di Lampedusa, Tomasi: The Leopard

So the story on the street was that the Monthly Book Group was reading ‘The Leopard’. As a fan of Scandic noir your roving correspondent zipped through 700 pages of Jo Nesbo and hastened to leafy Fairmilehead…..

 …only to find that “The Leopard” under discussion was Sicilian noir.

 Oh dear… a quick gulp of Nero d’Avola to refocus

….and here was the host explaining that he liked foreign novels as they gave a very different slant on life. And he had read “The Leopard” by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in conjunction with a visit to Sicily. It was fascinating to read of the toils and tribulations of the author in trying to get it published (it was finally published posthumously 1958) yet it had become the biggest selling Italian novel of all time.

Amongst the things that attracted him to the novel were the very vivid, strongly delineated, characters. He liked the contrast between their thought processes and their actions – this even applied to the dog! And the novel was full of contrasts, such as order and disorder, respect for the church co-existing with lechery and greed, a Prince contrasted with a dog, and so on.

The translator must have gone to enormous efforts to capture the quality and subtleties of the original. The only small flaw was that the title would more accurately have been translated as “The Serval”, a serval being a North African “tiger-forest-cat” now extinct in Sicily.

All agreed on the quality of the writing. There were some enlivening touches of humour, such as the account of the Prince’s visit to the brothel in the great opening scene. The language was eloquent, evocative and rhythmic. Lampedusa could conjure up with equal intensity both the opening scene – with its imagery of luxury, languor, rank perfumes, and eroticism – and the contrasting scene fifty years later with its imagery of dessication, of sterility, and frustrated virginity. He bought alive the smells and atmosphere of the countryside. There were sharply etched vignettes of violence – the dead soldier with his guts hanging out, or the death of the hunted rabbit – and death was always there in the background imagery.

The only reservation was that the author occasionally used a metaphor drawn from the mid-twentieth century, which jarred given his success in persuading the reader he was living in the 1860’s.

One enthusiast for the novel was a fan of historical novels, which he greedily consumed as a guilty secret. For him “The Leopard” was in the top ten – or indeed maybe five –  historical novels of all time. It was even better –wonderful – on a second reading. Some such novels merely use the historical setting as an interesting context, whether for a lightweight or heavyweight story. However, others, such as Scott, are interested in exploring the process of history itself –  sociological, political or economic developments.

Lampedusa’s great novel was a heavyweight both as a serious exploration of history – of political and sociological developments in Sicily and Italy – and as a serious exploration of the history of a man, his family, and his values. It had many layers of meaning. And even one reader who did not normally like historical novels had much enjoyed it, despite being obliged to read it on an iPhone (….run that one by me again?…………a novel read on an iPhone??! – ah, you see, the iPad failed……).

The structure was unusual, and, for most of us, brilliantly effective. Lampedusa had started with the idea of telling a whole history through the events of twenty-four hours (drawing on the structure of “Ulysses”). This proved too ambitious, and instead he offered eight different episodes. Six were set around the time of the Risorgimento between May 1860 and November 1862, one in July 1888 at the time of the Prince’s death, and one in May 1910 with his three daughters in old age. However, Lampedusa succeeded in revealing the whole history of a man, a family and a society from these few emblematic episodes. He draws on the stream of consciousness techniques pioneered by Joyce and fellow modernists to help reveal the whole person through their sequence of thoughts.

We knew that Lampedusa was drawing much of his story from his own family history. We also knew that he was battling depression, triggered by the destruction of his family palace in an Allied air raid in 1943. He was being nostalgic for the great days of his family – but also realistic. But what was he really trying to tell us?

One of our globetrotters, discussing “The Leopard” while dining in Amsterdam with his Italian researchers (as one does) reported that they were all enthusiasts for the book. They thought the take home message was “everything has to change to remain the same” (a quotation from Tancredi referring in context to the need for the aristocracy to engage with Garibaldi and the revolution).

And another reader also admired how the seemingly infinite capacity of the human spirit to adapt to changing circumstances was beautifully depicted. However, he had found the book a struggle (“…one of these books that I had to force myself to re-open. The time frame, pace and setting of the story were turn offs….”).

A different angle was that the Prince had failed with all his children and his wife. His legacy was a broken household, which never recovered. He lost one son who escaped to England. The other son Paolo was no great use and stayed at home. At least he married and continued the family line. The three daughters did not marry. Should the Prince not have tried to persuade Tancredi to marry his daughter Concetta?  He treated his wife Stella badly. He failed to manage his estates properly. He gave Don Calogero recognition and indeed promoted him in the best circles but what did he get in return? At the conclusion Don Calogero’s daughter Angelica was well connected and the Prince’s three daughters were nothing. The resources they had left were devoted to God and fake relics. Only Benedico the dog really adored the Prince. Thus the story was one of bitterness and decay, although told with exquisite style and insight.

Another who shared that interpretation saw the last episode (May 1910 – “Relics”) as the key to the book. By shifting the viewpoint to the Prince’s daughter, Concetta, instead of the Prince himself, we finally see him in perspective. We learn for the first time that Concetta has spent her life hating her father. The Prince can now clearly be seen as too obsessed with Tancredi, his charismatic nephew, with whom he identifies. Tancredi’s skills of ironic charm, manipulation, dissembling and financial acquisition have led to a predictable outcome as a serial adulterer and politician. As an aside we learn that Tancredi – so skilful in monopolising the attention and money of his “nuncle” –  described him to a friend as “his terrible old uncle”. And the importance of Tancredi to the interpretation of the novel is reinforced by the fact that Tancredi is the only main character not based on a historical person.

Against this background the Prince’s behaviour, while in many respects gracious and noble as befitted a “leopard”, can also be seen as lazy, self-regarding and self-indulgent. He looks for his own image in his children, and fails to find it, rather than respecting them as individuals. The fact that having daughters end up as bitter old maids was common in contemporary Italian (as in Scottish) society did not absolve the Prince of his failure to consider their needs. Even though there are signs that Concetta has some of his own spirit, he fails to recognise it until too late. And his son with spirit has fled to London.

The story told so late in the day to Concetta by Tassoni, which, she thinks, puts Tancredi’s behaviour  in a different light, is reminiscent of the themes about time and memory recently explored by Julian Barnes. Concetta’s conclusion that she should have taken more control of her own life instead of being consumed by hatred is no doubt valid. But her conclusion that, with more encouragement, Tancredi would have married her rather than the rich and beautiful Angelica, is probably yet more self-delusion, yet more manipulative charm exerted by Tancredi from beyond the grave. Meanwhile, despite the Prince’s efforts to get in touch with the eternal world of the stars through his astronomy, there is no escaping the remorseless destruction of time. His last relic – the mouldering rug formed from the skin of his faithful dog – is thrown out of the window.

We felt less confident in interpreting the book’s view of Sicily and its history. Those who knew the island felt that the author captured its texture and mood, and a Sicilian had confirmed that the book was totally in the spirit of Sicily. But are we to accept the Prince’s view that Sicilians, after centuries of rule by an endless series of invaders, are too proud to consider that changes suggested by outsiders will ever be worthwhile, and so it is not worth trying? Is this the author’s view? Or the Prince’s world weariness? And is the Prince’s political accommodation with the new regime to be judged as sensible pragmatism?  Or is it typically half-hearted – or indeed downright unprincipled? It was intriguing that – the moment when the Prince became less aloof and invited local citizens into his home – is pinpointed as the moment he began to lose his authority.

Our historical expert could, however, confirm that the plebiscite on Italian unification was a sham, with a question doctored to get the desired answer (…good heavens – couldn’t happen now!…). Garibaldi was none too bright – simply a catspaw manipulated by Cavour, who wanted to claim popular support for the takeover by the Piedmontese House of Savoy. A recent book by David Gilmour (“The Pursuit of Italy”) argues that the 1861 unification of the country was a mistake. Gilmour says many thinking Italians have begun to wonder why their country has for so long been intractably dysfunctional, crippled by corruption, organized crime and a hateful bureaucracy, and governed by an endless parade of shady leaders. Was it in fact a real nation or was it just a 19th-century invention? He argues that, despite the massive propaganda effort by the House of Savoy, Italian unification began simply as a war of expansion by Piedmont against Sicily.

So – at least for the majority  – this was a multi-faceted work of genius. Those who had read it once, or indeed twice, wanted to read it again, in anticipation of finding more meanings.

“I say” ventured your literary correspondent, keen to enter the debate, “isn’t it interesting that there is a character like Tancredi in Jo Nesbo’s ‘The Leopard?’….”

 …The only response was a decision that it was time to switch on the Italy v. Germany Euro semi-final. Just in time to see Balotelli’s stunning second goal.

 Balotelli, born in Palermo, our sporting adviser informed us. Well, he has the feline power and grace of a leopard….so…suggested your ever-alert correspondent….

   “the Prince reincarnated!”

  “…And perhaps the Azzurri are the only good thing to emerge from unification?!”

 Dazzled by my contribution, I settled back for the last swallae of Nero d’Avola…

 Sicilian noir – geddit??