I feel slightly foolish rhapsodising about this novel. It’s rather like saying, “I saw this great play last night! You should see it! It’s called Hamlet!” because apparently, The Leopard (or Il Gattopardo, the Italian title) is one of the most famous novels ever published in Italy. However, as I hadn’t heard of it until a few months ago, when I read a reference to it in a travel article1 about Sicily, then I’m guessing at least some of you may not be familiar with it, either, and you ought to know about it because it’s WONDERFUL.
The ‘Leopard’ is Don Fabrizio, the head of an ancient noble family of Sicily in 1860, which is not a very good time to be a Sicilian prince. Should Don Fabrizio continue to prop up the disintegrating Kingdom of the Two Sicilies or should he support Garibaldi and his Red Shirts as the rebels attempt to unify Italy? Don Fabrizio’s handsome, charming nephew, Tancredi, has no doubts. “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change,” declares Tancredi. Then he rushes off to join the Red Shirts, gains a heroic (but not very serious) wound, and swaggers back to the family’s country estate, where he falls in love with the mayor’s beautiful daughter, to his cousin Concetta’s dismay. A further dilemma for Don Fabrizio! Should he permit, even encourage, this marriage? The mayor, Don Calogero, is vulgar, devious and violent, the very opposite of a nobleman, but he’s rich and powerful and the marriage would allow ambitious Tancredi to prosper in this new regime. But what about poor Concetta’s broken heart? Will she continue to spurn Tancredi’s friend, the shy but devoted Count? Will the hapless family priest, Father Pirrone, ever manage to convince Don Fabrizio to take religion seriously? Will Paolo, Don Fabrizio’s useless son, ever turn into a worthy heir? And will Bendicò, Don Fabrizio’s affectionate but destructive Great Dane, ever stop digging up the flower beds?
The plot provides no great surprises, but the delight of this novel lies in the rich descriptions of characters and settings and particularly, in Don Fabrizio’s droll, sardonic reflections on life and the decline of the aristocracy. Imagine if Anthony Trollope had written a Sicilian version of Brideshead Revisited and you’ll get some idea of the tone of the novel. Don Fabrizio observes the rebels with mild interest, too intelligent and cynical to believe they will benefit Sicily, but too fatalistic (and lazy) to try to stop them. When they offer him a post as senator in the new government, he turns it down, saying, “In Sicily, it doesn’t matter about doing things well or badly; the sin which we Sicilians never forgive is simply that of ‘doing’ at all”, going on to claim that “Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery”. He winces at Don Calogero’s vulgarity but reluctantly comes to admire the mayor’s ability to solve problems, “free as he was from the shackles imposed on many other men by honesty, decency and plain good manners”.
I loved Don Fabrizio’s descriptions of the stark, arid Sicilian countryside where he spends summers at one of his immense, deteriorating palaces, Donnafugata, in which there are “apartments and corners not even Don Fabrizio had ever set foot – a cause of great satisfaction to him, for he used to say that a house of which one knew every room wasn’t worth living in”. There are also gorgeous descriptions of his palace near Palermo and of a grand ball at a friend’s mansion, at which Tancredi anxiously introduces his future wife and father-in-law to Society.
The Leopard seems such a glorious nineteenth-century kind of novel that it comes as a shock to read that the grand ballroom, with its ceiling painted with “eternal” gods, is destined to be destroyed by “a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn” in 1943. The author, the last Prince of Lampedusa, wrote this in the 1950s, after his own palace had been destroyed in the war2. The character of Don Fabrizio is based on his own great-grandfather and the settings of the novel are so beautifully, authentically described because they were the author’s childhood homes. As David Gilmour writes in the introduction to the English translation3, “So much of Lampedusa’s life, his wisdom, his learning and his sensibility, were distilled in its pages that it is doubtful whether he could have written a second novel of similar quality and intensity. The Leopard is a masterpiece because its author waited so long before writing it.”
- In which, from memory, the travel writer stayed in a palace belonging to Lampedusa’s family and actually met his adopted son, who served as a model for Tancredi. ↩
- Lampedusa died before his novel found a publisher, so he didn’t ever see The Leopard become a bestseller, win the Strega Prize and become an acclaimed film. ↩
- I read the translation by Archibald Colquhoun, who seems to have done an excellent job, apart from a couple of jarring phrases coming from the mouths of peasants – but I expect it’s pretty difficult, translating Sicilian slang into English. ↩