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.)