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:
- It enters the mind of its protagonist
- 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.