Saturday, June 08, 2013

How human! Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard

After reading the wonderful posts already here, I find myself wondering what I have to add! You''ve all mentioned aspects of the book that I was also interested in. Alex, for instance, stresses the sensuality of the language: "It is by far the most insistently, sensuously, even seductively, oppressive book I’ve ever read. It made me want to applaud, underline and shudder in equal measure and often with just one very clever, deviously evocative phrase." As both she and litlove point, out, the book's beauties always coexist with horrors, so the garden scene Alex quotes, for instance, brings on gloomy thoughts for the eponymous protagonist, Don Fabrizio, because walking among his flowers he is reminded of the corpse they found among them not long ago:

They had found him lying face downwards in the thick clover, his face covered in blood and vomit, crawling with ants, his nails dug into the soil; a pile of purplish intestines had formed a puddle under his bandoleer.

And yet for all of its grim accents, The Leopard is also, as Stefanie and litlove observe, very funny -- even, glancingly, in this lush but haunted garden, mostly because of my favorite character, the dog Bendicò:

every now and again the dog would turn innocent eyes towards him as if asking for praise at labour done: fourteen carnations broken off, half a hedge torn apart, an irrigation channel blocked. How human! "Good, Bendicò, come here." And the animal hurried up and put its earthy nostrils into his hand, anxious to show it had forgiven this silly interruption of a fine job of work.

How human, indeed! I think for me that was one of the keynotes of this odd novel, which takes such a sideways approach to history. Don Fabrizio, born and bred to power, is moving sometimes deftly, sometimes awkwardly, but always inevitably through a period of transition to a future he neither understands nor endorses. "I belong to an unlucky generation," he explains in one of the novel's (bizarrely long) monologues, "swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both." The novel is about the human experience of that unease -- the sense of change beyond one's control. The Prince is mostly a man of good faith and good intentions, and so although he does not like the new world order emerging, he does not fight it either. Not only does he not resist Garibaldi's move on Sicily, to incorporate it in the newly unified Italy -- and what, after all, could one man, however formerly powerful, really do to resist this sweeping movement? -- but in his own family he also makes concessions, approving the match between his beloved nephew Tancredi and the daughter of his upstart neighbor. An old name, a lot of new wealth: this is how families adapt and survive.

Earthly things ebb and flow; one of Don Fabrizio's virtues is that he recognizes this and feels melancholic, rather than vengeful, as his own influence wanes. A dedicated amateur astronomer, he takes comfort from the serene continuity of the stars:

At the cross-roads he glimpsed the sky to the west, above the sea. There was Venus, wrapped in her turban of autumn mist. She was always faithful, always waiting for Don Fabrizio on his early morning outings, at Donnafugata before a shoot, now after a ball.

Don Fabrizio sighed. When would she decide to give him an appointment less ephemeral, far from stumps and blood, in her own region of perennial certitude?

When that time does come, he reflects on his heirs and realizes that they will not, cannot, carry on the family in any more but name:

the last of the Salina was really himself, this gaunt giant now dying on a hotel balcony. For the significance of a noble family lies entirely in its traditions, that is in its vital memories; and he was the last to have any unusual memories, anything different from those of other families. . . .

He had thought that perhaps, by changing, he could keep things the same, but of course that hope is as paradoxical as its logic.

Don Fabrizio is not literally the last of his family, and the book carries on after his death with his daughters in their old age. They are at once pathetic and comical in their attempts to maintain their family's dignity. Now the family traditions are reduced to "mummified memories" -- among them, with delightfully morbid literalness, is Bendicò,"dead for forty-five years, embalmed for forty-five years, nest now of spiders' webs and moth, detested by the servants who had been imploring Concetta for dozens of years to have it thrown on the rubbish heap." At the novel's end Concetta has lost altogether her sense of place and certainty in the world: "she seemed to be living in a world known to her yet strange, which had already ceded all the impulses it could give her and now consisted only of pure forms." I wondered at first why the novel hadn't ended with the death of the Prince, but on reflection it seems appropriate to show us the incompleteness of any change, the endless pressure of time's forward movement and the incremental but relentless concessions people have to make to history. Eventually Bendicò, symbol of the eager spirit of the Leopard's vigorous past, makes his own symbolic exit:

As the carcass ws dragged off, the glass eyes stared at her with the humble reproach of things that are thrown away, got rid of. A few minutes later what remained of Bendicò was flung into a corner of the courtyard visited every day by the dustman. During the flight down from the window its form recomposed itself for an instant; in the air there seemed to be dancing a quadruped with long whiskers, its right foreleg raised in imprecation. Then all found peace in a heap of livid dust.

How human!

The Leopard, the End of an Era

I very much enjoyed The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. It is an intimate book written against the large-scale backdrop of a changing Italy. It's about family, tradition, class, power, change, war, politics, love. It is by turns heartwarming and heartbreaking, sad and funny.

Published posthumously in 1958, The Leopard is often considered to be one of the most important novels in Italian literature. Sadly, Lampedusa had tried to get the novel published twice and was rejected both times. Maybe it is just as well he was dead when it was finally published because it seemed to make everybody angry. The conservatives criticized if for portraying the decadence of the aristocracy and clergy; the left didn't like it because the novel criticizes Italian unification; and the Communist Party in Italy didn't like it because of its non-Marxist portrayal of the working class. Nonetheless, the novel received great acclaim with the support of none other than E.M. Forster. And in 1959, the book won the Strega Prize, Italy's highest award for fiction.

The story takes place in Sicily and is told by Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina. It is May, 1860, and the army of Giuseppe Garibaldi has just landed in Sicily, ready to unite it with Italy. Don Fabrizio is a bit miffed because his beloved nephew, Prince Tancredi Falconieri, young, handsome and debonair, has joined up with the unificationists. But as unhappy about it as Don Fabrizio may be, he sees which way the wind is blowing. He doesn't want unification or a republic but he also knows that if he involves himself in the fight against it he will lose even more than his status and by extension so will his family.

In August the family retires to their estate in Donnafugata. The fighting done for now, Tancredi joins them. The arrival of the family sets off a serious of traditional welcome events staged by the town. The citizens and officials greet the family upon arrival, they attend Mass, and then the Princess invites the town officials to the traditional first night dinner. The new mayor, Don Calogero, requests permission to bring his daughter Angelica instead of his wife.

Angelica turns out to be very beautiful and charming. She has been sent away to school to polish the rough edges of the middle class. Her father, Don Fabrizio learns, will very soon become wealthier than he is. And there is more than one instance in the book in which the newly rich Don Calogero reveals his ignorance of upper class conduct and dress, making Don Fabrizio wince as well as a little depressed.

Don Fabrizio's daughter, Concetta, was certain she would marry Tancredi. She loved him and he did show her favor so it was not an unfounded expectation. However, Tancredi had no money of his own and Concetta, who would have a large dowry, didn't have quite enough. Angelica, however, would inherit all her father's wealth. Doesn't take a genius to know where that storyline is going.

But enough plot.

Don Fabrizio is a wonderful character. He values tradition, it orders his world and his life, it keeps things calm and steady and ordered. When change is inevitable he doesn't exactly embrace it but he doesn't fight it either. He just lets it happen. When his priest, Father Pirrone, expresses worry, Don Fabrizio tells him

We're not blind, my dear Father, we're just human. We live in a changing reality to which we try to adapt ourselves like seaweed bending under pressure of water. Holy Church has been granted an explicit promise of immortality; we, as a social class, have not. Any palliative which may give us another hundred years of life is like eternity to us. We may worry about our children and perhaps our grandchildren; but beyond what we can hope to stroke with these hands of ours we have no obligations.
At one point, Don Fabrizio, who is often described as moving like a cat or having paws, foresees that the Leopards and Lions will be giving way to the jackals and hyenas.

Don Fabrizio is a dying breed and he knows it. When he actually does die we move forward many years to Concetta and her sisters living in one of the family houses in Palermo in faded splendor. After being jilted by Tancredi, Concetta never married but became and old, bitter spinster holding onto the past. As Tancredi and Angelica move into the future and see their star rise, Concetta sinks into obscurity. Though in the end Concetta does realize that a good deal of her unhappiness is her own fault.

I felt sad for Concetta and sorry for the downfall of the Salina family. They were easy to feel sad about though because they were good people. Nonetheless, nobility represent an inherently unfair system and the bad and the good go down together. Is what followed any better? It did open things up a bit, at least for awhile.

The Leopard is a quiet book filled with detail that I could go on and on about. I will get to go on a little bit more as this was a Slaves group read. Check out the blog to see what others thought and feel free to join in or follow additional conversation in our forum discussion.

Cross-posted at So Many Books

The Leopard

The Leopard was Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s only novel and he wrote it late in life.  So late, in fact, that he had no clue it would be published 18 months after his death. Family legend has it that he screwed up the courage to write only after seeing his cousin, Lucio Piccolo, start out late as a poet and win a prize for his work. Lampedusa wrote to a friend, ‘Being mathematically certain that I was no more foolish than Lucio, I sat down at my desk and wrote a novel.’ With typical abject humility he also said: ‘It is, I fear, rubbish.’ Lampedusa was a quiet, inconspicuous sort of person; a nobleman living with vastly reduced status but enough money not to have to work. ‘I am a very solitary person,’ he wrote. ‘Out of the sixteen hours I spend awake each day, at least ten are spent in solitude.’ From this solitude flourished his only true career as a voracious reader. Books were his cherished treasures and his main expense, and he spent his mornings trawling the meagre bookshops of Palermo, visiting his favourite, Flaccovio, every day for ten years. He always carried with him a bag packed full of volumes including one of Shakespeare, so that ‘he could console himself with it if he should see something disagreeable’, according to his wife, Licy. It is extraordinary – but surely also a tribute to the pedagogic power of reading – that he should have sat down and produced something as beautiful and strange as The Leopard on his first (and last) attempt.

The Leopard is the story of the long-drawn out decline of a noble Sicilian family. It opens in 1861 just as Garibaldi is leaping about the country, uniting its various factions through his military campaign. But all this vulgar action is discreetly left to its own devices, beyond the scope of the narrative, just as the Prince and his family withdraw to one of their country estates to avoid any hint of real battle. Their aristocratic stature encases them in security and tedium, almost-but-not-quite protected from the realities of life, like the disembowelled corpse of a soldier that briefly spoils the beauty of their rose garden. The tale is an inward-looking one, of a family at the height of its ripeness, full of flavour and texture, rich and resplendent and on the verge of decay. As it rots away, the story is redolent of nostalgia for what once was, splendid melancholy for its loss, and a hint of repulsion at what it must become.

The narrative occurs in a series of vignettes of family life. The first introduces the reader to the Prince, who is the beating heart of the story. The Prince is a wonderful creation, a man of overarching uselessness who is a petty tyrant with his family and a passionate astronomer on the quiet. Melancholy, proud and a bit petulant, he has no trouble reconciling his conscience with visits to his mistress under cover of giving the priest a lift into town in his carriage. His heart is only moved by his dog and his nephew, Tancredi. The young man has been left penniless by his family but by no means without resources; maverick, mischevious and brave, the Prince loves him for his genuine vitality, even though he is the embodiment of the modern spirit that will hasten the dissolution of old families like the Salina clan.

And as soon as they get to the safety of their country estate, Tancredi falls for the glorious Angelica, daughter of the local mayor who has a Medusa touch. It’s a sensible choice for a man of aristocratic birth who lacks cold, hard cash and the Prince is willing to sanction the union. At first, though, the Prince struggles to come to terms with the sheer difference of Mayor Don Calogero, his lack of delicacy, his upfront pursuit of money, his awful clothes. But negotiating the marriage settlement, he shows himself to be generous and kind and the Prince is moved by exquisite relief:

‘The nobleman rose to his feet, took a step towards the surprised Don Calogero, raised him from his armchair, clasped him to his breast; the Mayor’s short legs were suspended in the air. For a moment, that room in a remote Sicilian province looked like a Japanese print of a huge, violet iris with a hairy fly hanging from a petal.’

Did I mention that the great charm of this novel is that it is so unexpectedly funny? The writing is wonderful; crisp, perceptive, witty, vivid. It’s the sort of novel where characters give long, eloquent speeches about the state of the church in Italy, and the Sicilian national character and although you sigh on the approach into them, you find you are laughing on the way out. There are some delightful passages, like the visit of the political envoy, the extremely anxious Chevalley di Monterzuolo, whose ‘head had been stuffed with the tales of brigands by which Sicilian’s love to test the nervous resistance of new arrivals’ and who fails to make the Prince accept a seat in the new governing council. And one chapter is filled with an evening at a ball, the epitome of the grace, the splendour and the futility of the old regime.

But the underlying force of the sumptuous prose is entropy, nevertheless. The novel captures the spirit and the soul of a generation on the cusp of its dissolution. It’s a book in which not a lot happens – increasingly less happens, in fact, as it moves through its stages – but it still happens with immense grace and clear-sightedness, wry good-humour and ironic self-interest. It is sad and splendid, rather like the man who wrote it.

Malevolent Magnolias Flourish in Lampedusa's The Leopard

I admit it: I was delighted that this Italian classic was picked in our last vote - I'd been curious about it for years!

Set on the island of Sicily, the majority of the action in the novel takes place in 1860 and 1861 during a period of revolution and change in Italian society. The coming of ‘free elections’, battles for political control and changes in the social hierarchy are all being navigated by the leopard of the book’s title – Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina.

The Salina family badge of the leopard is slyly tucked into the novel and all over the island. It’s on the soup tureen and the frescos, the family’s clothes and the house. It’s a symbol Don Fabrizio sees every day, a reminder of his heritage and (more importantly) the strength and cunning that is expected of him as the lord of his estates.

When the book opens, the Prince is delicately picking his way through the political minefield, a situation that he’s never been in before. Though he believes in a monarchy he’s smart enough to see that the monarchy in its current form is doomed; shifting from loyal courtier to survivor of a republican uprising takes some careful manoeuvring. Along the way there will be rebels lighting dramatic bonfires on the neighbouring hilltops and a soldier’s body dumped in their garden.

The Prince is also conducting an affair with a girl in the nearby town and keeping a careful eye on his nephew Tancredi’s love-life too. Tancredi has transferred his attention from the Prince’s daughter to the daughter of a man who in the previous regime would never have amounted to much but now, in the shifting political tide, has picked up land, money and status enough to make him a regrettable but important ally. The Prince doesn’t object to Tancredi losing interest in his daughter but struggles to swallow his pride and accept these unwelcome new relations (it’s vividly likened to crunching down the bones of a toad).

What could be a dry state of the nation tale becomes a deeper, more personal tale by subtly focusing on the concessions the Prince must make. Underneath all the shifts in local power and social hierarchy this is the story of a man growing older, being forced to adapt and feeling his importance fade as he becomes part of the previous generation. The powerful tyrant used to inspiring fear must become a wiser diplomat and inspire respect. It’s a coming of old age tale.

What makes The Leopard a classic though is its startling (and gorgeously grim) imagery. It is by far the most insistently, sensuously, even seductively, oppressive book I’ve ever read. It made me want to applaud, underline and shudder in equal measure and often with just one very clever, deviously evocative phrase.

‘But the garden, hemmed in and almost squashed between these barriers, was exhaling scents that were cloying, fleshy and slightly putrid, like to aromatic liquids distilled from the relics of certain saints; the carnations superimposed their pungence on the formal fragrance of rose and the oily emanations of magnolias drooping in corners; and somewhere beneath it all was a faint smell of mint mingling with a nursery whiff of acacia and a jammy one of myrtle; from a grove beyond the wall came an erotic waft early orange-blossom.’
(Page 4)

That’s only on Page 4 and I knew right there with its heady Machiavellian atmosphere and sinister ‘oily emanations of magnolias drooping in corners’ exactly why this 1960 translation by Archibald Colquhoun is so respected and hasn’t been bettered.

Surprisingly the book is full of dry humour too:

‘In reality the Princess too had been subject to Tancredi’s charm, she still loved him; but the pleasures of shouting “It’s your fault” being the strongest any human being can enjoy, all truth and feelings were swept along in its wake.’
(Pages 73/74)

There’s also this description of a very memorable outfit:

‘his rough cloth military jacket under which burst a purple cataract of trousers’
(Page 7)

And for the book lovers amongst us there is the sly observation that the Prince was so offended by some scandalous Balzac novels that he ‘lent them in disgust to a friend he didn’t like’. :)

In fact, The Leopard is a sly book in every sense of the word. It’s cleverer than it first appears, more lively than the subject matter suggests and every page is layered with ideas, imagery and meaning. It’s a book I very much look forward to growing into over the rest of my reading life. A deliciously slippery book that I know will morph slightly with each re-reading…