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The Leopard

January 24, 2020

I met the mother of my son’s girlfriend over the holidays, and she told me that one of her favorite books is The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. I had never read it, so decided to, and found that, at least in the translation by Archibald Colquhoun, it offers a certain amount of morbid fascination in its portrait of a dying aristocracy during an era of rising nationalism.

The novel focuses on a Sicilian prince whose office is traditionally associated with the image of a leopard. His name is Don Fabrizio, and the racial purity of his family is already in decline, as “the Prince’s rosy skin and honey-colored hair…betrayed the German origin of his mother….But in his blood also fermented other German strains particularly disturbing to a Sicilian aristocrat in the year 1860…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.”

The prince has plenty of time for musing; he dabbles in astronomy and considers how best to conserve the position of his family. Thinking of a dead soldier’s body once discovered in his garden, he says that “the image of that gutted corpse often recurred, as if asking to be given peace in the only possible way the Prince could give it: by justifying that last agony on grounds of general necessity.” This prince is not sure of the easy answer, that “he died for the King,” because “he knew the King well, or rather the one who had just died; the present one was only a seminarian dressed up as a General. And the old King had really not been worth much.” And when he thought about the idea that “one particular sovereign may not be up to it, yet the idea of monarchy is still the same,” he concluded that “kings who personify an idea should not, cannot, fall below a certain level for generations; if they do…the idea suffers too.”

The prince doesn’t think like a commoner. When he thinks of “a medicine recently discovered in the United States of America which could prevent suffering even during the most serious operations” he thinks that “’Morphia’ was the name given to this crude substitute for the stoicism of the ancients and for Christian fortitude.”
He feels everything more acutely than others; on the way to his annual vacation spot, he feels that his life is
“a landscape of interminable undulations, all of the same color, all bare as despair. These early morning fantasies were the very worst that could happen to a man of middle age; and although the Prince knew that they would vanish with the day’s activities, he suffered acutely all the same, as he was used enough to them by now to realize that deep inside him they left a sediment of grief which, accumulating day by day, would in the end be the real cause of his death.”
At the point that he is deciding to crush his daughter’s hopes for marriage to his nephew and his wife protests, they have a brief argument about it, and his wife declares
“’I never could endure that fop! You just lost your head about him!’ In reality the Princess too had been subject to Tancredi’s charm, and she loved him still; but the pleasure of shouting ‘It’s your fault’ being the strongest any human being can enjoy, all truths and all feelings were swept along in its wake.”
It doesn’t really matter what she thinks or feels; the Prince has a bottle of valerian on the night table that he will have someone dose her with when he decides she’s “hysterical.”

When the prince wants to forget his troubles, he goes hunting with a friend. They get
“scratched by thorns, just as any Archidamus or Philostratus must have been tired and scratched twenty-five centuries before. They saw the same objects, their clothes were soaked with just as sticky a sweat, the same indifferent breeze blew steadily from the sea….Reduced to these basic elements, its face washed clear of worries, life took on a tolerable aspect.”
After they shoot a wild rabbit, they see that
“horrible wounds lacerated snout and chest. Don Fabrizio found himself stared at by big black eyes soon overlaid by a glaucous veil; they were looking at him with no reproof, but full of tortured amazement at the whole order of things; the velvety ears were already cold, the vigorous paws contracting in rhythm, still-living symbol of useless flight; the animal had died tortured by anxious hopes of salvation, imagining it could still escape when it was already caught, just like so many human beings. While sympathetic fingers were still stroking that poor snout, the animal gave a last quiver and died; Don Fabrizio and Don Ciccio had had their bit of fun, the former not only the pleasure of killing but also the solace of compassion.”

At this point in my reading, the prince’s casual cruelty and his assumption that everything he does is right began to remind me of another authoritarian at the moment in history when his authority is disappearing, Okwanko in Things Fall Apart, and I started to wonder if this book is regarded as a modern classic for some of the same reasons. I found that Jonathan Jones, in a 2003 review in The Guardian, says:
“Prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s posthumous, unfinished work Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), was at once hailed a masterpiece. It possesses the descriptive and analytic power not simply of one of the most beguiling 20th-century novels but one of the modern world’s definitive political fictions….Against all our prejudices, we empathise with his subtle, undeceived and fatalistic attempts to preserve his family’s virtually feudal power at the time of the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy, in 1860.”
I did not find this to be true; in fact I have rarely empathized less with any character I’ve ever met in fiction.

Even the contemporary political parallels offered by The Leopard are uncomfortable to consider when it seems that it’s no longer necessary for people whose main motivation is the accumulation of wealth to disguise that motivation with a veneer of good manners. Take the prince’s growing relationship with the commoner father of the girl he allowed his nephew Tancredi to marry, Don Calogero, which provides revelations to them both. When Don Calogero gives the prince business advice, it turns out that
“the eventual result of such advice, cruelly efficient in conception and feeble in application by the easygoing Don Fabrizio, was that in years to come the Salina family would acquire a reputation for treating dependents harshly, a reputation quite unjustified in reality but which helped to destroy its prestige at Donnafugata and Querceta, without in any way halting the collapse of the family fortunes.”
And when the prince’s example teaches Don Calogero better manners,
“he realized how agreeable can be a well-bred man, who at heart is only someone who eliminates the unpleasant aspects of so much of the human condition and exercises a kind of profitable altruism (a formula in which the usefulness of the adjective made him tolerate the uselessness of the noun).”

There’s also a depressing juxtaposition of thoughts about human progress, with a representative of the newly unified Italy seeing poverty and despair and thinking “this state of things won’t last; our lively new modern administration will change it all” while the prince is thinking “all this shouldn’t last; but it will, always; the human ‘always,’ of course, a century, two centuries…and after that it will be different, but worse. We were the Leopards, the Lions; those who’ll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas; and the whole lot of us, Leopards, jackals, and sheep, we’ll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.”

And as a final insult to the unfortunate women the prince leaves to carry on his degenerate line, we see how his daughter Concetta has been forced into permanent subjection to the woman he allowed to marry his nephew:
“’Concetta darling!’ ‘Angelica dear! It’s so long since we’ve met!’ In fact only five days had gone by since her last visit, but the intimacy between the two cousins, an intimacy similar in closeness and feeling to that which was to bind Italians and Austrians in their opposing trenches a few years later, was such that five days really could seem a long time.”

While there are delightful ironies and turns of phrase in this novel, I found the main character repellent. Reading it made me feel like looking at a spider makes me feel–fascinated and uneasy.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. magpiemusing permalink
    January 24, 2020 1:28 pm

    I remember reading this a long time ago, and liking it, but I can’t remember a thing about it!

    • January 24, 2020 2:46 pm

      I remember thinking that I ought to read this book, but I’m pretty sure I never did —

    • January 25, 2020 9:16 am

      The person who recommended it to me said she read it when she was much younger and loved the descriptions of Italy and the feeling of nothing staying the same. I can see that it would have been a different experience to read this book as a young person.

  2. January 24, 2020 2:27 pm

    “I found the main character repellent. Reading it made me feel like looking at a spider makes me feel–fascinated and uneasy.”

    Oh, I like this! I read the book a number of years ago and felt the same way but wasn’t as eloquent as you on the matter!

    • January 25, 2020 9:18 am

      It is beautifully written, which makes the main character that much more repellent, I think.

  3. January 24, 2020 3:28 pm

    I can’t get very far into Lolita for the same reason – men justifying their vileness isn’t at all appealing.

    • January 25, 2020 9:14 am

      The Leopard isn’t justifying his vileness, just revealing that he is a product of a decadent society. He’s very different from the unreliable narrator of Lolita, created as a trap for unwitting readers. It was Lionel Trilling who pointed out that “we find ourselves the more shocked when we realize that, in the course of reading the novel, we have come virtually to condone the violation it presents … we have been seduced into conniving in the violation.”

      • January 25, 2020 1:10 pm

        My difference is that I can’t keep reading the novel. My mind keeps the impressions, and I don’t want it full of garbage – I can’t get rid of it.

        Makes me wonder when they’re so popular.

  4. lemming permalink
    January 24, 2020 6:14 pm

    As has been said, I feel like I was supposed to read this, or planned to read it, and didn’t. After reading your review, I don’t feel too badly about that.

    • January 25, 2020 9:19 am

      You would like the history aspect of it. But yes, you’d hate the way the women are treated.

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