Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Guiseppe di Lampedusa: The Leopard

I am not alone in considering this to be the greatest novel of the twentieth century. It was published posthumously in 1958, with the title “Il Gattopardo”, and translated into English in 1960; then filmed in 1963, directed by Visconti, with Burt Lancaster taking the leading role.

It is a historical novel, set in Sicily in 1860-62, during and just after Garibaldi’s invasion which took the island from the forces of the Bourbon king in Naples and led to the unification of Italy. The “Leopard” of the title is the central character, Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, an immensely rich middle-aged nobleman. He dominates his family, who are feeble characters, and gives his affection to his nephew, Tancredi, who goes to fight for Garibaldi. Don Fabrizio encourages him, but he himself merely observes events without getting involved.

A deeply symbolic character in the book is Don Calogero Sedara, a coarse man who has risen from humble beginnings and mysteriously acquired great wealth; during which rise his embarrassingly uncouth father-in-law has been mysteriously murdered. Sedara has joined the Garibaldian revolution and become mayor of the town where Don Fabrizio’s favourite palace is sited, then helps organise the obviously fraudulent plebiscite where the Sicilians supposedly vote overwhelmingly for union with the kingdom of Italy; and eventually he becomes a person of national importance. In the film, Sedara is portrayed simply as a comic buffoon, but the author clearly intended him to be a much more sinister figure: when reading about him, one instantly thinks “Mafia!”. But Don Fabrizio, though he disapproves of Sedara, makes no attempt to resist his rise; his nephew Tancredi marries Sedara’s beautiful daughter (which of course would make him “family”); he himself is always very polite to Sedara, introduces him to aristocratic society and even recommends him for the Senate to a representative of the new Italian government, on the grounds that he represents the future of the country.

The book then jumps forward to describe the death of the Don Fabrizio in 1883, and then jumps once again to portray his daughters in old age in 1910. These final chapters, which provide one of the saddest endings to a novel that I have ever come across, were not covered in the film.

Don Fabrizio, though strong-willed and intelligent, is too passive to be the hero of the book: the real hero is Sicily itself. Much of the book departs from the central story to give superb descriptions of the flavour of the island: the strange scenery and savage climate, the grinding poverty of the peasants contrasted with the immense and irresponsible wealth of the nobility (Don Fabrizio’s palace at Donnafugata is so vast that whole suites of rooms have never been entered in his lifetime), the all-pervasive influence of the Catholic church, the squalid feuds, banditry and murders. The prince at one point justifies his passivity by warning the government representative that any attempt to reform Sicily will fail, just as all previous invaders of the island have failed in the task. From the viewpoint of the 1950s when the book was written, Guiseppe de Lampedusa certainly had a point, and one can see it even today.

Postscript

Since I wrote this, an Italian friend has pointed out certain symbolic or allegorical aspects to the novel which would have been in the author’s mind. Di Lampedusa tells us that he had been pondering his novel for many years before he wrote it, and was greatly concerned about the future of his country in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, and this is reflected in the story he tells.
When Tancredi goes to join Garibaldi’s guerrilla force, he explains to his uncle that his motive is to keep power in reliable hands and so ward off a social revolution following a political one. After unification, Tancredi is proud to join the new Italian army; a “proper” army, unlike the Garibaldi an “rabble”, most of whom are promptly dismissed and sent home. The main part of the book ends with the scene of the great aristocratic ball, which is made to coincide with the news that at new attempt by Garibaldi has been crushed by the regular army at Aspromonte and the hero himself has been wounded and captured. One of the officers says that Garibalsi himself was grateful for this: “They freed him from the rabble hanging round him”.
My friend suggested that this was a deliberate reflection of the situation of Italy in 1944-45: the Italian state had collapsed totally, and the initiative in the country seemed to lie with the strongest force remaining: the partisan militia, who were mostly under Communist leadership. Everyone would have wondered what might happen next. After a few years, of course, just as in 1860-61, the forces of order and conservatism were able to regain control and no social revolution was allowed to take place.
It was also pointed out to me that the English title of the book, “The Leopard”, is not an exact translation. A “Gattopardo” is not a leopard, but a different species of big cat. The fact that the Gattopardo is close to extinction might also be a piece of deliberate symbolism, as the world of Don Fabrizio is being replaced by that of the dubious businessman Don Cagolero Sedara.

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