It’s hard to pin it to a particular century, as it was written in the mid-twentieth, yet takes place primarily in the late-nineteenth, and holds glimpses of both past and future. Perhaps it soars above the boundaries of time; somewhat ironic for a novel which is so preoccupied with time’s passage and the changing order of things.
Famously, Tancredi says:
If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. D’you understand?
Do we understand? This novel is a sensuous, skilful unpacking of this paradox which must make any writer at once green with envy and incredibly proud to see words used so powerfully. As David Mitchell puts it in a fervent piece in the Telegraph:
The Leopard is truly exceptional. ‘Give it up, you poor hack,’ the novel advises me. ‘Retrain as a plumber and earn some real money, or you’ll waste your life and still not produce a book a tenth as good as me.’ But the novel can’t help adding, ‘Look at all this beauty, truth and emotion, created from nothing but words. Just words. How can you possibly spend your life not trying to do the same?’
The novel opens in May 1860, just as Garibaldi conquers Sicily as part of the ‘Risogimento’, the unification of Italy. ‘The Leopard’ of the title is Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina – a huge figure, intimidating, a womanizer, and something of an eccentric who applies his mathematical capability to astronomy rather than accounting for his family’s expenditure and debts. He is married with three daughters and two sons, but the novel’s key relationship is avuncular. Don Fabrizio’s nephew is Tancredi Falconieri, an orphan the Prince has taken under his wing. They are both fond of each other – Tancredi affectionately calls him ‘Nuncle’ and teases him that he’s too old to be going to brothels, while Don Fabrizo finds his youthful insolence endearing and admires his political flexibility.
‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ Don Fabrizio sees that Tancredi understands this and so is bound to succeed. Aristocratic but penniless, Tancredi chooses to marry the beautiful, decidedly middle-class but very wealthy Angelica, whose father wears ill-fitting suits and whose mother is completley illiterate. He chooses her over refined, noble Concetta, the Prince’s daughter, seeing that while he cares for her, she hasn’t the upwardly mobile social ambition, nor the money required for a suitable match.
Some of my favourite scenes are of Tancredi and Angelica’s courtship, as they explore the dusty forgotten rooms of Donnafugata, one of the Prince’s palaces. The house throbs with the sensuality of their desire, as they explore the ‘mysterious and intricate labyrinth’ of various apartments which had been uninhabited for many years:
The two lovers embarked for Cythera on a ship made of dark and sunny rooms, of apartments sumptuous or squalid, empty or crammed with remains of heterogeneous furniture … It was not difficult to mislead anyone wanting to follow, this just meant slipping into one of the very long, narrow and tortuous passages, with grilled windows which could not be passed without a sense of anguish, turning through a gallery, up some handy stair, and the two young people were far away, invisible, alone as if on a desert island.
These dreamy passages are a beautiful double metaphor for first love. The winding geography of the palace becomes a voyage to a distant island, a journey of discovery, as well as perfectly reflecting the newly discovered labyrinthine feelings of falling in love.
Lampedusa contrasts this match between aristocratic yet financially poor Tancredi and socially ambitious, wealthy Angelica – indicative of an acceptance that change is necessary to remain in power – with the Prince’s inflexibility. When he is asked to be a Senator of the newly unified Kingdom, a chance to represent Sicily in the country’s political affairs which is a great honour, the Prince declines. He says he supports the new regime but will not ‘participate’. He conjures an image of Sicilians who are old, ‘worn out and exhausted’, looking on the wonders of the modern world as:
A centenarian being dragged in a bath-chair round the Great Exhibition in London, understanding nothing and caring about nothing … thinking of nothing but drowsing off again on beslobbered pillows with a pot under the bed.
All Sicilian sensuality is a hankering for oblivion … that is the cause of the well-known time lag of a century in our artistic and intellectual life; novelties attract us only when they are dead.
The Prince is old, and will not participate in change. Twenty years on, we see him sitting not in a bath-chair but in an ‘arm-chair, his long legs wrapped in a blanket’ taken out on to a hotel balcony, as he looks over the Sicilian landscape and feels ‘life flowing from him in great pressing waves with a spiritual roar’. He realises that he is the last true Salina, the last who understands traditions and refuses to bow to the changing times.
Throughout the novel there is the tension of the Prince’s heavy journey towards death – his ‘hankering for oblivion’, unchanging, doomed yet noble – against the nimble, practical, youthful energy of Tancredi, who will make the aristocracy’s traditions pliant in order to remain on top.
Interesting, this comment on ‘the well-known time lag of a century in our artistic and intellectual life’. For The Leopard begins in 1860 and was written nearly a hundred years later. Evidently Lampedusa himself was subject to this time lag, attracted to such ‘novelties’ as the decaying aristocracy only once it was well-and-truly dead.
The Prince feels himself to be a generation caught in-between generations – still alive in spite of his outmoded way of living and unable to adapt in the way that Tancredi can. It strikes me that this feeling of in-betweeness is surely felt by all generations. I know little of Lampedusa’s life, but perhaps he felt oppressed by the change brought by modern warfare – the Allied bomb of 1943 which fell on his Palermo palazzo, which is prophetically glimpsed in the novel:
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, Penn., was to prove the contrary in 1943.
Surely every generation suffers this neurosis of being at once ahead and left behind. For instance, my generation is endlessly bemoaning the fact that we are in-between in terms of the internet – too old to have been taught coding, yet not so old that we can get away with our ignorance. There is a feeling that if only we were older it wouldn’t matter if we knew no more than how to add an attachment to an email, but as it is we’re expected to be able to build a website, certainly to know basic html, and the fact that we don’t, whereas those just ten years younger than us have it all as second nature, is terrifying.
Perhaps that is in part why The Leopard is such a timeless novel, capturing the old order on the brink of collapse, while the new rises up – portraying how much is lost as well as gained in this evolution, while maintaining enough optimism not to be overwhelmed by the weight of such nostalgia. In each generation there is another old order giving way to a new, and surely everyone feels themselves caught between the annihilistic ‘hankering for oblivion’ and a naïve hopefulness. We are all faced with the statement: ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ It’s less a question of ‘D’you understand?’ than how one chooses to respond.
Oh and there is so much more to discuss. The power of the Sicilian landscape – perhaps this is what Forster so admired about it, as it reminded me of the brilliant end to A Passage to India; Catholicism – no doubt much here about death being ever present a la Brideshead Revisited; and all the food – including that infamous macaroni pie … The Leopard is a magnificent and enduring classic, even better on this rereading than when I first encountered it ten years ago. As ever, I’d love to know what you made of it. Daphne, alas, was rather startled by its leonine character: