“There’s Italy’s Lucky Star, they say. But you know better than me, Prince, that even fixed stars are only so in appearance.”
Where did I hear about this book? Well, I’ve been hearing about it for years, and after stumbling on it on Goodreads I finally added it to my to-read list.
A handsome, humorous novel that beautifully captures Sicily’s fading glory during the Risorgimento in 1860, culminating in the decline of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The Leopard provides us with a rare access to the elite world of the Sicilian nobility during a time of change and uncertainty. The status quo is under threat and the gradual erosion of aristocracy murmurs in cloistered places. Meanwhile wider tensions and uprisings rumble distantly across the Sicilian landscape.
The novel opens in Prince Fabrizio Salina’s Lampedusa palace where after a quick introduction to his family, the Prince and his beloved dog seek refuge in the walled garden. The romantic notion of a summery Sicilian walled garden soon dissipates as its insular atmosphere is likened to a suffocating cemetery. This is further emphasised by repeated reference to disruption, decay and death. This opening scene presents a microcosm and a prelude for Sicilian nobility at this time. Throughout the novel we follow the Salina family as they thread through enclosed exclusive places; occasionally venturing into the alternative reality unfolding in the open countryside. Despite the political upheaval and insurgence the Salina family appear to be more preoccupied by domestic intrigues, high society parties and marriage prospects.
Decline of traditional values: Aristocratic traditions are continually challenged when the Salina family travel from Lampedusa to Donnafugata in pursuit of balls, lavish dining, romance and hunts. Reference to the slow demise of traditional forces such as social class and the church are peppered throughout the novel, in both the natural and manmade world. Donnafugata is a seductive, rambling, dilapidated, semi-abandoned palace where decay permeates right down to the delicate details. This is painfully illustrated when the Prince despondently observes his faded golden initials on a wine glass. The main reason for the relocation to Donnafugata is to attend the great summer ball, and the book builds anticipation for this event page by page. Everyone is excited about the ball, with the exception of Prince Salina who finds it all very tiresome and dreary. He is seemingly unable to enjoy manlier pastimes, such as hunting, either. The hunting and killing of animals serves as a reminder of what is happening in his country – dead animals become akin to dead soldiers. The hopelessness of the hunted rabbit also mirrors that of the dying aristocracy: “still-living symbol of useless flight.” Even the seasons reek of death; the summer is stifling, its heat expedites decomposition.
A time of change: The two main male figures – the Prince and his nephew Tancredi give us a glimpse into the political upheaval unfolding in the background. Prince Salina and Tancredi are often polarised – whereby the Prince resolutely clings to a disintegrating way of life, Tancredi embraces imminent change; a more modern, adaptable Sicilian. Tancredi carves himself out as an unusual figure in this family; unconventional both in his political views as well as his choice of marriage. He famously reasons with his uncle about these choices: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” These choices lead him into the backdrop of the wider world where he joins the military fighting for Garibaldi, and becomes engaged to the beautiful, wealthy – but notably not aristocratic, Angelica. It is often through Tancredi’s choices that we see the Prince reflect acceptance of imminent change: “…this marriage was not the end of everything, but the beginning of everything. It was the very best of traditions.” The two main male characters display a chauvinism that is discomforting and disconcerting. Throughout the book women are likened to land; as something to be conquered, owned, and possessed. When Tancredi makes a public sexual joke about taking advantage of nuns, it has the opposite effect – rather than entertain, it disturbs his audience, reader included.
The author is a direct descendent of Prince Fabrizio Salina, and therefore has an exclusive insight into Sicilian aristocracy and its history. He combines this with a unique narrative gift; his is one of the most distinctive voices I have come across. He writes sensuously, in exquisite detail, with a dark self-effacing humour. Characters are shaped with a delicate balance of complexity and simplicity, charming the reader throughout. The writing is so sumptuous, that despite the ongoing reference to decay, the island of Sicily becomes morbidly alluring. Elaborate scenes of squalid opulence are perfectly contrasted with the refreshing simplicity of the rustic countryside. This deepens the reader’s enchantment with the location, and we want to experience it all firsthand ourselves; the lost splendour, the sun baked landscape and the fading memory of a long-departed way of life.
This review was also posted on: TripFiction Book reviews
More reviews of The Leopard:
- The Guardian’s review: The Leopard
- The Telegraph’s review: The Leopard
- New York Times review: The Leopard
- Literary Corner Cafe Blog: The Leopard
- Vulpes Libris Blog: The Leopard
Visit Sicily and Prince Salina’s palaces:
- On the trail of The Leopard
- Palermo Palace
- Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Book, The Leopard – A Sicilian Itinerary in Pictures