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 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 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 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 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 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 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 11 October 2000
This is one of those novels which you will devour in one sitting, always saying to yourself "just one more chapter and then I'll leave it" but you won't! It tells the story of the end of a Sicilian dynasty with the leopard in question being a Prince of Sicily. He watches as his country is changed and turned upside down by revolution and as the fuedal system, which is all he knows is slowly obliterated. It is more a tale of people then of plot, of emotions rather than dialogue. It is a book full of beauty, pride, longing, regret, love, passion, tragedy and triumph. Poetic and haunting it is like a piece of music which is perfect to the last note and leaves you feeling that you are a richer person for having read it.
on 17 September 2007
Having bought this book and read it cover to cover over and over I was so pleased to see this latest version had been released.
I had purchased this in Italian last year but I'm still inexperienced in the language so was very pleased to see its now been translated.
An excellent intoduction from Gio, Lampedusa's adopted son and the two extracts from unpublished lost parts of the book lend it to say its now fully complete.
With revisions to the translation, thankfully done at last, its the conclusive read for this novel.
For further info read Gilmour's "The Last Leopard" as it will let you see how life lead to the fiction we all love in this novel.
I was directed to this novel in a search for literature relating to Sicily, prior to a trip there later this year. The consensus appears to be that it's one of the finest novels to come out of Italy, let alone Sicily, but I found that getting into it required some degree of orientation since I was completely unfamiliar with its setting in time (1860-1910) and place. In this edition, this is ably provided by a note from the translator, which briskly describes how Sicily was to be transformed by the landing of Garibaldi in May 1860 (which is when novel opens) and the on-going reunification of the kingdoms of Italy.
The novel itself is about the character and family of Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, and how both are affected by the country's political transformation from an collection of states into a single kingdom. However, that action takes place in the background, and attention is tightly focussed on Don Fabrizio's life and relationships - particularly that with Tancredi, his young nephew who appears to be more adaptable in changing times. Reading it, I was reminded of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, a book which is also concerned with a family's reactions to off-screen political upheavals. Like that masterpiece, the writing here is of such a high quality that the reader feels as if they are observing events and characters at first hand. Here, for example, is the description of the entrance of a character who is to have a prolonged affect on the family [p56]:
"She was tall and well-made, on an ample scale; her skin looked as if it had the flavour of fresh cream which it resembled, her childlike mouth that of strawberries. [...] She was moving slowly, making her wide white skirt rotate around her, and emanating from her whole person the invincible calm of a woman sure of her own beauty."
When the author follows this cinematic description of Angelica's external appearance with a casual aside about her state of mind ["Only many months later was it known that at the moment of that victorious entry of hers she had been on the point of fainting with nerves"], it illustrates his affection for the characters (many of which were based on real people), and we're moved to care for them as well. This isn't a long book, but its scenes cover a good deal of time and will resonate with the attentive reader. Highly recommended.