July 25, 2020


Donnafugata Dilemmas: Reading 'The Leopard' Again (Randy Boyagoda, July 22, 2020, Commonweal)

The Prince, modeled on Lampedusa's great-grandfather, is an ambivalent, self-preserving, and self-defeating actor in these developments, which pose clear risks to himself and his family. The prospect of change also calls into question the nature of his responsibilities to the many people in his greater household and lands who have long depended on his laissez-faire leadership and largesse, whether gratefully or resentfully. As the novel begins, he wanders with melancholic languor around his house and properties, all marked with variations on the family's leopardine coat-of-arms. He spends his days and nights eating with his seven children, sleeping with his wife, sleeping with his mistress, hunting, dabbling in astronomy, chatting up his loyal Great Dane and long-suffering family priest, receiving peasants bearing meager gifts in place of payments for what they reap on his land. Lampedusa makes it clear that the Prince, like the princes before him, has always lived like this and can't imagine his descendants living otherwise--but now he has to decide how to respond to the approach of a new world in which this way of life can no longer be taken for granted. I can't think of another novel that provides such an intimate and fine-grained sense of what it means for a family man of public standing to confront the pressures of modernity increasing day by day, visitor by visitor.

Lampedusa evokes this pressure through the novel's most famous line, when the Prince conferences with Tancredi (his charismatic, hustling nephew) about Garibaldi's encroaching presence and the greater implications for the Prince's life. Tancredi tells him: "'If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. D'you understand?'" He does, and he doesn't, and the novel movingly presents the Prince's attempt to understand and live out a relationship between continuity and disruption he struggles to accept, whether it has to do with supporting family members' marriages to new-money people with vulgar mores, or deciding whether--and then how--to vote in a plebiscite about Italian unification or join a new Italian Senate. Given the Prince's standing, his participation legitimates the very thing that delegitimizes that standing, some portion of which he might be able to preserve if he joins a greater popular movement that seeks to deny his hereditary primacy altogether.

Most contemporary readers won't agree with the Prince's general approach to life and will rightly reject the embittered passivity that wins out over his better qualities.
Lampedusa brilliantly captures the Prince's dilemma in a sequence where he and his family journey to their palatial holding in the town of Donnafugata. The trip takes place a few months after Garibaldi's initial landing and a couple of weeks before Garibaldi and his men take Naples, the decisive event in this stage of the Risorgimento. It's a tense time, and the Prince looks forward to a kind of stability and reassurance otherwise increasingly imperiled: "'Thanks be to God, everything seems as usual,' thought the Prince as he climbed out of his carriage" to be greeted by the mayor, the local monsignor, assorted civic leaders and dignitaries, and the rustic masses. All of them watch in respectful silence while "according to ancient usage" the Prince and his party process into the cathedral for a Te Deum. Pro-Garibaldi slogans are painted on nearby walls: they're fading, but they're there, and the Prince can't help but notice them. Following prayers in the cathedral, he returns to the town square and warmly invites everyone there to visit the family in its palace after dinner that night. "For a long time Donnafugata commented on these last words," Lampedusa writes, "And the Prince, who had found Donnafugata unchanged, was found very much changed himself, for never before would he have issued so cordial an invitation; and from that moment, invisibly, began the decline of his prestige."

The Leopard and Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop are both examples of books that strike one much differently at different ages.  If you read them when young and didn't quite get the fuss, try them again when old. The Prince's dilemma, of trying to accept the future while preserving the past, is the conservative dilemma.

Posted by at July 25, 2020 7:44 AM