What pushes a piece of literature from a mere book into a work of art? Is it the ability to construct a significant moment in time transporting us to another era? Is it the exquisitely expressive language making the surroundings come alive? Or is it the richness of the characters spawning a three dimensional persona which transcends the words on the page?
Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa is a novel which demonstrates all of the above and more. Perhaps it’s because the story is based on the life of Lampedusa’s Great Grandfather as well as the Palace outside his home of Palmero which was bombed during World War II. Perhaps it’s because The Leopard explores the ramifications of the reunification of Italy, focusing on Garibaldi who overthrew the monarchy and was then himself overthrown. Perhaps it’s because the author had lived through two world wars and was full of memories of a different time when being an aristocrat represented a noble dignity which was revered by the common folk.
In any case, Lampedusa spent the last few years of his life creating a piece of literature which was eventually considered one of the greatest Italian novels of the twentieth century, winning the Premio Strega in 1959. Unfortunately, these accolades came too late, since he was unsuccessful in finding anyone willing to publish this book during his lifetime.
Don Fabrizio is a Sicilian Prince from Salina watching the aristocratic way of life fading away during a series of political upheavals in 1865. A dreamer, forced to focus on his day to day responsibilities, he finds refuge in watching the stars and studying mathematics, a past time disdained by the common man but excused in someone so distinguished and revered. The Prince has been brought up with refined sensibilities, polite to a fault, and observing all the niceties of nobility, attributes he finds lacking in his own sons. It’s his charismatic nephew, Tancredi Falconari, who has the qualities to carry on the tradition. Fabrizio, at the age of forty five, looks back on his life contemplating the past and reliving the glory days via the romance between Tancredi and the bewitching Angelica Sedara. When Angelica kisses the middle-aged Don on the check and calls him uncle, he gladly gives her a piece of his heart.
The climax of the plot is not the Leopard’s death at the age of seventy +, but the ball he attends where he sees his former lovers, now old like him, and laments his lost youth. Hiding away in the library, Tancredi and Angelica find him and drag him back to the party where he, an excellent dancer, has one waltz with his beautiful niece-to-be, becoming the focus of attention for a roomful of admirers who spontaneously break into applause. Not wanting to be a third wheel, he resists their pleas to join them for supper and instead stands in the corner watching their mutual devotion while eating a decadent dessert. In the movie, starring an all Italian cast (except for lead actor, Burt Lancaster), this scene is the major focus of the film.
In the end all that’s left are his elderly three daughters trying to hang on to what remains of their family dignity via the private religious services in the family chapel. Connecting their bittersweet past to “modern times” is the pelt of their long deceased papa’s favorite dog, Bendico. In order to move forward, leaving unrequited grievances behind, this symbol must be discarded. After all, it’s all about things “changing in order that they may remain the same”.
This book is so rich in imagery and content that my remarks fail to do it justice. Amazingly, Archibald Colquhoun captures the melancholy essence of Lampedusa’s words in his translation. In fact, the reader would never guess that the original was not written in English. While there isn’t a lot of action, the strong presence of the characters, especially The Prince, carries the plot. Five stars.