The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa

Vintage, 2007, 234 p including 18 p Appendix (containing a 3 p Afterword and 15 p Fragments of the novel with some sonnets) plus xxiv p Foreword. Translated from the Italian Il Gattopardo (Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore, 1958) by Archibald Colquhoun. Foreword and Afterword by Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi. Foreword and Appendix translated from the Italian by Guido Waldman.

The Leopard cover

The good lady read this as it was one of David Bowie’s 100 Favourite Books and she subsequently passed it on to me. Its back cover blurb has a quote from L P Hartley saying it is ‘Perhaps the greatest novel of the century’. It is good but I wouldn’t go quite so overboard as that.

The setting is Sicily at and after the time when the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was absorbed into the new Kingdom of Italy during the Risorgimento. The leopard of the title is Don Fabrizio Cabrera, Prince of Salina, whose family emblem, carved as gateposts on his estate, is always translated as such. (More strictly speaking, a gattopardo is not a leopard but a serval, which appears on the Lampedusa family coat of arms.) The character of the Prince is based on one of the author’s ancestors.

It seems that despite its reputation as a classic the novel is also effectively unfinished. In the foreword we are told that from after first publication up till his death the author had been revising, updating and writing new chapters to be interpolated into the text. This edition contains all this new material with the fragmentary chapters plus some poems attributed to the Prince appearing in the afterword.

The Leopard is a chronicle of the decline of the old Sicilian aristocracy and its replacement by new money and new ways – a decline already in train but accelerated by the altered political dispensation. It delves into the relationships of the Prince with his family, his dog Bendicò, his mistress, the locals and the family priest, Father Pirrone. What plot there is centres on the marriage of the Prince’s nephew Tancredi, an enthusiastic follower of Garibaldi and favoured by Fabrizio over his own sons, to Angelica, the beautiful daughter of a local peasant made good (or in Don Fabrizio’s eyes, bad,) Don Calogero Sedàra. Perhaps in an attempt to broaden the book’s scope to wider Sicilian society one of the interpolated chapters describes a visit of Father Pirrone to his home town where he resolves a dispute involving land and a potential marriage.

A sense of melancholy, of things passing, pervades the novel, captured by the sentences, “A man of forty-five can consider himself still young till the moment comes when he realizes that he has children old enough to fall in love. The Prince felt old age come over him in one blow.” On the other hand the brashness of youth, its lack of knowledge that the bloom will fade, is illustrated when Angelica thinks, ‘“Boys at that age are like dogs; one has only to whistle and they come straight away.’”

Don Fabrizio reflects that the new Italy has had an inauspicious start when the local result of its confirmatory plebiscite is announced as having no votes against. The particularities of Sicilian experience are shown by his declaration, “‘We are old Chevalley, very old. For over twenty-five centuries we’ve been bearing the weight of superb and heterogeneous civilisations, all from outside, none made by ourselves, none that we could call our own….. for two thousand five hundred years we’ve been a colony…. ….we’re worn out and exhausted.’” But the Prince is not beyond self-criticism. “‘The Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect.’” However, the tone for me was lightened at one point when the assembled Salina family was served up a “macaroni pie”. To a twenty-first century Scot that designation has quite a different meaning than it has to anyone Italian…..

Later Don Fabrizio reflects, “We were the Leopards and Lions; those who 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,” and realizes no Salina can really take his place, “The significance of a noble family lies entirely in its traditions… its vital memories, and he was the last to have any unusual memories.”

The book is in effect a threnody for the perceived lost glories of the Lampedusa family. In that, it may stand as a metaphor for any sense of loss.

Pedant’s corner:- bandoleer (I’ve not seen this spelling of bandolier before,) scrutator (the usual word for someone supervising an election is scrutineer,) “extortioners of their own dependants” (extortionists?) “the valise, which in the end was born by both knightly contenders” (was borne,) arch-type (archetype?) a missing quote mark before a piece of direct speech.

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