Saturday, November 11, 2017

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard

The Leopard is a very famous book in some circles. A few years ago The Oberserver ranked it as one of the top ten historical novels, the Times once ran a story on how to tour Sicily "Through the Eyes of the Leopard," and I regularly see it mentioned in discussions about how the modern world differs from more traditional societies. So, searching for something to listen to on a recent trek down to Virginia Beach for a meeting, I stumbled across it and decided to give it a try. I liked it and am pleased to have listened to it, but I didn't love it and I am suspicious of people who use it as a template for how things used to be.

Il Gattopardo was published in 1958 and was immediate success, winning Italy's top literary prize and also becoming the best-selling Italian novel ever. The author, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, was prince of Lampedusa in Sicily, and the novel focuses on a fictionalized version of his own great-grandfather. Although the novel is always called The Leopard in English, a gattopardo is actually a serval, a smaller cat that still lives wild in Sicily serves as the Lampedusa coat of arms.

The novel begins in 1860, during the civil war that led to the unification of Italy. It focuses on Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, who has just turned fifty years old. He is a great character, aristocratic to his core but also highly intelligent and thoroughly self-aware. He is the sort of Catholic who takes confession seriously because he has many sins to confess, especially his cavorting with a string of mistresses. (At some point his Jesuit confessor remarks that the prince just might squeak into heaven.) But he would never consider giving up either the mistresses or the church; both are fundamental to how things must be. The prince is a masculine character who loves hunting and his dogs, but also an intellectual whose hobby is searching the skies for new comets and calculating their orbits. He has always avoided politics. He remembers an occasion when the then King of the Two Sicilies received him in his private office, but quickly dismissed him when the prince refused to report on political goings-on in his neighborhood; I will not be anyone's spy, the prince thinks.

The prince is acutely aware of how rapidly things are changing around him, and how much of his own world must soon pass away. His own favorite nephew, Tancredi, is an officer with the soldiers of Garibaldi, fighting to overthrow the Bourbon monarchy of Naples. It is Tancredi, rather than one of the prince's own children, who will be a great star of the next generation, because is the one who understands that "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change."

The prince divides his time between a villa outside Palermo, a town house inside it, and a country estate in a small town called Donnafugata. Each year when his family arrives at Donnafugata, the whole community turns out to receive them with a speeches and a brass band, after which they all go into the cathedral for a te deum. The next day the prince always visits the convent that the Salina family founded, where the head of the family is the only man allowed to enter. This year the prince learns the rather surprising news that the mayor of Donnafugata, Don Calogero, has both won the favor of the new government by his early support of the revolution and gotten rich through sharp-edged business dealings. He is, in fact, as rich as the prince, and at least as well connected in this new order of things. He and the prince are brought together when Tancredi falls in love with Calogero's beautiful daughter. Over the course of these years the prince and Calogero become more alike; the prince sends Calogero a suitable tailor and impresses on him the importance of shaving, and while Calogero acquires better manners the prince becomes a bit more ruthless in business. But the prince knows this will not be enough to save his family, which is doomed by their traditional ways to fall ever further behind the Tancredis and Calogeros of the world.

Contemplating all these changes, the prince falls into melancholy musing. "We were the Leopards, the Lions, those who'll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas." His interests are all things that take him away from the world and its changes: the church, astronomy, hunting in scrubby Sicilian hills that the narrator describes as unchanged since the dawn of civilization. To succeed in the modern world one must catch the wave of change and ride it, but the prince cannot and will not. He prefers to sink into obsolescence, true to his own ways. At one point he muses that he will be the last of his line, because those to come after him will have no unique experiences like his own, only those that any rich Italian might share.

The tone of these musings has been described as "bitter, resigned romantic nostalgia." It is beautiful, in its way, and it rings true to the character of the prince as Tomasi de Lampedusa has described him. In some ways it strikes me as accurate, at least to the way an aristocratic intellectual would have seen the nineteenth-century world.

But it is a very one-sided picture of that world. The prince is very astute on the follies of the new regime, which would lead eventually to fascism. He is much less astute about the flaws of his own age. For one thing this is an entirely masculine picture of that world, in which women serve mainly to ornament or annoy. The prince is a great character, Tancredi a very fine one, and some of the minor male figures are interesting, but none of the women really come to life. Nor do any of the common people. We see them as they interact with the prince, and as soldiers in doomed campaigns, but we see none of the poverty, squalor, and death that defined their world. The prince is indifferent to such things.

So I do not recommend this book as a glimpse into the world of the past. But it is a very fine portrayal of what some people loved about that world, and why they so distrusted the modernization being thrust upon them. If you want to know what conservative aristocrats of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thought they were defending, this is not a bad place to start, and since it is a wonderfully written novel focused on a truly great character it provides many other pleasures along the way.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Thx for the review.