The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

If Tom McCarthy got his way, of course, a book like The Leopard would never get published. It’s remarkable anyone should write such backward realism after such evolutions in human thought. (I was thinking this as I was reading it, and it’s interesting that Wikipedia mentions it as a criticism, by some, of the book when it was first published). Also, it’s a historical novel – of just the sort McCarthy doesn’t like (McCarthy himself doesn’t write historical novels, I have read in an interview, because although set in historical times, his novels are about now), being, as it is, set in and about Italy in the 1860s.

Is The Leopard then, like so much literary fiction, just a pastische of tired c19th literary forms? – Well, certainly like much c20th literature that’s equated with c19th literature, it’s not something I’d mistake for c19th literature; – and that’s not because it makes reference now and then to the c20th, and whilst dealing with the c19th – with the states of mind of its c19th protagonists – the narrator is clearly a c20th figure. It’s just, perhaps, it’s a little too pure for c19th fiction; a little too subtle and perfect in its construction; it contains those elements of “modernism” which, for lack of a better word – and understanding, of course, that “modernism” was an entirely revolutionary movement, like nothing before – we might equate with the term “classical”.

But as well as being “classical”, the book is also a “romance”, by which I mean it’s at heart a love story. Or at least there’s a love story in it, for at heart it’s about the risorgimento and about the passing over from the feudal world, the world of the great aristocrats, to the world of modern-day democracy.

Ha – that’s not a c19th theme, I hear you exclaim! That’s an inherent theme of the modernist discourse: every book written within the ex-Austro-Hungarian Empire in the first half of the c20th is about the passing over of the feudal world to the world of modern-day democracy; the end of the world of culture which the aristocrat had constructed and maintain; the ascent of the vulgar masses; the retreat of the intellect. – Yeah, but that’s the thing, you see: that’s what the risorgimento was all about: it was the first part of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which brought about all those novels in the c20th, the warning tremors of the earthquake, as Italy seceded (and succeeded, where Hungary, for instance, had so recently failed) and threw off the imperialist yoke. The mindset of the c19th man here, as so often, is the same as his c20th counterpart – almost as if it were only the outward forms which changed, and not something fundamental in man’s nature.

The second-last chapter in particular seems to an ignorant reader like me to be a remarkable piece of art, but of course fails in two great respects:

  1. It enters the mind of its protagonist
  2. It doesn’t seem disturbed enough about the inevitably of death; in fact, seems to welcome it

It seeks to mitigate such heinous solecisms by its wonderful feeling for human nature, its satirical bite, its compassion, and other such rudimentary tricks of the artist’s pallette.

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15 thoughts on “The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

  1. I’m weary just from imagining myself trying to defend The Leopard from the copious criticisms leveled at it, so I’m relieved that I don’t have to imagine having to do that in this case. That’s a great observation about the connection to the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire, though The Leopard is in part remarkable for portraying the collapse of the old world order while also grounding it so distinctly in Sicilian peculiarities (“backward realism” – but of course – this is Sicily!). Have you seen the Visconti film version with Burt Lancaster? There’s one rare instance of a film being at least equal to the terrific novel on which it is based.

  2. Yes, I sensed as I was writing it that I wasn’t really conveying how much I enjoyed the novel. Probably my favourite of the year so far.

    About Sicily, I could also have said (I realised later), that even though the rest of Italy changes in the risorgimento, the Prince states quite categorically that nothing in Sicily will change – the change will be at most superficial – which could, of course, be extrapolated to incorporate the whole of the c19th/c20th revolutionary movements, and – more importantly perhaps – that the nature of man never changes.

    No, I haven’t seen the film. I wouldn’t watch it anyway before I’d read the book. I think I tried Death in Venice once, but wasn’t too impressed by Visconti (probably in the wrong mood).

  3. I didn’t like Visconti’s Death in Venice much either. But The Leopard is something altogether more personal. There’s a great anecdote about Visconti’s reaction to learning that Burt Lancaster – from Hollywood, no less! – had been cast in the lead role without Visconti’s having been consulted. But later Visconti admitted great admiration for Lancaster’s performance (probably the best of his career). Lancaster in turn admitted that his key to playing Don Fabrizio had been to model the character after Visconti himself, who, after all, was a count from a noble family that had essentially lived the story of The Leopard. The two became life-long close friends.

    If you get a chance to see it, make sure you see the restored version, which adds about an additional half hour of footage that had been cut over Visconti’s strong objections.

  4. You’re right, it’s a terrible failure as a novel, one of the most terrible failures of the 20th century. God, how I love it.

    The Visconti film is fair enough but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected to, given the source and the esteem it is generally held in.

  5. Actually, I seem to remember my local library having a copy of Visconti’s The Leopard. I’ll have a look next week. I certainly can’t imagine Lancaster in the role.

  6. Seraillon argues persuasively for the film, and many consider it a masterpiece. But you’ve mentioned what I found the key issue: I just didn’t buy Burt as the Prince. In fact I thought all 3 key protagonists were miscast.

  7. This has long been on my to be read list but never quite makes it to the top. I’ll have to push it a little harder next time I consider it…thanks for posting on it.

  8. While I’m always tempted to say that I hate all historical fiction, The Leopard and Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World are two works that prove that I don’t really mean it. Of course, I never think of them as historical fiction novels either–maybe on account of that “wonderful feeling for human nature” and “other such rudimentary tricks of the artist’s palette” that you mention.

  9. If I were to go by what I find at that “historicalnovelsociety” link up above, “I hate all historical fiction” would accurate for me. The inaccuracy is just some rounding error.

    And in another sense, all that chaff is meaningless.

    The Leopard has one of my favorite last lines: “Then all found peace in a heap of livid dust.”

  10. L: I shall look out to see if they are miscast then.

    D: The Leopard was on my TBR pile for about 10 years, before I finally got round to it. Like with GGM though, I’d read everything else by Lampedusa (all 50 pages or so!).

    R/AR: I’ve never really thought of historical fiction as any sort of genre; it’s just fiction to me – although looking more closely at that website, it does very much look like one all of a sudden. A whole world I know nothing about.

    There’s a marvellous, marvellous line in the final chapter. Woman X has had the love of her life stolen from her by woman Y, but they have grown old now and put these grievances aside: as Lampedusa remarks: “In fact only five days had gone by since her last visit, but the intimacy between the two cousins, an intimacy similar in closeness and feeling to that which was to bind Italians and Austrians in their opposing trenches a few years later, was such that five days really could seem a long time.”

  11. Obooki – Best not to look at the Visconti film for accuracy in casting, but for differently imagined casting. If you’re looking for a faithful adaption of the novel, you won’t get it. But taken at a slant…

  12. I don’t know, someone could miss the sarcasm.

    I shall view The Leopard with entirely an open mind about all aspects.

  13. Surely no-one could dislike The Siege Of Krishnapur, or The White Company, or The Eagle Of The Ninth? I’m still quite fond of the creaking constructions of Dennis Wheatley, though I appreciate I’m in a very small minority.

  14. Or War and Peace.

    I suppose I should read some Wheatley one day, though I somehow suspect I wouldn’t like him.

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