Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Book Review - Classics - The Leopard by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
For me, The Leopard is definitely the greatest book ever written by an Italian author as well as being one of the ten or twelve greatest books of all time. The title character, Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina (based on di Lampedusa’s great-grandfather), is one of the most perfectly drawn characters in all of literature. He’s also something of an enigma. We shouldn’t like Don Fabrizio, but we do. He is, after all, narcissistic and autocratic. But, Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, amateur astronomer, is also irresistible. Though he falls into rages when his mood is dark, ignores his kind and dutiful wife, Maria Stella, and even uses his own priest as a "cover" for his illicit trysts, still, against our better judgment, we care about him. We first meet Don Fabrizio as he’s leading his family in prayer:
Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.
The daily recital of the Rosary was over. For half an hour the steady voice of the Prince had recalled the Glorious and the Sorrowful Mysteries; for half an hour other voices had interwoven a lilting hum from which, now and again, would chime some unlikely word: love, virginity, death; and during that hum the whole aspect of the rococo drawing room seemed to change; even the parrots spreading iridescent wings over the silken walls appeared abashed; even the Magdalen between the two windows looked a penitent and not just a handsome blonde lost in some dubious daydream, as she usually was.
The Leopard opens in May 1860, a pivotal moment in Sicilian history, for it was on May 11, 1869 that Garibaldi and "The Thousand" landed at Marsala on Sicily’s western coast. Don Fabrizio’s Sicily is the Sicily of the Risorgimento, and although Don Fabrizio knows that Garibaldi and his followers will eventually be triumphant, he still mourns the passing of the old ways and the absorption of the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Sicily and Naples) into one unified Italy.
In stark contrast to his ambitious, Garibaldi supporting nephew, Tancredi, on whom Don Fabrizio pins his hopes for the continuation of his line, the Prince of Salina is politically conservative (when it suits his purposes), and like most Sicilians, definitely fatalistic. Although his personal motto in life is "...everything must change so that everything can stay the same," in keeping with his inborn fatalism, he possesses not one fiber of Machiavellian intrigue or motivation to bring that change about. On the contrary, Don Fabrizio feels that all of us are powerless against the face of change, just as we are all powerless against the rules that govern our culture or our place of birth:
This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything, and even these monuments to the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us…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.
Don Fabrizio believes that Sicilians, true Sicilians, are so obsessed with death, that they crave it even to the point of having "a love affair with death":
Our sensuality is a hankering for oblivion, our shooting and knifing a hankering for death; our languor, our exotic vices, a hankering for voluptuous immobility, that is for death again.
Garibaldi, in this book, is always "offstage," and the battles, the marches, and the protests, like Garibaldi, himself, are only alluded to. This is Don Fabrizio’s story and Don Fabrizio’s book. Rather than show us scenes in which Garibaldi is present, di Lampedusa chose, instead, to detail a fascinating and dying way of life through the eyes of an equally fascinating and dying man:
Don Fabrizio had always known that sensation. For a dozen years or so he had been feeling as if the vital fluid, the faculty of existing, life itself in fact and perhaps even the will to go on living, were ebbing out of him slowly but steadily, as grains of sand cluster and then line up one by one, unhurried, unceasing, before the narrow neck of an hourglass. In some moments of intense activity or concentration this sense of continual loss would vanish, to reappear impassively in brief instants of silence or introspection; just as a constant buzzing in the ears or the ticking of a pendulum superimposes itself when all else is silent, assuring us of always being there, watchful, even when we do not hear it.
In detailing the decay of Don Fabrizio’s life, as well as his way of life, The Leopard also details the progress of the Risorgimento. Italy is changing. Sicily is changing. The old way of life is passing away and Don Fabrizio doesn’t like it, but, he asks, what can he do? The nature of life, he knows, is change, and no one, not even the autocratic and leonine Don Fabrizio can change the nature of life. As Don Fabrizio ages and moves toward death, so does the Sicilian aristocracy to which he belongs. This causes Don Fabrizio to be a metaphor for the "old Sicily" and causes The Leopard to be a very sad, but a very moving, book.
The Leopard is, in many ways, a key to unlocking the source of the fatalism, sensuality, and languor that are Sicily, even today. For Sicilians are Italians, but they are a breed apart, as unlike Romans as are the Milanese. To know Italy, however, one must, it is said, experience the heart and soul of Sicily. In di Lampedusa’s highly descriptive writing, we feel this island’s sunburned landscape, the ruins, the decay of the palazzi, the atmosphere of desolation, despair, and death, as well as the mouthwatering confections of the pasticerria. We see Sicily through the eyes of Don Fabrizio, and we begin to know the island as he knows it; we begin to love it as he loves it:
The trees were only three, in truth, and eucalyptus at that, scruffiest of Mother Nature’s children. But they were also the first seen by the Salina family since leaving Bisacquino at six that morning. It was now eleven, and for the last five hours all they had set eyes on were bare hillsides flaming yellow under the sun. Trots over level ground had alternated briefly with long, slow trudges uphill and then careful shuffles down; both trudge and trot merging, anyway, into the constant jingle of harness bells, imperceptible, now, to the dazed senses, except as sound equivalent of the blazing landscape. They had passed through crazed-looking villages washed in palest blue; crossed dry river beds over fantastic bridges; skirted sheer precipices which no sage and broom could temper. Never a tree, never a drop of water; just sun and dust, the temperature must have been well over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Those desiccated trees yearning away under bleached sky bore many a message: that they were now within a couple of hours of their journey’s end; that they were coming into the family estates; that they could lunch, and perhaps even wash their faces in the verminous waters of the well.
The Leopard is a quiet, meditative book, slow paced and filled with many long, lyrical passages that I simply savored. We retreat from Garibaldi’s battlefields into the shuttered, cool interiors of Don Fabrizio’s palazzo and we experience with him his melancholia, his pain, his regret. We get to know him, really know him, and, though we can’t approve of all he does, somehow, we come to love him and want the best for him. His sadness becomes our sadness; his regret, our regret.
This is also a book replete with detail of an aristocracy that flourished when Don Fabrizio was young and is now, in the book’s present, taking its last gasp. We’re treated to pictures of formal dinners, lavish balls, political strife and religious beliefs, the latter told mostly from the point of view of Father Pirrone, Don Fabrizio’s long suffering Jesuit confessor and sparring partner. The ball set piece near the book’s conclusion, as well as Don Fabrizio’s reaction when surveying the rooms of his decaying palazzo, is especially vivid and will give you some idea of the elegantly sensuous prose that is found in this exquisite book:
The ballroom was all golden: smooth on the cornices, uneven on the door frames, in a pale, almost silvery design against a darker background on the door panels and on the shutters annulling the windows, thus conferring on the room the look of some superb jewel case shut off from an unworthy world. It was not the flashy gilding which decorators slap on nowadays, but a faded gold, pale as the hair of Nordic children, determinedly hiding its value under a muted use of precious material intended to let beauty be seen and cost forgotten. Here and there on the panels were knots of rococo flowers in a color so faint as to seem just an ephemeral pink reflected from the chandeliers.
That solar hue, that variegation of gleam and shade, made Don Fabrizio’s heart ache as he stood black and stiff in a doorway: this eminently patrician room reminded him of country things; the chromatic scale was the same as that of the vast wheat fields around Donnafugata, rapt, begging pity from the tyrannous sun; in this room too, as on his estates in mid-August, the harvest had been gathered long before, stacked elsewhere, leaving, as here, a sole reminder in the color of stubble burned and useless now. The notes of the waltz in the warm air seemed to him but a stylization of the incessant winds harping their own sorrows on the parched surfaces, today, yesterday, tomorrow, forever and forever. The crowd of dancers, among whom he could count so many near to him in blood if not in heart, began to seem unreal, made up of material from which are woven lapsed memories, more elusive even than the stuff of disturbing dreams. From the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling and inexorable as a summer sky. They thought themselves eternal....
Every time I read The Leopard it makes my heart ache. I didn’t find it at all difficult to empathize with a man who’s watching his culture and his fortune wither and die, and who’s in the process of losing everything he holds, and has always held, dear. And this empathy is, I think, the key to the timelessness of The Leopard and the quality that lifts it out of the realm of even "great literature" and into the realm of "a genuine masterpiece." Without the character of Don Fabrizio, The Leopard would be "just another story," albeit a very good one, of Italian history.
The Leopard ends on the same sad and meditative note on which it began. Don Fabrizio acknowledges the fact that he has been, indeed a leopard, and one who thought himself, perhaps, far more important than he really was. Furthermore, he doesn’t expect the future to hold much more promise than did the past:
We were the leopards, the lions, those who take our place will be jackals, hyenas. And all of us – leopards, lions, jackals and sheep – will go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.
Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, might not have been a truly good man or a truly honorable one, but he was, however, a man possessed of much dignity. He was a leopard. A leopard who remained true to his convictions even unto the end of his days. For that, he won my eternal admiration just as this book has won my love.
Recommended: Definitely. The main character of Don Fabrizio is one of the beautifully drawn in all of literature. This is a beautiful book that captures perfectly a unique moment in Italian/Sicilian history.
Note: The Luchino Visconti film based on the book is also wonderful.