My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s 1958 historical novel is best known for a line of dialogue that encapsulates its magnificent political cynicism: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” The line is spoken by Tancredi, an impoverished young aristocrat who joins the radical republican Garibaldi in his uprising against the Bourbon kings who ruled Sicily in the lead-up to the unification of Italy. But the novel is more concerned with the political aspect of Tancredi’s love life than with that of his battles: he marries Angelica, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy bourgeois family, thus wedding the economically declining aristocracy to the rising middle classes. This union obviates the revolutionary energies of the nineteenth century (represented by Garibaldi’s heroic liberalism) and carries on the rule of traditional elites under the cover of a new class: changing everything to keep everything the same. As another midcentury bard famously put it about a decade after the publication of The Leopard: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
The Leopard‘s political nihilism is embodied in the novel’s thick atmosphere of decadence and ironized nostalgia as it portrays its main character—not the rising youth Tancredi, but his aging uncle, Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, who is not literally the last of his aristocratic line, but who is the last avatar and exemplar of the true aristocratic spirit. (He is, via analogy to his family’s coat of arms, the titular leopard.) A wise and reserved patriarch, a distinguished astronomer in his spare time, Don Fabrizio stands for a way of life destined to be washed away by the waves of modernity breaking over even the hinterland of southern Italy: capitalism, nationalism, liberalism. Exponents of these ideologies may conserve power in the hands of elites, but the elites who manipulate them lack the graces and the traditions of the Salinas and their way of life. The novel opens with the Salinas at prayer, yet over their heads are frescoes featuring the Greco-Roman gods; Don Fabrizio is the heir to thousands of years of tradition, the beauty of which will be destroyed without the world’s actually becoming much more free or equal, despite advertisements to the contrary.
Lampedusa was himself the descendant of an aristocratic line, and The Leopard—his only novel, written in his 50s just before his death and not published in his lifetime—is based on his own family. This explains his nostalgia, which is severely qualified by irony (his knowledge, and Fabrizio’s, that the demise of the aristocracy was both inevitable and in a certain sense deserved) and by his decadence (his depiction of Sicilian life itself as arid, putrid, and stagnant, a condition due far more to natural than to political conditions—this is no doubt the basis of the novel’s bad repute among Marxist critics).
Perhaps The Leopard ought to be regarded as a postcolonial novel, fully as much as, say, Season of Migration to the North: it shares with other postcolonial novels an ambivalent perspective from forcibly modernized territory, a perspective that allows for both the benefits of the modern and their costs, especially when imposed coercively, as they usually are. Perhaps it is good that the modern world no longer has any place for such patriarchs as the Prince, living in splendid ceremony on the labors of others and dominating the women around him. Yet a whole way of life, an entire channel for the exploration of human potential, disappears with him, and this makes him a great subject for fiction.
(Aside: some reviewers have chided this novel for being sexist or misogynist; it is, but Lampedusa’s purpose is to capture in its entirety a world that is gone—one that was undeniably patriarchal, which Lampedusa never denies or excuses. I prefer this novel’s total commitment to its subject, however leavened by irony, to the merely snide progressive sarcasm of a Ragtime.)
At one point in the novel, a visitor from the north of Italy comes to offer Don Fabrizio a seat in the new Senate. The visitor is horrified by the supposed barbarism of the south—a stereotype Don Fabrizio amuses himself by playing up—and, as he leaves Sicily, he reflects that Sicilian society is a squalid totality, irrespective of its internal divisions:
And he found himself pitying this Prince without hopes as much as the children without shoes, the malaria-ridden women, the guilty victims whose names reaches his office every morning; all were equal, at bottom, all were comrades in misfortune segregated in the same well.
Just before this, Don Fabrizio had made a long speech to his visitor confirming this impression, chiding would-be modernizers for wanting “to canalize Sicily into the flow of universal history.”
The novel’s narrative mode is superficially old-fashioned; I saw a review that called The Leopard “the last nineteenth century novel.” Lampedusa uses an expansive omniscient third-person voice whose high perspective allows him a gentle irony at the expense of his more limited characters; it recalls the great realist and historical novelists, such as Scott, Balzac, Tolstoy, and Lampedusa’s own favorite, Stendhal. Such a narrative mode was almost invented (by Scott) to pay ironic tribute to ways of life vanquished by progress, and Lampedusa’s adoption of it—and the Prince’s suitedness to it, in his broad-minded wisdom—suggest that The Leopard overall does not fully endorse the Prince’s insistence that Sicily cannot change. But we should not neglect how Lampedusa revises this nineteenth-century progressive omniscience by adding to it a characteristically relativizing twentieth-century gesture: tearing a hole in the narrative fabric to allow a glimpse not only of the distant past (the gods on the ceiling, the immemorial Sicilian landscape), but also and more daringly of the far future. Recall that passage in Mrs. Dalloway that describes what will be known of the V.I.P. in the motorcar when “London is a grass-grown path,” an apocalyptic irruption of the future that García Márquez claimed as an influence on One Hundred Years of Solitude, which, like The Leopard, describes the stasis of a colonized society through a structure at once recursive and forward-thrusting, thus dynamically static. Lampedusa is not the innovator García Márquez was, but his muted use of the technique throughout the novel makes it something more than conservative in style:
From the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling as inexorable as a summer sky. They thought themselves eternal; but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was to prove the contrary in 1943.
Between the nineteenth century realist-historical novel and the twentieth-century postmodern postcolonial novel, a beautiful book between The Charterhouse of Parma and One Hundred Years of Solitude—that is The Leopard.
To conclude on the note of its beauty, The Leopard can be read for its stately, sportive, and sensuous prose alone. Lampedusa’s is a static, decadent portraiture that sometimes leaves behind the currents of the realist novel entirely and reminds one of Huysmans or Pater. There is, for instance, a long central passage where Tancredi and Angelica explore all the hidden recesses of the Salina estate at Donnafugata as their sexual relationship develops, until they penetrate to the very core, a secret chamber where the remains of a Sadean chamber of eighteenth-century sadomasochism seems to explain something of the family’s own decay:
So the pair of them spent those days in dreamy wanderings, in the discovery of hells redeemed by love, of forgotten paradises profaned by love itself.
The novel is persistent in its symbolism of death, creating a mood of decaying matter and vanishing power on every page. This miasma of death is both what threatens Don Fabrizio and what will redeem him. The novel, as suggested above, is radically anti-political. It implicitly argues that social change is illusory and power indivisible; it shows family as an economic encumbrance and sex and love as sensual distractions. Only the Don’s immersion in nature, whether hunting with his plain-spoken steward or working at his astronomical observations, is worthwhile, even though an immersion in nature is only an anticipation of death itself:
“The real problem is how to go on living this life of the spirit in its most sublimated moments, those moments that are most like death.”
Change/sameness, realism/postmodernism, tradition/modernity, love/death: these are the contradictions between which the massive hero, and his grand novel, are stretched to create the tension, the vibration, the motion within stasis, of great art.