh out loud - 'dark' with brooding passion, doom and depression, empty rooms in fading palaces with dark pasts, forgotten gardens, rotting corpses, death and decline. Many of the words and themes from the book remain with me post-reading - the book is meaningful and affected me at a deeper level.
The film of the book, however visually lavish, I found disappointing in comparison with the book itself. The film makes the main character too letcherous, does not give enough insight to the motivations and concerns of the characters (as you don't get the self-talk passages that carry the book along) and sadly it misses out the last two chapters (which I found the most moving and insightful - as these show what happens to the generations of characters by 1910).
I'm sad that Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa did not write more books - however this one book is more powerful and memorable to me than lifetime works of most other writers put together.
Very highly recommended.
on 1 June 2005
The plot in "The Leopard" spans some 50 years, from 1869 to 1910. The novel opens when the Bourbon sates of Naples and Sicily, called the kingdom of the Tow Sicilies, is about to end and the Italian peninsula is to become one state again for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire. The first chapter is set in May 1860 precisely when Garibaldi arrives in Sicily from Genoa. The "Garibaldini" land in Marsala and within two weeks occupy the capital, Palermo. Gathering more volunteers, Garibaldi crosses to the mainland and defeats the Bourbon troops on the Volturno. Subsequently Garibaldi hands over southern Italy to King Victor Emmanuel and every state in the peninsula agrees to join the new united kingdom via plebiscites. Finally the revolutionary actions of the Risorgimento - the movement for unification - are ended by the Italian government troops and Rome is declared as capital of Italy in 1870.
It is against this historical background that the reader follows the life of Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, a Sicilian aristocrat who watches impassively the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance. He is no less abated by the decline of his own prestige than the numerous prancing bewhiskered stone leopards adorning his palaces. One follows his worries about daughters, dowries, political careers and religious intrigues. He submits to endless little subterfuges, he the leopard who used to sweep away effortlessly difficulties with the wave of his paw. Don Fabrizio is surrounded by a multitude of hilariously grotesque characters with whom the author casts an amused but bitter glance at the Sicilian mentality. "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, 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 consider they have an imperial past which gives them a right to a grand funeral."
Giuseppe di Lampedusa painstakingly meditated for twenty-five years over his novel. He was sixty before he finally wrote it and he completed it a few months before his death in 1957. He was then told by an Italian editor that his novel is unpublishable!
on 26 February 2005
I think this may be the nearest thing to a perrfect novel. It's set in Sicily around the time of the '100 days' - the beginning of Garibaldi's campaign to unite Italy (and extend the franchise along the way). The central character is an aging aristocrat. He is at once admirable, contemptible and pitiable. He is more aware than his peers that the power of his class is crumbling, along with his own previously formidable powers. His loyalty - to his family, his class, and a king whom he personally despises - dominates his actions, even while he knows the inevitability of failure. Yet his personal relations with his family are distant.
The book is a great work of art. Much is understated, implied, ambiguous. The revolution has bittersweet consequences: it is obvious what was gained, but something was lost (the author was also a count). So much is said in so few words. Occasionally the peaks of human artistry inspire awe: how can a person do this? This is such a peak. Paragraphs, pages even, are perfect.
on 24 March 2001
I had intended to read The Leopard, Lampudesa's classic book of the slow distintegration of Sicilian nobility, for a long, long time. I would pick the book up from time to time, start the first paragraph and simply fail to get engaged.
Then, just last week, I told myself I was going to find out what all the fuss was about.
What a great move on my part.
True, The Leopard begins slowly, with sumptuous and often poetic descriptions of a land and a palace and a way of life. Slowly, though most deliberately, the books builds to a steady crescendo. It is a literary equivalent of Ravel's Bolero.
Through Lampudesa's magnificent language and, more important, his willingness to give his character a brutal honesty, we come to see the way a life is lived and a way of life is washed away forever. For as much as The Leopard is the story of one man, Don Fabrizio, it is also the story of the Sicilian nobles: sometimes cruel, sometimes benevolent, always interesting.
By the end of the book --- a stunning and ultimately completely satisfying ending, too --- you are wishing this story would just go on and on.
It's a wonderful book, and one that deserves immediate reading.
on 24 May 2006
The Leopard is a strange novel. It was the only book written and published by Giovanni Tomasi di Lampedusa, last scion of a decadent Sicilian noble family. He wrote it towards the end of an indolent life and didn't live to see it brought into the world by the publishing house, Feltrinelli. It doesn't have a plot; to recount what happens would make it sound like a biography leavened with social history. It is a book about an aristocrat by an aristocrat recalling the passing of an age of aristocracy, and yet one that would have made a lot of sense to the Marxist literary culture of 1950s Italy. Its outlook is one of weary disillusionment that holds out little hope of social improvement or even personal contentment. It sounds dreadfully depressing, doesn't it? Lampedusa himself said once, "It is, I fear, rubbish." Actually, it is neither.
At its heart, there is one character: Fabrizio Corbero, Prince of Salina, The Leopard. It is in the portrayal of this man, and through his eyes, that of Sicily and its people that the quality of The Leopard lies. Lampedusa's eye is very sharp and sensitive to the smallest fluctuations of mood and motive, to the currents of history that pass through, or by, the characters and to the contradictions that sit comfortably together in every moment. One example of many. Salina is out hunting with the parish priest and they bring down a rabbit. They are out of sight of any human habitation in a land that would have looked the same to the Phoenicians, Dorians and Ionians 2,000 years before. The two hunters approach the fatally wounded prey and Don Fabrizio is fixed upon by "eyes that showed no reproof, but were full of a stunned shock towards the whole order of things ... the animal was dying tortured by an anxious hope of salvation, imagining its escape when it was already done for, just like so many men...a shiver went through the small body and it died; Don Fabrizio and Tumeo had had their sport; the first had even felt, in addition to the thrill of killing, the comfort of compassion."
In the space of two paragraphs, one incident and a meeting of eyes, Lampedusa is able compress the relationship of a landscape to its inhabitants, the reactions of men to history, the smallness of individual lives, and yet also the greatness of one life passing and the contradictory feelings of those who have caused it to pass.
There is mush else in The Leopard: a love story combining cynicism, class survival and a powerful eroticism; a country tale involving Salina's 'house priest', the Jesuit Father Pirrone and his family; the frustrated lives of the daughters of the house; the rising middle classes. Each chapter is devoted to a day or couple of weeks stretching from June 1860 to 1910 - from the exploits of Garibaldi and the Thousand to last days of the spinster daughters and the fiftieth anniversary of the establisment of the Kingdom of Italy. Though there are lapses, particularly when the author gives way to the social theorist and delivers lectures on the qualities of the Sicilians and its aristocracy, the quality of vision that Lampedusa's writing grants to the reader makes this book one of the 20th Century masterpieces of Italian literature.
on 5 September 2007
The book opens with a languid but elegant intoduction to the leisured life of Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, a Sicilian princeling of the 1860s. Oh dear, I thought, after reading a few pages. Is this one of those books that has acquired a grand self-perpetuating reputation, a book you have to call a work of genius because everybody else does? At that point, like a boxer delivering a jab, Di Lampedusa casually throws in an account of the recent discovery in the palace gardens of the corpse of a royalist soldier, nailing down every repellent detail a split second before it occurs to the reader - the scrabbling hands, the spilt intestines, the desperation of death... No, I thought, they're right.
A few minutes research on, say, Wikipedia, into the origins, nature and ultimate fate of the "Kingdom of the Two Sicilies" whose turbulent decline forms the landscape outside the palace walls is well repaid. Di Lampedusa certainly had the powers to delineate the "risorgimento" - the Italian war of unification - on the epic scale but chose to look at it, so to speak, down the other end of the telescope. This book could sit well with War and Peace as a document of human conflict but Di Lampedusa, being a brilliant miniaturist, keeps the soldiery offstage and the seat of the action is the inner world of Prince Fabrizio. I can hardly think of a character in literature so fully realised.
Fabrizio's central dilemma is this. On the political level he has sufficient acuteness to appreciate that the conversion of Italy from a ramshackle collection of teetering monarchies into a liberal, bourgeois whole may be as much a relief as a threat. What stops him from throwing in his lot with the "garibaldini" is a combination of inner fastidiousness and (we are told) the peculiarly Sicilian infection of inertia. He foresees the extinction of his own kind but accepts it as a kind of historical inevitability. On the personal level, Fabrizio's perceptiveness cuts him off from the largely lumpen and earthbound preoccupations of his own family and kind; he is not a happy man. The only diamond in the rough is his endearing but calculating nephew Tancredi, a main-chancer very acutely focussed on the opportunities afforded by the break-up of the ancien regime. Whilst admiring Tancredi's energy, Fabrizio himself feels a sense of bafflement, of dislocation from which he knows there is no earthly deliverance.
If the highest art for a writer is the ability to put in words, often few words, the half-realised but unexpressed ideas and feelings we all have, but only recognise when the words are before us, then this is high art. The book contains a number of wonderful set-pieces of writing of the most glorious quality. My favourite is the few pages where Tancredi and his new betrothed Angelica, throwing off their chaperone, explore room after dusty room of the Prince's massive, closed-up palace at Donnafugata, growing ever more remote from the inhabited part, each glance or touch a near-miss with premarital consummation. The sex-drenched mood is only broken by the ringing of the church bell and, quite suddenly, all is prosaic again.
Of course what makes all this remarkable is that, substantially, this was Di Lampedusa's only work. The introduction to this version of the book describes him, somewhat unfairly, as a "literary dilletante". Possibly it is for the best that he wrote nothing else. As the descendant of a Sicilian noble family himself he was uniquely equipped to construct the fabric of this book. He said more in one volume than most writers achieve in a lifetime's work.
Finally, enormous credit must go to the translator, Archibald Colquhoun, for the capture in English of what is clearly a finely nuanced work.
on 16 March 2011
I first read The Leopard in 1967, at the age of 24. It was a publishing sensation, and had reached its 9th UK paperback impression since 1963. It came trailing clouds of hype.
I was disappointed. It was not a *good read*. It was sombre, ironic and reflective in mood. My friends and I liked best the chapter "Love at Donnafugata" but even that seemed overly muted and rueful. Nevertheless, I felt it was a book I would re-read one day, and my copy accompanied me through life.
In due course I experienced Visconti's dazzling film version, arguably the most successful and faithful film re-creation of a great novel ever achieved. Over the years I saw the film three or four times, and at last, in my sixties, I got round to reading my copy again.
Now it all made sense. As a reflection on life, by someone who had fully lived, it was profound, compassionate and fearsomely clear-sighted. On finishing it, I wanted to read it yet again - it is not a book that is exhausted by one reading. So I have bought a new copy, with a clearer typeface. It is a detail that Lampedusa would have appreciated!
on 16 March 2012
I have to agree with one of the other reviews - The Leopard is a strange novel. It is set in Sicily and starts in 1860. It follows the fortunes of Prince Fabrizio and his family. From his adoring and long suffering wife, adventurous nephew and his love for the low-born but new-monied Angelica, and his ignored daughters.
At the time of the arrival of Garibaldi all is in slow transition for the old families of Sicily, even set against the inertia of the island. Other families move in the right circles and are buying land. The Prince (the Leopard) knows this is happening but there is a feeling of inevitability.
There is no great depth to the book, it is gentle, strolling almost. There is little tension, no cliff edge, no battle scenes. It is centred around the thoughts of the Prince, his priest, his daughter. However, it left me wanting to know more, I was disappointed that I didn't learn what happened to some of the family members - there was a jump from 1860 to 1883 to 1910 - I wanted to know what happened in between.
This is a delightful book, the author weaves wonderful descriptions and dialogues, the rapid changes in the establishment against the background of the slow pace of Sicilian life with the feeling that all of the characters are being pulled along by something pre-ordained and out of their control.
I really would recommend anyone to read this book that just wants to lose themselves for a day or so in an entirely different world. It is an easy read, not a book that you have to work hard at, but one that left me feeling calm and peaceful. I loved it.
on 18 September 2012
This is one of the great novels of all time, a superb story about the decline of a Sicilian aristocrat in the 19th century, told against the backdrop of Garibaldi's landing on that island on his gradual way to uniting the whole of Italy. Like all great novels it takes an interesting story and, through the quality of the writing, turns it into a tale for all times that anyone, regardless of background, can read and appreciate.
This particular edition is a hardback facsimile of the english translation as it first appeared over 50 years ago. As such it is a lovely book to have and would grace any reader's shelves. However, if you are new to The Leopard, take a good look at the current paperback edition. What that reprints, that this does not, is a helpful introduction by Lampedusa's adopted son. This gives a fascinating insight into the composition and drawn out process of getting the book into print, which is an interesting tale in itself.
Also printed there- again missing in this edition- are passages omitted from the original novel that have recently come to light. Taken alone those are of academic interest only perhaps. However, "The Leopard" was Lampedusa's only completed novel, and most people who read it become converts for life. In that context, any extra crumbs of prose from the master's table are worth reading.
You pays your money and takes your choice, then. However, true devotees could probably justify owning both editions!