Published posthumously, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s only novel Il Gattopardo – The Leopard is one of the most important novels of Italian Literature. If I hadn’t watched Luchino Visconti’s movie, I would have read it much earlier. The English translation of the title is actually a misnomer because a gattopardo is a serval and not a leopard. The two animals allude to something quite different. While the English title emphasizes the strength and nobility, the Italian evokes extinction.
Il Gattopardo is a historical novel, set in Lampedusa’s native Sicily during the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy, in the 19th Century. The novel starts in 1860 and ends in 1910. The main character is Don Fabrizio Corbera Prince of Salina, a Sicilian nobleman, the last great head of the house of Salina. Don Fabrizio is a melancholic intellectual, who finds solace in mathematics and studying the stars. Even if he wasn’t living in such troubled times of civil war and revolution, he’d be uneasy because he is aware his house is coming to an end as none of his children is as great as he is. None of them embodies the spirit of the true aristocrat. He would have wished that his nephew Tancredi was his son. He is extremely fond of Tancredi and does everything to help the impoverished young man to make an excellent match. The chosen one is Angelica, the extremely attractive but not very refined daughter of Don Calogero Sedàra, a rich businessman and social climber who actively supported the revolution.
Like so many great European classics the Gattopardo doesn’t really have a plot other than history, the passing of time, and the changes they bring. It’s one of a few novels who describe the end of an era, therefore it’s not surprising it’s full of motifs and metaphors of decay, death and ending. This doesn’t mean however that it’s a depressing book. Thanks to the intrusions of the author it’s very witty. And it’s also a sensual book, full descriptions of lavish interiors and lush gardens.
What I admired the most is how Lampedusa weaves recurring motifs and metaphors into the text and how the structure of the narrative reinforces them. One of the first scenes in which we see Don Fabrizio on his own takes places in the garden of Villa Salina in Palermo. Don Fabrizion is alone with his dog Bendicò. The Prince is a great lover of dogs and this is one of his dearest. It’s a summer evening and the garden is filled with scents. The roses and other flowers are in full bloom. They are at the point where the scent is about to turn from delicious to overripe.
But the garden, hemmed and almost squashed between these barriers, was exhaling scents that were cloying, fleshy and slightly putrid, like the aromatic liquids distilled from the relics of certain saints; the carnations superimposed their pungence on the formal fragrance of roses and the oily emanations of magnolias drooping in corners; and somewhere beneath it all was a faint smell of mint mingling whith a nursery whiff of acacia and a jammy one of myrtle; from a grove beyond the wall came an erotic waft of early orange-blossom.
It was a garden for the blind: a constant offence to the eyes, a pleasure strong if somewhat crude to the nose.
It’s one of many instances in which the reader feels the change and the end, without being told. This first scene is echoed in the last scene of the novel, which takes place in Concetta’s rooms. She was the Prince’s favourite daughter. The house Salina has changed so much that even the clergy doesn’t let them dictate rules anymore. They have a chapel in which they display relics. Unfortunately the church has decided to examine them and found that they were not authentic. Angelica wants to help them fight the decision but Concetta resigns. A lesser author would have ended on the thoughts of the elderly woman but Lampedusa chose to show us the Prince and Bendicò one last time. One is hanging on the wall as a painting, the other one is a moth-eaten piece of fur lying on the floor and finally thrown out of the window and discarded.
A whole chapter is dedicated to the death of the prince. It’s one of the greatest death scenes I’ve ever read. And one of the most beautiful. The prince compares himself to an hourglass. His energy has been leaving him for years and now – towards the end – it accelerates. Soon all the grains of sand will have left his body. And, just like in an hourglass, they will not be lost. They will just not be this body anymore but disperse and turn into something else eventually. I though this was a pretty picture and surprisingly non-Christian.
I haven’t done this book any justice. It would deserve a whole series of posts. One could say so much about all the individual elements. I’m sure I’ll re-read it some day. Maybe I’ll write a series then. For the time being I would just like to urge everyone who hasn’t read it yet to do so.
I expected a great novel, a novel that I would love, but I didn’t expect it to be this subtle and nuanced, this melancholic and funny. It’s truly one of the greatest works of literature.
If you own a copy with an introduction – don’t hesitate reading it. This isn’t a novel that can be spoilt and an introduction will help you navigate the confusing history of the unification. Unfortunately my copies (the Italian and the French translation) had no introduction.