Capturing the leopard

This is my review of The Last Leopard: A life of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa by David Gilmour.

If Lampedusa, who in due course became the Duke of Palma, comes across as rather dull, it was partly due to his intense introversion with strangers and also because his life seemed to revolve round consuming literature, history and cakes in prodigious quantities. The author succeeds in showing how Lampedusa's only published novel,"The Leopard", sadly rejected until just after his early death from cancer, was the fruit of decades of musing about his aristocratic family, the state of Sicily and the reading which must have developed his sense of style.

The most interestig part of the book are the final chapters on "The Leopard", which you need to have read beforehand, with an exploration of the extent to which the leading character Don Fabrizio was modelled on Lampedusa's great-grandfather Prince Giulio during the Risorgimento in the 1860s, which brought about the unification of Italy and the break up of the old feudal estates, or on the author himself. Like Don Fabrizio, Giulio was a keen astronomer, but he was probably less of an autocrat. As regards his "sceptical intelligence ….. long periods of abstract thought… and pessimistic view of Sicily and Italian unity….. Don Fabrizio is more autobiography than invention", but he is also "transformed into the person the writer would like to have been".

On the author's own admission, the charming Tancredi is based partly on his adopted son Gio, although "as for his morals….Gio is fortunately much better than him". Yet Tancredi also seems to be an amalgam of some of the young Sicilan aristocrats who joined Garibaldi, for excitement rather than out of conviction.

The huge, violent and mixed reaction to "The Leopard" also makes fascinating reading. Many who thought they knew Lampedusa were astonished that this polite, self-effacing man could hold such cynical and negative opinions. One of the strangest criticisms was that, in being readable with clear characters and conventional syntax, the book failed to achieve the kind of "avant-garde experimentalism" which was in vogue in 1950s Italy.

Another critic even attacked Lampedusa for writing about animals in a "silly" way when in fact the portrayal of the faithful hound Bendico is one of the most humorously touching aspects of the novel, revealing the love of dogs, above people, which Lampedusa displayed in real life.

His marriage is intriguing: he braved his possessive mother's wrath by marrying a formidable pyschoanalyst, who also happened to be a wealthy Latvian aristocrat, but soon settled into what seems to have been a largely intellectual relationship with her, choosing to live with his mother until her death rather than with his wife, since the two women could not get on. Gilmour comments that "flames for a year, ashes for thirty" seems to have been both Don Fabrizio's and Lampedusa's view of love for their wives.

I would have liked the final chapters to have been longer, and more on the socio-political events which formed a background to both Lampedusa's life and his famous novel. The photographs which I discovered at the end of my kindle version are well-chosen.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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