The Leopard (Il Gattopardo)
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Italy, 1958 (posthumous)
Archibald Colquhoun, translator
And the Prince, who had found Donnafugata unchanged, was found very much changed himself; for never before would he have issued so cordial an invitation: and from that moment, invisibly, began the decline of his prestige. (Chapter II)
The Leopard is a novel of change and of decline. Set against the backdrop of the Risorgimento, or Italian unification, in the mid- to late-1800s, it is the story of the Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, patriarch of a large but declining family and fortune. The titular leopard, his presence looms large, yet it is obvious that the Salina influence and importance is on the wane. Though he does nothing outwardly to resist the upheavals about him, the inevitable changes in political structure, economics, and even culture signal clearly towards a less illustrious future for Don Fabrizio and his heirs, even without the narrator directly intruding into the past with comments or allusions to much later events. This is a narrative trick that I don’t recall coming across in other historical fiction and I am torn between the impressions of being jolted out of the past of the novel and the contrasting grounding of the novel in a solid reality.
There’s something in The Leopard that reminds me of Gabriel García Márquez. Not the magic realism, but the themes. My memory is of a melancholy strain through the (few) books I’ve read by García Márquez, and the back half of One Hundred Years of Solitude shares the same sense of decline of a family. In some ways Prince Fabrizio reminds me of Úrsula, knowing what’s coming, yet unable to avoid it. Time marches on but great families don’t always.
‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ (Chapter I)
Yet there is something beautiful in The Leopard, too. The optimism of the younger generation, of those fully in support of the Risorgimento. The loving descriptions of the physical Sicily, of its people. Even as the narrative progresses and becomes more explicit about the fortunes of the family (the final chapters are titled “Death of a Prince” and “Relics”), the closing pages have a poignant beauty to them, lingering after the last page is closed.
I can’t help but feeling that I have only scratched the surface in my understanding of this novel. It is already considered a classic of Italian literature, and if any good classics requires return visits, I believe this one qualifies. It is only a pity that Tomasi finished writing so little before his death.