The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (tr. Archibald Colquhoun)

What can I say about this remarkable novel – undoubtedly a true classic of 20th-century literature – that hasn’t been said before? Probably not a lot. But as it’s our book group choice for May, I feel the need to jot down a few thoughts, if only to remind myself of what I loved about it for our discussion via Zoom later tonight.

The Sicilian writer Giuseppe Tomasi based The Leopard on the life of his great-grandfather, Don Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi, the Prince of Lampedusa, whose life spanned much of the 19th century. Like his esteemed ancestor before him, the author was also a prince, the last in the line of aristocracy that was ultimately swept away during the carnage and social change that ripped through Europe during WW2. This context is important for any reading of The Leopard, as Giuseppe Tomasi’s protagonist, Don Fabrizio, the charming Prince of Salina, finds himself caught up in a period of great change, one ushered in by the Risorgimento, or unification of Italy, whereby the various states of the southern Italian peninsula were incorporated into a united Italy in the mid-19th century.

The novel opens in the summer of 1860 at the time of Garibaldi’s advance on Sicily. An intelligent, charismatic nobleman at heart, Don Fabrizio knows that the old way of life is changing. The current principality is unlikely to survive, certainly not in the manner to which the old guard has become accustomed. As such, future generations of Don Fabrizio’s family will not to be able to enjoy the same privileges as the Prince during their own lifetimes. Moreover, the Prince’s nephew, the much-loved Tancredi, has broken with tradition, joining the Redshirts in their quest for change and unification. In his discussions with Don Fabrizio, it is Tancredi – a highly spirited young man – who sees the need to be part of the revolution, influencing the outside from within, in the hope of maintaining some semblance of authority.

“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…” (p. 19)

Don Fabrizio, for his part, tries to balance the preservation of his noble values with the need to adapt, thereby securing some degree of continuity for his family’s influence. He recognises Tancredi’s potential as an influential player in the politics of the future – the young man is much better placed in this respect than any the Prince’s seven children, Paolo, the natural bloodline heir included.

At first, Tancredi is attracted to Concetta, the most alluring of Don Fabrizio’s daughters and also the Prince’s favourite. Concetta too is in love with Tancredi, so much so that she asks the family’s priest, Father Pirrone, to tell her father she believes a marriage proposal is imminent, hoping the latter will be happy for her to accept. Donna Fabrizio, however, realises his daughter’s dowry will be insufficient for Tancredi, potentially stymieing the boy’s future political ambitions. Somewhat fortuitously for the Prince, Tancredi soon falls under the sway of Angelica, the heart-stoppingly beautiful daughter of Don Calogero, one of the up-and-coming landowners in Sicily, whose newly-acquired wealth bestows on him significant influence. With an eye on the future of his extended family, the Prince encourages the blossoming romance between Tancredi and Angelica, viewing it as a desirable move in light of the broader socio-political developments, even though Don Calogero and his daughter are from a much lower social class than the Prince himself.

There is a distinct air of melancholy surrounding the character of Don Fabrizio as he observes the inevitable decline of the old ways of life. At forty-five, he seems jaded, something of a loner in a bustling house. Stagnating in a marriage with an indifferent, highly religious wife, the Prince secretly despairs of the fading beauty that surrounds him – a feeling that applies to both the physical beauty of the women he meets at society balls and the intellectual beauty of the world as he perceives it. A love of astronomy and mathematics provide the Prince with some form of solace, the stars in the night sky representing a sense of constancy and stability that is lacking elsewhere. There are also the night-time visits to lovers in the nearby brothels, another source of pleasure for the Prince, albeit a more furtive one.  

The novel is rich with the fabric of life in this privileged sector of Sicilian society, from the sumptuous meals at Don Fabrizio’s Palazzo in Palermo to the glamorous balls taking place within the Prince’s social set. Tomasi’s prose comes into its own here. The language is gorgeous – sensual, evocative and ornate, frequently tinged with an aching sense of sadness for the tragedies destined to follow.

Tancredi and Angelica were passing in front of them at that moment, his gloved right hand on her waist, their outspread arms interlaced, their eyes gazing into each other’s. The black of his tail-coat, the pink of interweaving dress, looked like some unusual jewel. They were the most moving sight there, two young people in love dancing together, blind to each other’s defects, deaf to the warnings of fate, deluding themselves that the whole course of their lives would be as smooth as the ballroom floor, unknowing actors set to play the parts of Juliet and Romeo by a director who had concealed the fact that tomb and poison were already in the script. (p.172)

There are also trips to the family’s country estate at Donnafugata; discussions between Don Fabrizio and various local influencers; reflections on various affairs of the heart, most notably those involving Tancredi and the rather crushed Concetta. All these threads come together to form a picture of Sicily which, for all its artistry and elegance, is also characterised by something much darker – a deep-seated seam of violence and fascination with death.

“This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything, and even these monuments of the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us and yet standing round us like a lovely mute ghosts; all those rulers who landed by main force from all directions, who were at once obeyed, soon detested and always misunderstood; their sole means of expression works of art we found enigmatic and taxes we found only too intelligible, and which they spent elsewhere. All these things have formed our character, which is thus conditioned by events outside our control as well as by a terrifying insularity of mind.” (p.138)

This beautiful, elegiac novel will transport you to the sensuality and heat of Sicily, an island at a time of great revolution and social change. I found it such a poignant and affecting read, all the more so for the fact that the author was unable to secure publication before his death from lung cancer in the summer of 1957. Thankfully for us, the book was edited by the eminent Italian writer Giorgio Bassani and published posthumously in 1958. What a marvellous gift this has turned out to be, a richly rewarding book of immense grace and beauty. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates the sublime nature of Tomasi’s prose.

Before going to bed Don Fabrizio paused a moment on the little balcony of his dressing-room. Beneath lay the shadowed garden, sunk in sleep; in the inert air the trees seemed like fused lead; from the overhanging bell-tower came an elfin hoot of owls. The sky was clear of clouds; those which had greeted the dusk had moved away, maybe towards less sinful places, condemned by divine wrath to lesser penalties. The stars looked turbid and their rays scarcely penetrated the pall of sultry air. (p. 61)

The Vintage edition comes with an excellent forward on the novel’s publication and the political context at the time of its setting, primarily the early 1860s.

(For the interested, I’ve also written about Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, another classic Italian novel which shares something of The Leopard’s wistful, elegiac tone and sense of yearning for the halcyon days of times past. Finally, here’s a link to my review of a slim collection of Tomasi’s short fiction, The Professor and The Siren, which includes the first chapter of an unfinished novel, The Blind Kittens – also highly recommended.)

36 thoughts on “The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (tr. Archibald Colquhoun)

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely post as always Jacqui. You’re right – this really *is* a remarkable novel, and captures time and place so vividly. Such a shame he never wrote more but kudos to the marvellous Bassani too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It does feel transcendent in a way, above or beyond the evocation of a former world one might expect from historical fiction. I wouldn’t count myself as a fan of the genre, but this novel really resonated with me. It’s superb – in terms of both the characterisation and the era. As you say, it’s a shame that he didn’t have the time to write much more, particularly given the opening chapter of that fledgling follow-on novel, The Blind Kittens…

      Reply
  2. lonesomereadereric

    Good to read about your very positive response to this novel. I must admit I’ve always been hesitant to read it because I saw the film years ago which I thought was so dreary and dull. But I like how you describe the atmosphere of fading beauty and I think I’d appreciate the story a lot more reading it and imagining the characters and setting for myself. One I definitely need to get to at one point!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s so interesting about the film. I haven’t seen it (only a trailer) so it’s difficult for me to speak to it in any detail…but now that I’ve read the book, I’m not sure that I want to watch the film. As you say, immersing oneself in a novel like this will inventively prompt visions of the characters and settings in any reader’s mind, many of which may not match the director’s portrayal of these elements on the screen. I may well be setting myself up for disappointment with the adaptation, especially if I were to see it too soon after finishing the book…

      Either way, I would suggest you consider picking up the book. It’s one of the great novels of the 20th century; and while we can’t click with everything we read, it feels like something most of us should try, just to see what all the fuss is about. A little like The Great Gatsby or Wide Sargasso Sea.

      Reply
  3. A Life in Books

    I read this years ago at that stage when I thought I ‘should’ so didn’t get anywhere near as much out of it as your excellent review makes clear it has to offer. We had been tossing the idea of a trip to Sicily around last year and I thought I’d take it with me then. May have to wait a little while for that.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      To be honest, I don’t I’d have got a lot out of it either had I read it at a much younger age. I probably wouldn’t have been a good enough reader back then if that makes any kind of sense? Not that I’m saying I’m an accomplished reader now, but hopefully my appreciation of what elevates a great book to a higher level has progressed somewhat since then…

      I think this would be a great book to read either ahead of or during a trip to Sicily. It’s a place I’ve visited in the past, although not Palermo, the setting for Dona Fabrizio’s Palazzo. Maybe you’ll be able to get there next year, depending on how the pandemic plays out? The prospect of foreign travel feels very alien right now in this strange, unsettling world…

      Reply
  4. Liz Dexter

    Gosh, I keep hearing about this but I didn’t realise what it was about at all (I’m not quite sure what I did think) and I would be tempted by it now, so thank you!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome! I think I knew what the book was about, but as someone who doesn’t tend to read very much in the way of historical fiction, I wasn’t sure it would be for me. That just goes to show how wrong we can be!

      Reply
  5. madamebibilophile

    Great review Jacqui. I found the atmosphere of this novel really stayed with me. As you say, so sensual and sad. There’s nothing I’ve read quite like it, although I have the Bassani in the TBR. I hope your book group enjoyed it too!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, you have a copy of the Bassani! That’s great. It’s well worth reading especially as you enjoyed The Leopard so much. I think they have that same sense of aching sadness, a nostalgia for a vanishing world that can never be recaptured in full – only through literature, I guess.

      Reply
  6. heavenali

    Great review. I have seen a lot of enthusiasm for this one in the last few years. It does sound like a remarkable novel. Enjoy your book group Zoom meeting.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It had been on my shelves for ages, so I’m glad it came up for book group as it gave me the push I really needed to read it. Hopefully we’ll have quite a lot to discuss tonight, particularly as the author’s vision feels so rich and vivid.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, excellent. Thanks, Lisa. It really is a magnificent book. Chances are you’ll love the Bassani too given the similarities. It feels like a good one to read during lockdown. Something to transport you to another time and place, albeit with its own dangers and uncertainties.

      Reply
  7. buriedinprint

    This landed on my TBR (beyond some general curiosity) with the inclusion of Canadian author, Steven Price’s novel being nominated for a CanLit award last year, Lampedusa, a novel about the writing of this novel. So I wasn’t really expecting to enjoy it so much as experience it; it was a stepping stone to another work. But I just loved it. For all the reasons you’ve said. There are, if you’re curious, some lovely photographs online of the locale and the actual home. And if you ever see a copy of the Modern Library edition, there’s an afterword which includes a snippet of autobiographical writing which offers some insights to various settings (rooms, etc.) and events. Like you, I doubt I’d’ve gotten much out of this if I’d been approaching it from an entertain-me approach, but after many years of reading it’s just terrific, and I enjoyed revisiting that through your review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, someone else mentioned Steven Price’s novel to me on Twitter the other day; and while I’m not normally a fan of fictionalised versions of writers’ lives, it sounded well crafted. I must take a look at those photos of the location online. They’re of greater interest to me than the novelisation, I think…

      Oddly enough, The Leopard completely divided opinion within my book group. Three of us loved it, another three struggled with it, and one fell somewhere in between. The three who struggled didn’t take to the style and found the prose rather difficult to get to grips with. As you say, it’s not the sort of novel that’s going to appeal to readers who like plenty of plot; it’s more about capturing
      one man’s emotions as he realises his whole way of life is dying – rapidly fading away as the changes sweep through his homeland.

      Reply
  8. Nat

    For me, this has long been in the category of “I loved the film, why have I not read the book?” (Which is a far too large category, I must admit). You make it sound as appealing as I imagined; thanks for the added spur to look for this.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I know what you mean about that! For years, I’d been dithering about the prospect of reading In a Lonely Place due to my long-standing love affair with the Nicholas Ray film from the 1950s (Bogart and Gloria Grahame being an unforgettable combination). Anyway, when I finally read the book a few years ago I was pleasantly surprised. It’s actually so different from the film that it’s possible to view them as two separate pieces of art – connected in terms of style, mood and atmosphere, but sufficiently different in plot and narrative focus to feel individual, if that makes sense? That’s probably not the case with The Leopard as Visconti’s film is probably a more conventional adaptation (difficult for me to say with any confidence as I haven’t seen it). But even so, I would encourage you to track down a copy of the novel. It’s worth it for the descriptive passages alone, particularly as Tomasi’s prose is so sublime!

      Reply
      1. Nat

        Yes, I would say that Visconti’s film certainly feels like a more conventional literary adaptation (a very lush, picturesque one, to be sure!) I will definitely search out the book (and will look for In a Lonely Place too, now that you mention it, as that’s another one in this expansive category!)

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I chose In a Lonely Place for my book group a few years ago, and it turned out to be one of those rare occasions were everyone really loved the book – from those who like atmospheric page-turners with plenty of plot to those who read more character-driven fiction. It’s a book that seems to cover several bases, definitely one of my reading highlights that year.

          As for the Leopard, the chap who chose it for our book group is planning to watch Visconti’s film very shortly. It’ll be interesting to see what he thinks, particularly as he absolutely adored the novel!

          Reply
  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  10. Caroline

    Lovely review, Jacqui. It’s one of my favourite books. Just like The Garden of the Finzi-Contini. I thought you didn’t like that one so much though. Wasn’t there a problem with the translation?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No, I liked the Finzi-Continis, especially the elegiac tone and the sense of loss the book conveyed. My edition was the William Weaver translation, which to me seemed beautifully judged. That said, I do recall other readers having issues with a different translation, a relatively new one by Jamie McKendrick. I think Karen (Kaggsy) had tried to read it at some point and had struggled with the prose, so maybe that’s who you were thinking of? (Subsequent to that, Karen went on to read the Weaver with great success – hence my decision to opt for the same translation.)

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, no need to apologise! I read it as part of a readalong, so there were lots of us reading and writing about it at the same time. Plus, even the most critically-acclaimed books will have their detractors. The Leopard split my book group right down the middle; three of us loved it, another three struggled with it and one fell somewhere in between. The prose style proved to be particularly divisive…

          Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              So did I. (The chap who’d chosen it — a Uni lecturer in his late seventies — thought it was one of the best novels he’d ever read.) Those who struggled liked the characters but found the prose pretty impenetrable – too descriptive and ornate. The slow pace was a bit of an issue for them too. (Nothing much happens etc. etc.) It all makes for an interesting discussion!

              Reply
  11. Pingback: My books of the year, 2020 – part 2, the novels | JacquiWine's Journal

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