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!


Stefanie said...

I think that the book's humanness is a big part of what makes it so very good. I could sympathize with the Prince and his desire to not do anything and just spend time looking at the stars.

litlove said...

'A sideways approach to history' is a wonderful way of putting it - yes! That's one of the things that struck me most of all. And like Stefanie, I think the humanity (humanism? is there enough of it to cohere into a philosophy?) was very touching. In choosing to write around the margins of social change and not focus on the official history of battle and unification, it must have been the ordinary, quotidian qualities that mattered most to him.