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The Leopard is the story of Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, at the time of the main action a man in his forties, with several children. He is a sort of benevolent tyrant in his household, a man of a very old family, accustomed to knowing his place and to having those about him know their places. The Prince is also a man of great sensual appetites, careless with his money (though not wasteful or dissolute), politically knowledgeable but completely apolitical in action, and also an amateur astronomer of some note.
When the story opens, the Risorgimento is ongoing, but it is clear that it will be ultimately successful, and that the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies will be absorbed into the newly unified, somewhat more democratic, Italy. Don Fabrizio, out of loyalty, is nominally supportive of the old regime, but he realistically stays out of the conflict. His favorite nephew, Tancredi, the penniless but charismatic son of his sister, is an ardent supporter of Garibaldi (leader of the revolution).
Several long chapters, separated by months, follow the progress of the Risorgimento at a distance, and more closely follow events which impinge directly on Don Fabrizio's life, yet which reflect the coming societal changes. These include the plebiscite to confirm popular support for the unification of Italy, his nephew Tancredi's love affair and eventual marriage to the daughter of a wealthy but decidedly lower class neighbor, his daughter's reaction to the attentions of a friend of Tancredi's, and Father Pirrone's visit to his home village. Finally, the action jumps forward some decades to the Prince's death, in a very moving and beautiful chapter, then still further forward to the household of his unmarried daughters in their old age.
The events of the story tellingly illustrate both the changing face of society and also the nature of Sicilian society in general. At another level, the Prince's aging and death, and his knowledge of his own mortality, echo the senescence of his class. Loving descriptions of the Prince's homes, of his meals, of balls, of hunting, of peasant life, of politics both at the Prince's level and at the level of the peasants, of the attitude of churchmen towards their flock (especially Father Pirrone's toleration but not approval of his friend's sensual escapades) are laced throughout the novel. Moreover, the Prince himself is a truly compelling, charismatic character, full of faults but an admirable man nonetheless. Also, the narrator's voice is often with us, ironically, often even cynically, commenting on the expectations of the characters and both their failings and the failings of "real life" to meet their expectations, but, though sad, the voice is never bitter.
The writing is rich in descriptive texture. I could almost smell the fragrance of the garden and touch the extravagant furnishings of the estates. This sets the stage for the very real people who taste the dust of long carriage rides as well as dress in silk and attend great balls. I learned about the politics of the time, the role of the church and the view of the world as perceived by the privileged few for the fifty-year time span of the book, which concludes in 1910. It was a deeply satisfying read. Highly recommended.
The novel is situated during the time of the Italian re-unification, the rise of Garibaldi and his Red Shirt movement and the decline and subsequent transformation of the feudal nobility in the late nineteenth century. Di Lampedusa was himself was himself a descendent of one the noble families and the story that he narrates is ostensibly that of his grandfather. 'The Leopard' is the symbol of the family of which Prince Fabrizio, the principal character in the novel, is the head.
The novel reminded me of a couple of other such works, one of which is surely the Century in Scarlet by the Hungarian writer Lajos Zilahy. Both deal with more or less the same theme, though from somewhat different sides. Zilahy's novel too deals with the coming into being of the Hungarian nation in the twentieth century- thus both deal with the coming into being of modern nation states and identities of two nations that were probably at the far end of the nation forming processes that were set into motion a century or more earlier in some of the other European states. I am not sure how comprehensive the novels are from a sociological or political point of view, but both do provide the nearest equivalent in a literary form.
Both the novels are very straightforward in nature and though written in the 20th century, they are in the nature of the 19th century novel, with a linear narrative structure and few complexities in terms of the underlying ideas they seek to communicate. The style is closest to Balzac's, more in case of The Leopard than perhaps The Century in Scarlet. This is not the place to go in for a deeper analysis of The Century in Scarlet, but here are a few words on The Leopard.
The story is straight forward, that of Prince Fabrizio who is forced to relinquish the control of his estates in the light of the advance of Garbaldi's republican forces. His ambitious nephew Tancredi moves over to the new forces, calculatedly marrying the daughter of a rising rich, though uncouth merchant Don Calogero who is eager to establish a 'lineage' for himself by marrying into the family of a noble, in the process spurning Fabrizio's own daughter's hand . "Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they'll foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change", he informs his uncle, even as he looks at his uncle with the 'affectionate irony that youth accords to age'.
That Prince Fabrizio aids and abets his nephew in his cunning endeavors speaks much of the Prince's own instinct for survival. "The bourgeois revolution climbing his stairs in Don Calogero's tail coat", as the Prince thinks while observing Don Calogero in his house.
And historically speaking he is right, the decline of the nobility is complete and the power has shifted decisively in favour of the commercial bourgeoise, with the corresponding shift from the monarchy to a republic and the ideological shift from the church- when the nobility's land is ostensibly 'the patrimony of the poor'- to the republican ideals.
With the story being as simple as that what holds the reader is the author's effusive description of some of the lesser known areas of Europe- Siciliy in this case. Added to that is the author's deep insight into human nature, which renders the novel a universal appeal and finally his smooth, delectable, almost tropical prose. His metaphors are particularly imaginative and I suppose that probably owes something to the richness of the original language itself.
Here is a description of the Prince's family as they sit down for dinner:
"The girls plump, glowing, with gay dimples, and between the forehead and the nose the frown which was the hereditary mark of the Salinas; the males slim but wiry, wearing an expression of fashionable melancholy as they wielded knives and forks with subdued violence."
And that of the Prince Fabrizio himself:
"...in his blood also fermented other German strains particularly disturbing to a Sicilian aristocrat in the year 1860, however attractive his fair skin and hair amid all that olive and black: an authoritarian temperament, a certain rigidity in morals and a propensity for abstract ideas; these in the relaxing atmosphere of Palermo society, had changed respectively into capricious arrogance, recurring moral scruples, and contempt for his own relatives and friends, all of whom seemed to him mere driftwood in the languid meandering stream of Sicilian pragmatism... Between the pride and intellectuality of his mother and the sensuality and irresponsibility of his father, poor Prince Fabrizio lived in perpetual discontent under his Jovelike frown, watching the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance without ever making, still less wanting to make any move toward saving it."
This in essence also sums up the novel itself.
There are a number of insightful sentences that are a delight for a reader. Though the novel may beg comparison with, say, a 'War and Peace', to say nothing of a novel like Mario Vargas Llosa's 'The War of the End of the World' which is far more complex in the treatment of a similar theme. Nevertheless 'The Leoprad' establishes itself as a minor classic of the 20th century and hence an important novel to those trying to understand the evolution of nations in an era that seems to be dissolving a number of attributes of what have been associated with the nation and national identities.
To read Di Lampedusa in Italian is like reading Proust in French, which is to say it is characterized by a melodious dalliance that lulls and swells in dreamscapes of intellectual brilliance. Guido Waldman, whose efforts include the Oxford edition of Ariosto's "Orlando Furioso" (not an enviable task - imagine translating into a collected allegorical prose Spencer's "Faery Queen"), invariably paces the rhythm of the English in a comparable rendition, while attuning the lyricism in delicate cadances.
"The Leopard" represents a command of style and a robust poetic affluence that is exceptional. The vigour and audacity of the novel is never compromised throughout its scope and vision, and moreover it is persistently haunted by spectres of an apocalyptic doom loitering lustfully. To read this novel is to witness the expression of a community in distress as it finds itself fidgeting to keep its composure while arrested amidst a stalemate, as it were a cultural limbo. Giuseppe Di Lampedusa fashions a circumventing microcosmic portrait that is nostalgic and entertaining. Episodes of ribaldry abound yet they always steer clear of expressing disrespect for a tradition and a cultural milieu that preserves its ambiguity and its inconsolable propriety. The discomfort of the probing characters is strung and picked so as to strike a melodious ravishment that transgresses all values and disarms the structural apogee of the narrative. In its many particulars, and brusque, yet delicate lyrical tendencies, this novel gives delusional recordings of an island distant and beyond memory. Here we hear the tourbadour's chant nearing with incredulous apathy, both the harmony of a siren song and the discordant twang of a swan song lingering beyond the sheet-music read. It's as if a protracted melancholia overtook a whole culture and a poetic instinct becomes embalmed in its people. Sicilians have a heritage of millions of years which resonates throughout, and apologizing for my not being a Sicilian, I would suggest a visit to Siracusa, Palermo, Catania, or even off the coast to Taranto (Calabria) to remind us that the Odyssey's tales mostly take place in and around this island. Di Lampedusa is a classic man of letters, with an Odyssyan propensity for exploring the whims of human nature and exposing the forces that cross the devide that stands between loyalty and desire. I have found such a high quality of "delightful disturbance" only in a handful of artists - Primaraly in De Chirico's paintings, which parallels astoundingly well alongside any reading of "Il Gattopardo". In literature one may well liken Di Lampedusa to the late Thomas Mann (esp. "The Magic Mountain"). In "The Leopard" a uniique stunning clarity pervades. Stunning for the acceptance of its fading way of life consacrating a culture in decadence; while the clarity of classical beauty is flawlessly contained. It is impossibly beautiful and sublime. Here Di Lampedusa conspires to invite us on a voyage with sails withdrawn, impressively seized within a standstill. Chimed from afar floats a decadent sweltering heat, while basking underneath is found the novel's storyline. Please plug your ears, or have someone tie you to something or other, else would that you were to tune in you'd never leave: In blissfull obliviousness you'd perish along this shoreline! Hereby the island's lure is a felicitous narrative that speaks fables of yesterday in daring, lingering overtones, consonant with the cunning splendid mirage of sex appeal.... And an applause to Guido Waldman, who deserves unrestrained praise for his labours as they shall now translate into our delights, adding considerably to the overall excellence of Archibald Colquhoun's translation, the novel has reached the shores of its definitive version.
I have read three versions of the Leopard: the hardcover (Everyman's Library), a earlier paperback version (Pantheon, Jul 23, 1991) and this recent paperback release (November 6, 2007). All these versions include translations by Archibald Colquhoun, but the translation presented in the hardcover differs from the paper versions'. Because of the use of such British spellings "colour" in the hardcover, that translation may be from a British market version.
In fact, however, the differences in the translations involve more than such simple substitutions. In the critical last paragraph for example, the differences are arguably substantive: "As the carcass was dragged off, the glass eyes stared at her with the humble reproach of things that are discarded in hope of final riddance..." (Everyman's Library) versus "As the carcass was dragged off, the glass eyes stared at her with the humble reproach of things that are thrown away, that are being annulled" (paperbacks.) A central concern of this last chapter is the notion of that which was once treated as sacred, "relics," having their status invalidated, the objects being shown not to be what they were once held to be -- examples include the sisters' religious artifacts being disqualified as relics by Church representatives and the remains of the faithful Bendico being shown not to stand for what the Prince's daughter, Concetta had long believed. Thus the word "annulled" including its flavor of an acknowledgment that an apparent status was actually never valid, never really was, would seem more evocative. Examples of differences in the translations such as this arise in a number of important parts of the story.
Finally, this latest paper version offers a valuable bonus, a set of excerpts from Lampdusa's correspondence relating to the Leopard which contain a set of interesting revelations including, for example, Lampedusa's identification of the importance of the Prince's dog Bendico in the story.
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