Review: The Leopard

Altair Brandon-Salmon revisits the classic Italian 20th century novel

Claudia Cardinale in the 1963 film adaption of The Leopard.

Giuseppe di Lampedusa wrote little in his lifetime. A short story, a brief memoir, the first chapter to an unfinished novel, several essays on literature. The work which has kept his name alive since his death in 1957, aged sixty, is The Leopard, first published in Italy in 1958 as Il Gattopardo. It became the largest selling Italian novel in history and is often named as one of the finest historical works ever written.

Yet this slim volume, a brief work compared to the portentous span of War and Peace or Buddenbrooks, is not meant to be easily digested and moved on from. Rather, it is a work of serious fiction, a reflection on Sicilian society during the Risorgimento, the period of Italian reunification during the eighteen-sixties. Lampedusa, a Sicilian aristocrat himself, whose grandparents lived through the momentous changes he describes with great intellectual clarity.

The protagonist is Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, who sees his position under threat by the social upheaval of political revolution and seeks to assure his family’s place in the new order my marrying his nephew Tancredi to Angelica, the daughter of the bourgeois but wealthy Don Calogero. In doing so, he breaks with aristocratic tradition, purposefully arranging a marriage between two different classes, because, as he explains in perhaps the most famous line in the novel, “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.”

Lampedusa’s Prince is an amateur astronomer and refuses a seat in the newly-created Senate: he understands that his time has passed, that it is for the new generation of Tancredi and Angelica to take the reins of power. It’s a meditation on the transition of power from one class to another, written with a great degree of self-awareness; Lampedusa, in modernist fashion, enjoys playing the omniscient narrator, informing the reader as he describes an opulent palace that it will later be destroyed during the Second World War.

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Archibald Colquhoun’s English translation from 1960 perfectly serves the novel, creating a parallel to the original’s sensitive, poetic language: looking up at Venus, Don Fabrizio wonders, ‘When would she decide to give him an appointment less ephemeral, far from stumps and blood, in her own region of perennial certitude?’, a wonderful image of longing for escape from the transience of worldly duties.

Lamepdusa has a few stylistic slips as befits a début novelist; when the Prince refers to “some German Jew whose name I can’t remember,” the allusion to Karl Marx is heavy-handed, the kind of trap historical novels fall into by trying to flatter the reader’s superior knowledge.

For the most part though, The Leopard is free from such slips; indeed, the beauty of the prose is commensurate to its structure, where the ball intended to mark Angelica’s entrance into elite society is preceded by the family priest, Pirrone, who visits his home village and arranges a marriage between his sister and the peasant who has made her pregnant. The sense of control in the highly ordered society of Sicily translates downwards from the aristocracy to the proletariat.

Sumptuously written, it pays repeated readings and doesn’t seem to have aged a day since its publication, remaining one of the greatest Italian novels, enduring to this day.