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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Unique Read, 5 Sep 2007
This review is from: The Leopard (Paperback)
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.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 29 Dec 2008 14:49:07 GMT
To me Colin Martyr's is the most precise and perceptive review of all. However, it is a tribute to the richness of this masterpiece that whole areas of its accomplishment are scarcely touched upon. The ironies on many levels bring to mind Gibbon, even Jane Austen, at their best. Read the last paragraph, with its final image of the dog Bendico, and various passages about the stars, and you realise this is a vision as poetic yet bleak as Samuel Beckett's. A truly breathtaking, haunting book which must not be read in haste, but savoured - it will live in the mind for ever.
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