Right, I’m finally getting round to it. A book I should have read long ago. It’s one of the world’s great classics and I’m slightly embarrassed not to have tackled it before, especially as so many people have told me how brilliant it is.
Set in Sicily in1861, The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa is a powerful account of the Italian Risorgimento through the eyes of Prince Fabrizio Salina, whose coat of arms provides the book’s title. But rather than a blood and thunder depiction of Garibaldi’s arrival with his 1000 Redshirts, followed by the collapse of the Bourbon royal forces under his swift onslaught, the narrative concentrates on the effects such huge social and political upheaval had on the Sicilian class system, still largely unchanged since feudal times.
Accustomed to a power over household, lands and the local populace that Henry VIII – no slouch himself when it came to autocracy – might have envied, Prince Fabrizio finds himself forced to bow to expediency, voting for the Unification of Italy against the interests of his own class, and dealing with the unsavoury, corrupt, fabulously wealthy-through-illicit-means Don Calegero, several rungs beneath him on the social ladder. Why does the prince do these things? To survive. ‘Everything must change in order for everything to remain the same,’ is the most famous quotation from this book.
To my surprise, The Leopard is a terrific read, more than deserving its place among the greatest literary works of all time.
So why the surprise? Well, when I said I’d never tackled it before, that wasn’t quite true. A long time ago, in my gap year, I spent a couple of months in Florence learning Italian (mainly by way of articulating gelato flavours and trying not to be accosted in the street). Somewhat ambitiously, I borrowed a copy of Il Gattopardo from the library but got no further than the first few pages.
Not just because the language was difficult; if the story had grabbed me I’d have persisted, or at least switched to an English translation. No, it was the character of the prince himself that disgusted me, in particular the cruel, disdainful way he treated all the women around him. A hero who behaved like this was one I wanted nothing more to do with. And this was decades before #metoo.
Now, taking The Leopard up again, I was prepared to find my rudimentary Italian of the time at fault. Surely Salina couldn’t have been as bad as all that.
Oh yes, he could. I hadn’t grasped the half of it. In the first 20 pages, he terrifies his grown-up children into quaking submission, while a timid gesture of affection from his wife prompts him to call publicly for his carriage late at night in order to visit a brothel, leaving the hysterical Princess alone and pleading from the bedroom window. At the brothel, Marianina, blank-eyed and worn out by over use, duly obliges, poverty and social inferiority giving her no other choice. Both her miserable situation and his sad, neglected wife’s give the prince a brief twinge of conscience, but not much. I very nearly threw the book on one side all over again.
But I didn’t. And reading on, I realised what Lampedusa was doing. He allows his hero to behave this way not because he finds it admirable, but the opposite. Significantly, Salina never again shows such concentrated brutality as in these first pages; rather, he develops as an intelligent, reasonable, even kind landlord who doesn’t hound his tenant farmers for their rents and tries to persuade them to give the new regime their mandate, knowing it will be the worse for them if they don’t. By creating such a rounded portrait, Lampedusa shows how even the most decent, humane, magnanimous spirit is corrupted by power; the prince is a tyrant to his wife, family and underlings because he can be. I expected The Leopard to be a lament for a golden, paternalistic age; instead, while Lampedusa portrays the new nationalist government as hypocritical and corrupt from the word go, he is equally clear-eyed about the flaws of the system it is replacing. The nobility, as represented by Salina, is an outdated, no longer fit for purpose ruling class, whose rigid hierarchical structure becomes the cause of its own demise. The prince scorns his own children, whose apathy and weakness he compares unfavourably with his nephew Tancredi Falconeri’s brave and sparky personality. The fact that Tancredi’s fatherlessness has allowed his spirit to grow free and his ambition to soar escapes the Prince, who has successfully crushed all individuality and purpose in his own sons and daughters. Planning a brilliant political career for Tancredi, the prince dismisses his smitten daughter Concetta as a possible bride because her timid, submissive nature would always make her a ‘leaden weight at her husband’s feet.’ Yet who has forced this ‘submissive nature’ on the girl but the prince himse
Oh, and there’s also that small matter of Tancredi having to marry money – a lot of it – since before dying, his father managed to gamble away the entire Falconeri family’s wealth. Really, the nobility – a class to which the author himself belongs – doesn’t come out of the story very well.
While I wish I hadn’t left it quite so long, I’m glad I didn’t force my 18 year-old self to continue reading The Leopard (bad enough having to do that with Middlemarch, a book I’ve never learnt to love). I’m not sure I’d’ve got the subtleties at that age, and fear I might have fallen for the easy, boyish, swashbuckling charm of Tancredi, just as his uncle does.
And I’m only half way through. Tancredi may yet develop into something more than a handsome figurehead for the old aristocracy, surviving by allying itself to a voracious, politically aware, ruthless nouveau riche in the form of the beautiful Angelica Calagero.
I’m not holding my breath.