the leopard book review – tomasi di lampedusa

Overview: The Leopard

The Leopard by Tomasi Di Lampedusa is considered one of the great works of Italian literature, and probably the greatest that features Sicily. The story follows the fortunes of the eponymous character, a member of the Bourbon aristocracy in Sicily, over the period immediately following Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily in 1860, and the ultimate establishment of a constitutional monarchy that united Italy. Tomasi Di Lampedusa was himself born into an aristocratic family in Sicily, so the issues and themes of the book may have had a special relevance to him.

The language is a little difficult – I find myself focusing on the writing rather than the story – I’m not sure if the issue is in the original writing or the translation, but I found it a distraction. Nevertheless, persistence pays off..

The themes

I guess the predominant theme here is about privilege and loss of privilege and the change from the feudal to the modern era. At the start of the book, The Leopard – aka The Prince and Fabrizio – is the unchallenged patriarch of one of Sicily’s leading aristocratic families, with properties spread over the island, servants and the respect of local villagers.

During the course of the novel he sees the spread of radical ideas, promoted by Garibaldi and his red shirts, and power and wealth shifting from the old aristocracy to those supporting and being supported by the new order. On a personal level he has to deal with his nephew defecting to the radical cause and marrying a commoner, and former local functionaries – not even able to dress correctly – growing to yield power over him.

Initially he is in denial – the change in regime won’t ultimately affect the local power structure it’s simply a surface change. Although he expects lots of activity, all of it would be play-acting. Sicily, he thinks, is a country that doesn’t have the frenzy of the French, Sicilians will simply adapt to change like seaweed bending under the pressure of water.

And indeed, adapt they do, with a stoicism and grace that is a tribute to them. This isn’t a revolution where the formerly privileged are locked up, executed or completely dispossessed – it’s a slower decline that still allows the aristocracy to retain some of their position and respect. Two years after the revolution the family is still going to balls – the same few hundred people that made up ‘the world’ still keep meeting each other and exchange congratulations that they still exist. By the time of his death several years later though, he comes to realise that he is the last of the line – despite having surviving children. For him, the significance of a noble family lies entirely in it’s traditions and it’s vital memories, and he was the last to have any unusual memories, anything different from other families.

Secondary themes are deference to authority, and the relationship between the church and power.

Early in the book The Leopard and his family remove from Palermo to their country estate. On their arrival at the country estate the entire village turns out to greet them – the occasion of their return is treated as the home coming of a much loved family and their local lord. Even after the family’s relative decline, they still retain the respect of those that knew them during their ascendancy.

In the opening pages of the book we are shown the painted ceiling in The Prince’s palace, which describes how ‘the major Gods and Goddesses’ glorify the House of Salina, and the rhythm of the household revolves to the religious daily timetable, with dinner after the Rosary. A constant companion in the Prince’s early years is the Jesuit priest, Father Pirrone – it’s a close relationship that sees the Father treated almost as one of the family. The priest, indeed, initially seems more concerned about the impact of Garibaldi’s revolution than The Leopard himself does – the feeling is that the aristocracy will come to some accommodation with the new regime, but that the Church’s property, ‘the patrimony of the poor’, will be seized.

My verdict: 6/10. The book deals with some interesting themes, but wasn’t a particularly engaging read.