The Leopard by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa

Giuseppe Di Lampedusa wrote only one novel (The Leopard) in his lifetime and that too was published posthumously. Thus one of the most important 20th century novel in the Italian language was never seen in print by the author himself.

The novel is situated during the time of the Italian re-unification, the rise of Garibaldi and his Red Shirt movement and the decline and subsequent transformation of the feudal nobility in the late nineteenth century. Di Lampedusa was himself was himself a descendent of one the noble families and the story that he narrates is ostensibly that of his grandfather. The Leopard is the symbol of the family of which Prince Fabrizio, the principal character in the novel, is the head.

The novel reminded me of a couple of other such works, one of which is surely the Century in Scarlet by the Hungarian writer Lajos Zilahy. Both deal with more or less the same theme, though from somewhat different sides. Zilahy’s novel too deals with the coming into being of the Hungarian nation in the twentieth century- thus both deal with the coming into being of modern nation states and identities of two nations that were probably at the far end of the nation forming processes that were set into motion a century or more earlier in some of the other European states. I am not sure how comprehensive the novels are from a sociological or political point of view, but both do provide the nearest equivalent in a literary form.

Both the novels are very straightforward in nature and though written in the 20th century, they are in the nature of the 19th century novel, with a linear narrative structure and few complexities in terms of the underlying ideas they seek to communicate. The style is closest to Balzac’s, more in case of The Leopard than perhaps The Century in Scarlet. This is not the place to go in for a deeper analysis of The Century in Scarlet, but here are a few words on The Leopard.

The story is straight forward, that of Prince Fabrizio who is forced to relinquish the control of his estates in the light of the advance of Garbaldi’s republican forces. His ambitious nephew Tancredi moves over to the new forces, calculatedly marrying the daughter of a rising rich, though uncouth merchant Don Calogero who is eager to establish a ‘lineage’ for himself by marrying into the family of a noble, in the process spurning Fabrizio’s own daughter’s hand .

“Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they’ll foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”

-he informs his uncle, even as he looks at his uncle with the ‘affectionate irony that youth accords to age’.

That Prince Fabrizio aids and abets his nephew in his cunning endeavors speaks much of the Prince’s own instinct for survival. “The bourgeois revolution climbing his stairs in Don Calogero’s tail coat”, as the Prince thinks while observing Don Calogero in his house.

And historically speaking he is right, the decline of the nobility is complete and the power has shifted decisively in favour of the commercial bourgeoise, with the corresponding shift from the monarchy to a republic and the ideological shift from the church- when the nobility’s land is ostensibly ‘the patrimony of the poor’- to the republican ideals.

With the story being as simple as that what holds the reader is the author’s effusive description of some of the lesser known areas of Europe- Siciliy in this case. Added to that is the author’s deep insight into human nature, which renders the novel a universal appeal and finally his smooth, delectable, almost tropical prose. His metaphors are particularly imaginative and I suppose that probably owes something to the richness of the original language itself.

Here is a description of the Prince’s family as they sit down for dinner:

“The girls plump, glowing, with gay dimples, and between the forehead and the nose the frown which was the hereditary mark of the Salinas; the males slim but wiry, wearing an expression of fashionable melancholy as they wielded knives and forks with subdued violence.”

And that of the Prince Fabrizio himself:

“…in his blood also fermented other German strains particularly disturbing to a Sicilian aristocrat in the year 1860, however attractive his fair skin and hair amid all that olive and black: an authoritarian temperament, a certain rigidity in morals and a propensity for abstract ideas; these in the relaxing atmosphere of Palermo society, had changed respectively into capricious arrogance, recurring moral scruples, and contempt for his own relatives and friends, all of whom seemed to him mere driftwood in the languid meandering stream of Sicilian pragmatism… Between the pride and intellectuality of his mother and the sensuality and irresponsibility of his father, poor Prince Fabrizio lived in perpetual discontent under his Jovelike frown, watching the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance without ever making, still less wanting to make any move toward saving it.”

This in essence also sums up the novel itself.

There are a number of insightful sentences that are a delight for a reader. Though the novel may beg comparison with, say, a War and Peace, to say nothing of a novel like Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World which is far more complex in the treatment of a similar theme. Nevertheless The Leoprad establishes itself as a minor classic of the 20th century and hence an important novel to those trying to understand the evolution of nations in an era that seems to be dissolving a number of attributes of what have been associated with the nation and national identities.


Author: bhupinder singh

an occasional blogger

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