Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 13, 2017

The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, translated by Archibald Colquhoun #BookReview

the-leopard

The Leopard (1958) is a classic work of Italian literature, noted in 1001 Books as having received unexpected international success.  It was widely translated and made into a film starring (of all people!) Burt Lancaster in 1963.  (I’ve seen this film, probably the restored version of 1980, and it’s been hard not to have Lancaster’s image interfering with my imagination as I read the book at last.)  But I didn’t find any mention of The Leopard in Italian Literature, a Very Short Introduction because as 1001 Books notes, The Leopard was outside the prevailing postwar Italian neorealist narrative tradition, both stylistically and thematically. 

While neorealism centred on low-class characters and unveiled the crude reality of fascist Italy, The Leopard is the saga of the aristocratic Sicilian family of the Salinas (whose coat of arms bears a leopard). (1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Edited Peter Boxall, ABC Books, 2006 edition, p. 520)

So why should a family saga, a piece of historical fiction about the decline of an aristocratic family during the Risorgimento (the C19th unification of Italy), have the gravitas that it does?

Well…

From 1860 to 1910, a series of events affects the microcosm of the protagonist, Prince Fabrizio, and his relatives, as well as the macrocosm of the Italian nation.  In Italy’s south, the Bourbon kingdom is crumbling under the impetus of Garibaldi, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies is being joined with the rest of the country; however the end of Spanish colonisation coincides with the death of the aristocracy, which had long been supported by the feudal system and which is being supplanted by the bourgeoisie. The Leopard portrays the melancholy of that loss. (1001 Books, again)

What 1001 Books doesn’t mention, is the humour in the book. The Prince has a problem: his favourite nephew Tancredi, impoverished by his father’s gambling, needs to make a prudent marriage, i.e. not to the Prince’s daughter Concetta (who is in love with him) but with money.  Prudently, he falls in love with Angelica, the beautiful daughter of – alas – Calogero Sedàra, a ‘new’ man of the times, enormously wealthy but despised as a low-class opportunist even by the Prince’s notary.  Fabrizio finds himself having to gently reprimand Don Ciccio for his forthright opinions, because the Prince has resigned himself to the inevitable and given his consent to the marriage even though his consciousness of petty status indicators is mortally offended.  He knows that everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same. 

Before long he also finds himself revising his own opinion:

As meetings due to the marriage contract became more frequent, Don Fabrizio found an odd admiration growing in him for Sedàra’s qualities.  He became used to the ill-shaven cheeks, the plebeian accent, the odd clothes and the persistent odour of stale sweat, and he began to realise the man’s rare intelligence.  Many problems that had seemed insoluble to the Prince were resolved in a trice by Don Calogero; free as he was from the shackles imposed on many other men by honesty, decency and plain good manners, he moved through the forest of life with the confidence of an elephant which advances in a straight line, rooting up trees and trampling down lairs, without even noticing scratches of thorns and moans from the crushed.  (p.113)

And…

It is only fair to mention that more frequent contact with the Prince had a certain effect on Sedàra too.  Until that moment he had met aristocrats only on business of buying and selling or through their very rare and long-brooded invitations to parties, circumstances in which this most singular of social classes does not show at its best.  During such meetings he had formed the opinion that the aristocracy consisted entirely of sheep-like creatures, who existed merely in order to give up their wool to his shears and their names and incomprehensible prestige to his daughter.  But since getting to know Tancredi during the period after Garibaldi’s landing he had found himself dealing, unexpectedly, with a young noble as cynical as himself, capable of driving a sharp bargain between his own smiles and titles and the attractions and fortunes of others, while knowing how to dress up such Sedàra-ish actions with a grace and fascination which he, Don Calogero, felt he did not himself possess, but which influenced him without realising it and without his being in any way able to discern its origins. (p.114)

(And here is as good a place as any to say that the translation by Archibald Colquhoun is impeccable.  Flawless.  He used to work for Oxford University Press on their project to publish Italian classics in translation, and if The Leopard is anything to go by, I’ll read anything this man translated.  I can see from the list at Wikipedia that I have Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, but he translated other Calvinos that I want to read too.)

There is so much to say about this book.  It’s a wonderful book to read just for the pleasure of it, but it’s also rich in symbolism, including a dog called Bendicò whose fortunes mirror those of the family, hanging on to history and tradition long after the forces of the wider world have made its decline inevitable.   For those of us who learned simplistic scraps about Garibaldi at school, there’s the story of the unification from a Sicilian point-of-view, suggesting that rule from remote Rome is not much different in effect to rule from Spain.  There is the poignant comedy of a class system facing decline – but written in an affectionate style largely missing from British books about the same theme (though perhaps I should exempt Henry Green from that).

And the overarching theme of death, sterility and and decay, contrasted with the vigour of a rising class that shows itself capable of adaptation, is handled with such exquisite delicacy, even an old Bolshie like me can empathise with the nostalgia!

PS A big thank you to Dagny a.k.a Madame Vauquer from the Vauquer Boarding House and Jonathan from  Intermittencies of the Mind who nudged me into reading this book along with them.

Author: Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Title: The Leopard
Translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun
Introduction by David Gilmour
Published by Collins Harvill, 1986
ISBN: 978002714649
Source: Personal library, purchased for $4.00 from Diversity Books

Available from Fishpond: The Leopard


Responses

  1. It’s great, isn’t it? I approached it unsure if I would like it, but I was gripped, watching the world changing around The Leopard.

    • Yes, bringing that dry and dusty history to life, for me. As a student, I saw the unification as lines on a map, tidying things up so that they looked like the world as I knew it, but there was a human story that I didn’t know at all.

  2. this was the selection for our book club about two years ago but I never finished it in time. still we had a good discussion and I always meant to complete the book (but never did). I do remember it as being humorous in part – there was one scene where a rather large man is having a bath that I recall amused me at the time but now I can’t remember why!

    • As yes, the large man is the Prince. That surprised me too: although I’ve been to Italy I haven’t been south of Positano, and I had identified the tall fair ones as coming from the north.

      • Maybe I will dig this out from the pile and give it another go

  3. A beautiful book. The chapter where the old aristocrat knows he is dying is one of the most moving things I have ever read. Yet the humor is there throughout.

    • Yes, and it echoes a previous scene when he’s at a ball (that goes on till six in the morning – such stamina!) and he goes into the library for some quiet and reflects in front of a painting of a deathbed scene and wonders if his death will be like that too. And then, undercutting the seriousness of the moment, he decides that the sheets would be more crumpled…

  4. I’m glad you liked it as well Lisa. There are so many scenes that were appealing. I enjoyed the bit where the Prince ends up ranting to the visiting official about how Sicily was reluctant about any changes.

    What did you think about the last chapter? I felt at first that the book should have ended with the death of the Prince, which was very beautiful, but now after re-reading the last chapter I like it more.

    • I loved all the descriptions of the countryside and the palaces – and also the introduction by David Gilmour, did you have that in your edition?
      I thought the last chapter was unbearably sad. Those three old women denied even the trivial satisfaction of having their religiosity valued. And Angelica flaunting her connections at them…

    • Now I understand the last chapter better. It’s all changing. Even the relics are losing their power.

      • The physical ones (the ones in the frames in the church) and the metaphorical ones, the women…

  5. I think I’ll enjoy this when I get to it … I have the film too but I’ll read the book first.

    • I wish I had. I’d like to see it again now, with Lampedusa’s words in my mind as I see it. I want to see how they portray his inner thoughts – because without them there is no point.

  6. I read this a while back, so it was good to have my memory jogged – I recall enjoying it. I posted about the dogs in it some while back, too. Baron in the Trees was pretty weird, btw, along with two other surreal novellas by Calvino in the edition I read. Sad to see the island of Lampedusa in the news so much as a haven for desperate refugees, many of whom don’t make it

    • Ah, I’d love to see that post about the dogs, they were so important in the novel! Could I have the URL of your post please?

      • Just searched & haven’t found it so far. Will keep looking & let you know when it comes to light. It was about the dogs being spoilt, I think

      • Search fruitless: conclude I made notes somewhere on such a post, but never published it. If i find it in an old notebook I’ll post it. Btw, I think B Lancaster was underrated as an actor; did a good job in a flawed film

        • What a pity, contrary to my usual practice, I didn’t take notes about this book, so I don’t have any notes about the dog…

  7. This is another book that’s currently sitting in my TBR (I’ve been meaning to get to it for ages) – I’ll save your review till I’ve read the book itself. :)

    • Is it on your 2017 list?

      • Probably – it’s on my Classics Club list, so I’d like to read it with the next year or two.

  8. This is a wonderful book and have passed it on to a few others who have enjoyed it as much as me. I may very well read it again after such a great review.

    • Thank you Fay. I like reading reviews of books I’ve read for the same reason, sometimes you get a different POV but often it’s just the pleasure of remembering a book you liked:)

  9. I have form reading books taking the aristo side myself, so I’m pleased that you saw that as a problem but enjoyed the book anyway.

  10. Ah, the Italian novella I’ve just read is translated by the same chap…

    • Which one is that? The Day of the Owl? I thought he was long dead…

  11. Yes… Day of Owl… it was translated in 1963…

    • Oh, I didn’t realise it was from so long ago.

      • The author died in the late 1980s but Granta has republished a lot of his work recently, so that may be where the confusion lies.

        • Well, that’s great, because on the strength of The Leopard, I think his translations are wonderful.

  12. For me Le Guépard is a film with Alain Delon. :-) That’s the French perspective.

    I read this a few years ago and I remember I liked it a lot but had trouble following the politics. It has this fin de siècle atmosphere that is quite unique. It’s a great perspectives on changing times.

    • C’est sûr!

    • … and also a great perspective on how some things don’t change

  13. This is a classic – and one of the few things I read when my italian was actually up to it

  14. I am Italian and avid reader. The leopard is probably my favorite book ever and explain what we are, especially those who are born in Southern Italy like me. I made an attempt at explaining what being Italian is like, it is here:

    https://livingcolorsstudio.com/2016/04/21/viva-litalia/

    Give it a read if you feel like.

    C

    • Hello, and thank you for your comment. I liked this book a lot as you can tell, and I think it does capture the essence of Italy.

  15. […] feel even the least little bit guilty.  I think the book that had the longest wait this year was The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, translated by Archibald Colquhoun and I read it after reading the VSI on Italian literature. by Peter Hainsworth and David […]


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