July 12, 2008


‘The Leopard’ Turns 50 (RACHEL DONADIO, 7/13/08, NY Times)

The novel tells the story of Don Fabrizio, the world-weary, cleareyed Prince of Salina, scion of an old feudal family and lover of astronomy. It opens in 1860 with the landing in Sicily of forces intent on unifying Italy and ends in 1910, when a priest comes to assess the reliquaries of the prince’s now aged spinster daughters. In between, it recounts the fortunes of the prince’s favorite nephew, Tancredi, who supports the unification efforts of Giuseppe Garibaldi more out of opportunism than idealism and eventually becomes a diplomat. Tancredi’s career is made possible only by his marrying money — which inevitably means marrying down. To the horror of his aunt, the devastation of a cousin who loves him and the wry comprehension of his uncle, Tancredi falls in love with Angelica, the beautiful daughter of an upwardly mobile landed peasant father and an illiterate mother not fit for polite company. It is Tancredi who speaks the novel’s most famous line: “If we want things to stay as they are,” he tells his uncle, “things will have to change.”

Tancredi’s declaration lies at the heart of “The Leopard,” at once a loving portrait of a vanished society and a critique of its provincialism. “The Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect,” the prince tells a Piedmontese aristocrat who tries to persuade him to become a senator. “Their vanity is stronger than their misery; every invasion by outsiders ... upsets their illusion of achieved perfection.”

In Italy’s postwar intellectual scene, dominated by Marxists after years of Fascism, Lampedusa’s novel was at first seen as quaint and reactionary, a baroque throwback at the height of neorealism in cinema and class-consciousness in all the arts. (According to David Gilmour’s excellent 1988 biography, “The Last Leopard,” the novelist was neither a Fascist nor a staunch anti-Fascist and “remained too skeptical and disillusioned to be a genuine democrat or a liberal.”)

Lampedusa was born in 1896 into an aristocratic family that had been in Sicily for centuries. A veteran of World War I, he spent his days reading European and American literature and discussing it in Palermo cafes. He married a Latvian aristocrat and intellectual, Alessandra Wolff. The couple had no children. Acutely aware he would be the last Prince of Lampedusa, he began to write about his Sicilian world.

Encouraged by the recent literary success of his cousin, the poet Lucio Piccolo, Lampedusa sent his manuscript to Mondadori, which rejected it on the recommendation of Elio Vittorini, another Sicilian novelist who worked as a consultant. A committed Marxist whose own writing was intent on dignifying the working class, Vittorini found “The Leopard” too celebratory of the aristocracy.

...than those who don't (didn't) react against the 20th Century?

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Posted by Orrin Judd at July 12, 2008 1:07 PM

Great, great novel. And the non-bowdlerized film version ain't bad either.

And to your point, who wouldn't react against 20th c Italy in particular. Or Italy in general. Talk about "there is no . . ."

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at July 12, 2008 2:34 PM

Sex and The City was more cretinous.

I'm only guessing about that because I wasn't dragged to it by a chick or anything...

Posted by: Benny at July 13, 2008 5:29 PM
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