Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa: Il Gattopardo – The Leopard (1958)

The Leopard

Published posthumously, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s only novel Il GattopardoThe 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.

58 thoughts on “Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa: Il Gattopardo – The Leopard (1958)

  1. Beautiful review, Caroline. It is interesting that the story doesn’t have much of a plot but depicts a historical era. I loved that passage you have quoted. Makes me want to read the book. The last scene seems hard to read, but from your description also very beautiful. I got this book a few years back but for some reason have never got around to reading it. Now after reading your review, I want to read it now. I can’t remember whether it has an introduction. I will check my copy and see if it is there. I will read it first before reading the book. Thanks for the tip.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I know you will like it. I’m very convinced. It’s such a stunning book. I think, by now, most of my favourite novels are Italian.
      The latest English edition has an itroduction but I’ve only just downloaded it and have to read it.
      Of course there are always things to discover when you read a book for the first time and I know, mentioning the last scene was a bit of spoiler but I think, knowing it, will even intensify the reading.
      This is one of those books you absolutely have to re-reard to make the most of it.
      I’m looking forward to hear what you think of it. 🙂

  2. I have this – but alas without an introduction. Nevertheless I’ve heard so many good things about it that I shall definitely read it! 🙂

  3. I have the Vintage edition (as yet unread), but I must try to get to it this year. I had the feeling that it would be very sensual and lush, and the quote you’ve selected really conveys that feeling.

    • It is. It’s absolutely marvellous. I didn’t expect it to be funny though. But the author enters more than once telling us what will become of his protagonists.
      I’m sure you’ll like it. It helps to know a bit more about the history though.

  4. I wish I would have read this when a group was reading it together a while back (maybe it was the Slaves?). But I didn’t. Maybe when I finish the Bassani which I am moving very slowly through. I did get as part of my NYRB subscription last year a copy of The Professor and the Siren which is a collection of shorter works by di Lampedusa including a story that was meant to possibly be a follow up chapter to The Leopard–and so knowing that I feel like I should really read The Leopard first…see how the books just line up to be read! 🙂 (Hope all is well with you–sorry have been absent of late….).

    • I was planning to host an Italian readalong and this would have been one title but the I realized I wanted to read at my own pace.
      I think the Slaves read it together. Did’t Litlove reaview it as well?
      I’m sorry to hear the Bassani is a slow read, unless it’s a good thing.
      I’m very well, thanks. 🙂

      • Slow in a good way! It’s a matter of wanting to spend more time reading it but not having much reading time at all. I think Litlove did write about it. Will you still do an Italian lit readalong?

        • I’m glad to hear that. AS much ad I loved the Gattopardo – I loved the Bassani even more.
          I’m still tempted to do it, yes, but I’m afraid it will be too much pressure.

  5. Wonderful book. I may reread it later this year as part of my Italian reading. The Leopard is steeped in Italian literature, just soaking in it. But Lampedusa was one of history’s greatest readers, so that is no surprise.

    • I agrre. It’s one of the best I’ve ever read. I’m trying to read more Italian literature this year as well.
      No, it’s not surprising. I hope to read it more closely the second time.

  6. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of this book, but now I’m interested. I’d at least like to read the chapter dedicated to the death of the prince. I can’t think off the top of my head of a beautiful death scene…it’s made me curious.

    • I thought it was beautiful because of the way he interpreted his dying. He wasn’t exactly looking forward to death but he saw it as part of something bigger, not the end at all, but not like heaven. And he doesn’t have any regrets. Most death secene in literature are full of regrets, or they are very tragic. This one was almost gentle.

  7. This is a book that crops up on my radar every once in a while, and I’ve been slightly intimidated by it (it’s old and Italian and I’m somehow convinced it’ll go way over my head). The way you describe it sounds a lot less scary, although I’ll make sure I get a copy with an introduction.

    • It’s very accessible. There’s only one part, when they go hunting, that I found a bit dragging and as I’m not that familira with the Risorgimento, it was a bit confusing.
      I hope you’ll try it.

  8. Well, you’ve certainly convinced me to read it, Caroline. Really loved the passage you quoted.
    A few years ago I met someone from Sicily and he said he did not consider himself Italian at all. Evidently, Sicily was unified with the rest of Italy, but it’s called an “autonomous region.” I’ll be very interested in reading about the unification now. And thanks for the heads-up on the movie–I prefer to read the book first.

    • I’m sure you’ll love it. It’s really one of the very greatest books.
      I travelled extensively in Sicily and must admit, it felt different. Sure, it’s Italy but with an African flavor. Beautiful smaller and big cities. The dialect is also not so easy to understand. And there’s the Mafia, which certainly had a huge influence.

  9. I’d love to reread this in the next year or two, Caroline, but I have to thank you in the meantime because the distinction you make about the significance of the title in translation was news to me. By the way, I think you did a fine job getting at how moving and well written a novel it is; I too remember being floored by that chapter on the death of the prince.

    • Thanks, Richard, I’m glad to hear that. Books like this are so hard to capture for many reasons. That death chpater is really something, isn’t it? I’ll re-read it quite soon I think.

  10. A marvelous novel, one of the great singular reading experiences I’ve had. Visconti’s version is also that rarest of rare things: a film that stands on almost equally great terms with the novel on which it’s based. I also read the collection of di Lampedusa short stories republished by NYRB this year – well worth reading if you liked The Leopard.

    • It is marvellous. I will re-watch the movie. I remeber it being a feast for the eyes but Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delone overshadow my memory of the prince. I’m eager now to see how he captured his melancholic, introspective side.
      Thanks for the heads up on the short stories. I also want to read his memoir.

  11. Outstanding commentary on this one Caroline.

    I have head much about this book. You make me so want to read it now. I am beginning to appreciate more and more books that have minimal plot. I think that this allows other aspects of the writing to stand out.

    I am also fascinated with stories about decline.

    • Thanks, Brian. This really is a book for you because of the history angle. I think you’d like it. It’s a fascinating time he chose.
      I agree about the plot. I find it’s overrated.

    • I saw the movie as a teenager and took a while to get the pictures out of my head. That ball scene is so impressive.
      I’m sure I’ll like it even more when I re-read it. I think it’s a book you can read when you’re very young but I doubt a very younger author could have written it.

  12. This has been near the top of my TBR list for quite a while now but other, more sprightly, books keep leapfrogging over it. I’m sure I’ll love it when I do get round to reading it.

  13. It really is a remarkable novel. It’s a while since I read it but I did see the film fairly recently and having to read sub-titles that simplified and encapsulated the dialogue didn’t do much for me. It’s beautiful to look at, though.

    • I was pretty certian this would be a novel you like as well.
      I’ll have to watch it again. I know what you mean about the subtitles. Older Italian/french movies have particularly bad subtitles.

  14. It was on my daunting list but actually it’s not difficult to read. It’s an excellent book that captures very well the end of a era. The style is wonderful as you said and the two combined make a fantastic piece of literature.

  15. I’m sure I’ve heard the author’s name before but can’t remember when or where.
    Thanks for explaining the title – I often find things lose some of their meaning in translation and that is a shame.
    I love historical fiction and would definitely love to read this one. It is true our lives are like that hourglass, how very accurate…

    • I’d say it’s one of the greatest European novels.
      I liked reading it but I also admired the writing. It’s brillinat. I hope you’ll read it some day.
      Yes, a lot is lost in a translation.

  16. I’d always had the impression this was a rather stodgy novel, which it doesn’t sound at all. In fact I hadn’t thought about it, but I’d probably like Emma have put it on the daunting list. It sounds though rather beautiful.

    I suspect they avoided Serval because hardly anybody would have known what that was. It’s not a word I know.

    The later scene with the prince and his dog’s remains (picture and fur) sounds rather sad, but perhaps mitigated by seeing them alive before and warm with love and affection. Powerful in any event.

    • Max, I’m sure you’d love this. It’s anything but stodgy. It’s right up there with the best “end-of an-era” writers, I’d say. Proust, Roth. I didn’t expect that there would be so many introspective parts and that the prince would prove to be such a fascinating character.

  17. One of my all time favourites, a quite wonderful novel.

    Have you come across the recently published collection of Lampedusa’s stories and fragments? Cruelly it contains an extended opening for a proposed but never completed sequel to The Leopard. Still, better to have the fleeting glimpse rather than nothing at all….(I wonder if the Prince would agree with that sentiment).

    • I’ve got a copy of that book, yes. I’m really looking foward to reading it.
      I wonder if he would agree. I think it’s sad Lampedusa never saw his novel published. There’s so much of him in the Prince.

  18. I read this several years ago and found it very beguiling. I became rather intrigued by di Lampedusa afterwards, and rather liked the description of him carting great tomes of Shakespeare around in case he saw anything upsetting and needed to read his favourite quotes to soothe himself. I could get behind that! It’s such a strange thought to think this was his only book – but he certainly made a mark with it.

    • I agree, it’s a wonderful novel.He’s a fascinating character. I’ll certainly read his shorter fiction soon as well.
      I guess he had a lot of reasons to seek solace. I like the idea of him carrying a book.

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