Thursday, February 28, 2013

531. The Leopard - Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

History: Published posthumously in 1958 by Feltrinelli, after two rejections by the leading Italian publishing houses Mondadori and Einaudi, it became the top-selling novel in Italian history and is considered one of the most important novels in modern Italian literature. Tomasi was the last in a line of minor princes in Sicily, and he had long contemplated writing a historical novel based on his great-grandfather, Don Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi, another Prince of Lampedusa. After the Lampedusa palace was bombed and pillaged by Allied forces in World War II, Tomasi sank into a lengthy depression, and began to write Il Gattopardo as a way to combat it.
Plot: The Leopard is the story of Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, at the time of the main action a man in his forties, with several children. He is a sort of benevolent tyrant in his household, a man of a very old family, accustomed to knowing his place and to having those about him know their places. The Prince is also a man of great sensual appetites, careless with his money (though not wasteful or dissolute), politically knowledgeable but completely apolitical in action, and also an amateur astronomer of some note.
When the story opens, the Risorgimento is ongoing, but it is clear that it will be ultimately successful, and that the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies will be absorbed into the newly unified, somewhat more democratic, Italy. Don Fabrizio, out of loyalty, is nominally supportive of the old regime, but he realistically stays out of the conflict. His favorite nephew, Tancredi, the penniless but charismatic son of his sister, is an ardent supporter of Garibaldi (leader of the revolution).
Several long chapters, separated by months, follow the progress of the Risorgimento at a distance, and more closely follow events which impinge directly on Don Fabrizio's life, yet which reflect the coming societal changes. These include the plebiscite to confirm popular support for the unification of Italy, his nephew Tancredi's love affair and eventual marriage to the daughter of a wealthy but decidedly lower class neighbor, his daughter's reaction to the attentions of a friend of Tancredi's, and Father Pirrone's visit to his home village. Finally, the action jumps forward some decades to the Prince's death, in a very moving and beautiful chapter, then still further forward to the household of his unmarried daughters in their old age.
Review: The Leopard was published 50 years ago, following a war that had devastated Europe. The aristocrat di Lampedusa wrote it as an elegy to past times amid the ruins of the capital city Palermo, smashed by Allied bombing raids. It tells the story of the noble Salina family in the late 19th century, as the shoots of democracy sprout in the parched feudal island. It richly evokes the sights, sounds and smells of Sicilian high life, the parties, the rabbit hunting, the vendettas, the courting, the politics.
The 'Leopard' of the title is Don Fabrizio, patriarch of the family, a measured, middle-aged Hamlet. He ponders the fleeting nature of life, the nobility's loss of power to Garibaldi's revolution, and muses melancholically on the way the nobility have squandered that power.
But the book is not only about political change, far from it, but tells many human stories, not least the marriage of his nephew Tancredi who makes what at first seems to be an unsuitable match which causes considerable upset among his relatives. We read of the family’s chaplain, and the impact of change on his own life, and also of the effects on the peasants and townsfolk too, as their fortunes go up and down.
Perhaps the main character after Fabrizio is Sicily itself. Lampedusa describes the arid summers and the almost desert-like landscapes of this baking country. The city of Palermo features in all its squalor, and also the smaller towns on which most of the narrative occurs.
Opening Line: “Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.”
Closing Line: “Then all found peace in a little heap of livid dust.”
Quotes: 'They had passed through crazed-looking villages washed in palest blue; crossed dry beds of torrents over fantastic bridges; skirted sheer precipices which no sage or broom could temper. Never a tree, never a drop of water; just sun and dust.'
Rating: Not that good, sorry.  

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