Brilliant evocation of a past Sicily to understand the present

This is my review of The Leopard: Revised and with new material (Vintage Classics) by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa.

Intrigued by what has been described as "perhaps the greatest novel of the (C20) century" and assisted by Colquoun's excellent translation, I was soon absorbed in the decaying feudal world of "The Leopard", Don Fabrizio in 1860s Sicily on the brink of yet another political change, with Garibaldi's uprising and the move to Italian unification.

At first, Don Fabrizio seems no more than a selfish despot, neglecting and terrorising his children, humiliating his wife by not bothering to conceal an after-dinner visit to a mistress, compromising the long-suffering Jesuit priest Father Pirrone by giving him a lift into town on the way. Then we begin to appreciate his complexity. He will talk to his organist Don Ciccio on equal terms when they are out hunting together, then insist the man agrees to be locked up in the gun-room for hours so he cannot prematurely reveal a piece of information confided to him by the Leopard.

Sympathy grows as we grasp the deep interest in mathematics and astronomy which makes him most happy when gazing through a telescope at the stars. He understands all too well the plight of Sicily, "for twenty-five centuries … bearing the weight of superb and heterogeneous civilizations, all made from outside…none that we could call our own". This is why the Sicilians have turned in on themselves, become backward-looking, locked in tradition and unresponsive to any opportunities the new "free State" might bring. "Our sensuality is a hankering for oblivion, our shooting and knifing a hankering for death". The violence of the landscape and cruelty of climate, so well-described throughout this book, have added to the Sicilians' "terrifying insularity of mind".

So it is that Don Fabrizio leaves it to his wily, appealing nephew Tancredi to play an active part in the new world, and ensures he has the financial means to do so by letting him marry Angelica, the beautiful daughter of the local peasant upstart Don Calogero who has enriched himself at the expense of landowners, not least Don Fabrizio, too indolent through a sense of entitlement to bother to manage their affairs shrewdly.

Despite the underlying theme of stagnation and decline, this book is in fact entertaining and wrily humorous. The remarkably vivid prose makes any other novel you may be reading seem lightweight. It needs to be read slowly and more than once to appreciate its quality, perhaps because the author infused so much into the only novel he ever wrote.

I agree with reviewers who feel that the book tails off towards the end. The climax is Chapter IV, "Love at Donafugata" in which Don Fabrizio elaborates on the state of Sicily, clarifying impressions sown gradually in previous pages. Perhaps it should end at Chapter VI, "The Ball", with the Leopard looking up at Venus. The following chapters on his death (given in the heading so not a spoiler) and the sadness of his spinster daughters' lives in old age make good short stories, but undermine the arc of the main plot set in the pivotal years of change in 1860s Italy.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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