by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957)
320 pgs. Pantheon, 1960.
Originally published, 1958. Trans. by Archibald Colquhoun.
The Leopard is Don Fabrizio Corbera, the Prince of the House of Salina near Palermo, Sicily, and he is a wonderful character, wonderfully presented. The story begins in 1860 when Garibaldi landed and overthrew the Bourbon kingdom. It continues through the subsequent decades as the old aristocracy gradually gives way to the nouveau riche. Both stoical and sensual, the astronomy-loving Prince has an autumnal outlook on life but also an admirable equilibrium – kind of like a self-righting ship – so when his thoughts or events put him in a bad humor, he is quick to return to his natural poise. Among the other colorful characters are the Prince’s energized young nephew, Tancredi (who is hot for the lovely social-climber, Signorina Angelica); his hunting partner Don Ciccio; and his well-loved canine companion, Bendicò.
The Leopard is a treat for literature lovers – with fully-realized and memorable characters, political intrigue and varied social milieu, vividly atmospheric settings, an enjoyably luxuriant pacing, and an elegiac focus on life’s sensory richness but ultimate evanescence. There is romance too – sweetly innocent (with hints of darker tendencies), but also tainted by calculation and ambition. Mostly, though, this is a book in which one exemplary sentence follows another – assured, often playful, but unfolding in directions the reader won’t quite predict. Its subtle mastery rewards your attention with a story and style that invites you to start in again once you’ve regretfully turned the last page.
Here’s a taste – a scene in which the Prince considers his daughter Concetta’s anticipated engagement to Tancredi:
He got up and passed into the dressing room. From the Mother Church next door rang a lugubrious funeral knell. Someone had died at Donnafugata, some tired body unable to withstand the deep gloom of Sicilian summer had lacked the stamina to await the rains. “Lucky person,” thought the Prince, as he rubbed lotion on his whiskers. “Lucky person, with no worries now about daughters, dowries, and political careers.” This ephemeral identification with an unknown corpse was enough to calm him. “While there’s death there’s hope,” he thought; then he saw the absurd side of letting himself get into such a state of depression because one of his daughters wanted to marry.
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa was a Sicilian prince, and this book is based on the life of his great grandfather. The author had a deep love of languages and literature, and though he couldn’t get the book published while he was alive, it was an instantaneous hit when it was published in Italy in 1958, shortly after his death. The Leopard has been widely translated and it was a bestseller in the United States when it was released here.