The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, translated by Archibald Colquhoun
In trying to describe The Leopard, the words “aristocratic” and “patrician” come readily mind. This is not merely because it is a novel about the aristocracy, with a very powerful aristocratic figure at its centre; and nor is it merely because the author himself is from an aristocratic family, and is, effectively, depicting his own forefathers in a fictional form; it is more because the tone of the narration bespeaks at each point an unmistakably patrician mien, a comportment and bearing that is refined and courteous even at its shrewdest and most cutting, and which maintains a formal and decorous distance even at its most personal. At times, it seems almost as if the author is not so much speaking to us as granting us an audience, allowing us the privilege of sharing in his thoughts.
The novel was published posthumously in 1958, a year after the di Lampedusa’s death. It is his only novel, and written, from what we can gather, at a feverish speed during his last few months. His widow tells us that he had mentioned to her the idea of such a novel some twenty-five years earlier: “He thought of it continually, but he could never decide to begin.” One can but conjecture that it was the awareness of his fatal illness that spurred him to put down on paper the novel that had been maturing in his mind for so long. But, feverish though the the act of writing may have been, there is nothing febrile about the work itself: it is, at every page, at every paragraph, poised and sedate, almost, some might say, to a fault.
The passing of time is among the major themes of the novel, but di Lampedusa avoids the difficulty of depicting the fluid passage of time – among the most difficult of things for any novelist to communicate – by presenting us not with a continuous narrative, but with a series of tableaux, each set in a different time: the passage of time between the successive tableaux we are invited to fill in ourselves. All but the last two of the eight tableaux are set in the early 60s, around the time of the Risorgimento, when Garibaldi and his men, the “Thousand”, swept through Sicily, bringing about the end of one era, and the start of a new. The principal character of the novel, Prince Fabrizio of the illustrious Salina family, is a large and dominating figure, both physically and metaphorically; he is a man who is, naturally, conscious of his aristocratic standing and is proud of it. Now in his middle age, he remains vigorous both in body and in mind: he is a compulsive womaniser and serial adulterer, much to the disapprobation of his Jesuit chaplain who nonetheless has not the power to oppose him; and he is also an intellectual, devoted to his astronomical studies. As an intellectual, he knows that the tide of history cannot be stopped. Indeed, he even gives his blessing to his favourite nephew, the dashing Tancredi, who is on his way to join with Garibaldi’s Redshirts. And yet, he knows, he can sense, that his aristocratic status will not, cannot, remain as it has been.
The Prince is perturbed: awareness that things have to change co-exists with an exasperation that it must be so. In the same way, he at the same time admires and is disgusted by his wife’s religious prudery; and, on returning from an impromptu visit to his mistress in Palermo, he finds himself satisfied sexually, and, at the same time, disgusted by his own lechery. Beneath that composed and powerful exterior there seethe all sorts of contradictory impulses and desires, incapable of any kind of resolution.
The narrative moves on. By the third tableau, Garibaldi’s forces are victorious: the Bourbons have been expelled, and Sicily is now under the rule of Victor Emmanuel II of the Kingdom of Sardinia. We now meet the new mayor of Donnafugata, the wealthy Don Calogero Sedàra. Tasteless and vulgar, of course, and, as may be expected, utterly lacking in Don Fabrizio’s patrician poise; but it is, nonetheless, he, and not Prince Fabrizio, who represents the future. He can offer a far greater dowry for his beautiful daughter, Angelica, than Don Fabrizio can offer for his own daughter Concetta. For the ambitious Don Fabrizio, it seems hardly a contest: Angelica’s dowry but enhances her beauty, although, himself an aristocrat, he would not have put it in such terms. The two, indeed, make a dashing couple, straight out of a romantic novel. Although, when his confessor, Father Pirrone, is asked about the prospects of their marriage, he can only reply guardedly that Fabrizio has the potential of becoming a good husband.
The Prince thinks back on the recent plebiscite. He himself had voted in favour of the new regime: one cannot, as he keeps telling himself, hold back the tide of history. But the church organist, Don Ciccio, confides to his once feudal master that he could not bring himself to vote against the old regime. He tells also of how the votes were rigged: Don Calogero, now the mayor and formerly a peasant moneylender, had fraudulently announced a unanimous vote in favour of the new regime. There is more: Don Calogero had eloped with the woman who is now his wife, and his father-in-law, who had sworn vengeance, had been found murdered. While the Prince keeps to himself his own misgivings about the new regime, Don Ciccio is more forthcoming: he is scandalised at the very idea of Tancredi marrying into Don Calogero’s family.
And as they climbed down towards the road, it would have been difficult to tell which of the two was Don Quixote and which was Sancho Panza.
We move on. Prince Fabrizio becomes more ruthless in his business dealings; Don Calogero tries to adopt some of Don Fabrizio’s refinement of manners. The Prince refuses an offer to sit in the Senate, explaining his reasons at some length, and suggesting they make the offer instead to Don Calogero:
“He has more qualities to sit there than I have; his family, I am told, is an old one, or soon will be … as to illusions, I don’t think he has any more than I have, but he is clever enough to know how to create them when needed.”
In a brief narrative digression, Father Pirrone pays a visit to his peasant family, and settles to everyone’s satisfaction his niece’s marriage, a sordid affair involving lust and money, which parodies the equally sordid marriage, also involving lust and money, between Angelica and Tancredi. And so life continues. The old ways must pass, and new ways take their place; that, as the Prince understands, is as it should be, as it must be. And yet, there is a deep sadness at the passing. At a ball, the ageing Prince, still physically vigorous, still capable not only of lust but of acting on it, dances with the beautiful young Angelina: one may, I suppose, interpret the symbolism of the dance as one chooses.
The penultimate tableau takes us forward some twenty years, and a scene more moving than it had any right to be describes the Prince’s death. At the point of death, he has an enigmatic vision of a beautiful young woman approaching him. The sensuality that had defined his life defines his death also. And in the final tableau, set some twenty years again after Don Fabrizio’s death, representatives of the Church come to examine the religious relics of the Salinas’ private chapel to determine their authenticity. The symbolism is obvious. Tancredi is now dead: his widow, Angelica, and the three daughters of Don Fabrizio, are now old ladies, and they too must, whether they like it or not, examine their own relics, the fragments of the past that they have stored against their destruction. Tancredi’s marriage to Angelina had not been successful: it’s all in the past now, but Concetta, who had once hoped that Tancredi would marry her, and who had blamed her father for her disappointment, has to revisit and re-evaluate her past. Like the representatives of the Church examining the relics, she too has to discover what, if anything, is, or has been, authentic.
It is possibly because Di Lampedusa was not a professional writer that The Leopard seems so unlike any other novel of that period. It is poetic and elegiac, and, indeed, sensual; it is a novel about passion. And yet, the surface is poised, unruffled – one is tempted to say “aristocratic”, even at the risk of over-using that word. Its passion – for there is passion there – is seen as if from a distance, from a most decorous distance. And there hangs in the air a profound melancholy – the melancholy of time passing and of the changes effected by the passage of time, both in public life and in private. Inevitable these changes may be: like the Prince, we can but bow to this inevitability. The aristocracy was decadent, and its demise was inevitable. But there seems no sense of joy in what replaces it. And meanwhile, in the private sphere, all hopes and aspirations, all strength and vitality, eventually dissipate. It is hard not to ask oneself whether it has all been a waste – all, in the final analysis of the relics, meaningless. And yet, this is not a nihilist work: it is a work that seems not to harbour any illusion – a work, indeed, that even Flaubert may have approved of; and yet, beneath its calm and unruffled surface one may discern a powerful heartbeat, and, quite frequently, a compelling sensuality. It certainly leaves behind a most distinctive aftertaste.