Saturday, June 08, 2013

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…


litlove said...

What a great review, Alex! The writing is amazing, isn't it? And I loved the humour. It wasn't at all what I was expecting (and don't ask me what that was - I couldn't really say!). But it's a brave book that takes a particularly lively historical situation like the reunification of Italy, and draws the story in the margins, beyond what would be considered the conventional 'interest', choosing to focus on stillness and decline. I applaud it for pulling that off very well. It's a very unusual and eccentric sort of book, though. Not for people who like their narrative conventional, I'd guess.

Stefanie said...

Oh that Balzac bit cracked me up! Nice review. It is such a rich book and I got so much more than I was expecting, though like Litlove, I can't exactly say what I was expecting, probably something a little dry and slow. It is definitely a deceptively simple book. Oh and that garden scene, made my allergies go haywire just with the description of the scent! ;)

Rohan Maitzen said...

"Sly" is a perfect word for it. I too don't know what I was expecting, but somehow it wasn't what I got: the episodic structure, the weird dreamlike part about "Love at Donnafugata," the long, long, LONG speeches that defy any realistic expectations for actual conversation. But it was still a very forceful book, somehow.

I was reading an older translation, not the recent Vintage one which apparently has some additions: I've been wondering what I might have missed.