We Highlight

 

The Leopard.

[Lampedusa, Giuseppe Tomasi di (2010). The Leopard. London: Harvill Secker, 224 pp.]

The swansong of the Sicilian aristocracy, The Leopard recounts the vicissitudes of Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, before Garibaldi’s Redshirts burst onto the stage. Lampedusa’s only novel, which puts forward an interpretation of the Risorgimento from the viewpoint of a disenchanted noble, soon became a classic of Italian literature. The historical tapestry that unfolds is clairvoyant; the prose is dazzling from beginning to end. Never has the choice of style – a nineteenth-century narrative one, far from avant-garde firework displays – served the aim of the plot so well, that is to pass judgement on recent transformations (“the surprising acceleration of history”) from the standpoint of the ancien régime’s resistance to change.

The style reinforces this passive attitude with a wide array of resources: a preference for using past verb forms, which suggest immobility; for flowing subordinate clauses covering long periods, the meanders of which avoid the shortest route and, therefore, progress. The narrative is overshadowed by the description of internal states; what is being witnessed is not so important as the witness himself. On occasions, when the voice of the external narrator is interspersed with the prince’s own thoughts, the novel takes on a sententious, epigrammatic tone. A trivial object or an anodyne commentary unleashes a series of impressions in the mind of the witness, whose experience exudes unexpected insights: thus, it speaks of “love. Fire and flames for a year, ashes for thirty”, or of the avidness “for power or rather for the idleness which was, for them, the purpose of power”.

This fictional work, which can be classified as a historical novel, is steeped in lyricism. Images appear everywhere, starting with the title of the book itself, the leopard rampant of the family coat-of-arms, which in turn is parodied by having Bendicò, the faithful dog, with which the novel opens and closes, as its equivalent. As Visconti succeeded in representing in his film adaptation, the dust of the roads, the varnish of the furniture or the Sicilian earth burnt by the sun speak for themselves. Other poetic features of this novel are its daring use of adjectives – “vibrant Sicilian light” -, on occasions metaphorical in nature, or the rhythm of the prose, the constant beauty of the cadence of the sentences. Holding it altogether is the measured construction of the whole novel, the virtuoso skill of the author who succeeded in building a dialogue between the elements of the novel, thereby creating internal resonances and parallels.

In political terms, attitudes towards the Risorgimento are ambiguous, filtered by the prince’s interest in preserving his social caste, as well as by the desperation that pervades all his views. In this way, and above any economic analysis, the extinction of the nobility stands out, since the revolution in the end represents “an imperceptible replacement of social levels”. This gives rise to the novel’s leitmotiv: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”, like a raft that, after overturning, rights itself again and ends up in its original position. Lampedusa considers the insurrection as the consequence of the greed of second-rankers who yearn for the purple of power and its economic privileges. And he strips it of glory: in the end, it is a matter of “a comedy, a noisy romantic comedy with an occasional small blood stain on the clownish disguise”.

And, presiding over everything, there is time, the slow but inexorable woodworm that destroys all earthly beauty. Ubi sunt? and vanitas vanitatis make their appearance at every moment. The elderly narrator’s bitterness is cloaked in irony and sarcasm: “From the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling and inexorable as a summer sky. They thought themselves eternal, but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was to prove the contrary in 1943”. So, in the end, Manrique was right with his songs, Valdés Leal with his portraits. Beyond the revelry of youth, the “mutual embracement of those bodies doomed to die” the future lies in wait, “formed by smoke and wind alone”. It is a pity that Lampedusa’s humanism remains lacking in transcendence. However, even though the hereafter is not given any consideration in the novel, Lampedusa’s analysis of aristocratic pomp is apposite. As Jorge Manrique had written: “Thither all earthly pomp and boast | Roll, to be swallowed up and lost”… 

   

Enrique Sánchez Costa (PhD student on Literature at University Pompeu Fabra and Professor of Philosophy of Education at the International University of Catalonia).

 

Other reviewed novels:

Undset, Sigrid (2005). Kristin Lavransdatter. London: Penguin Classics, 1168 pp.