Title: The Leopard
Author: Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Publisher: Pantheon Books (Paperback), New York (1960)
Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard follows the life of Sicilian Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, around the time of Garibaldi, mainly 1860–1862. Garibaldi led a minor revolution which the novel portrays as a superficial non-event, except that it served to create an image of change. Don Fabrizio highlights the façade of change in the line “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change” (28).
The meaning rings true through the ages—create the illusion of change in government to placate the people in order to ensure the stability of the status quo. People are satisfied by the illusion and go about their business. In fact, the revolution works in favor of the Prince, as he is ultimately unfazed by it, even though a sort of republic replaces a kind of monarchy.
Much of the novel focuses on the personality of the Prince of Salina Don Fabrizio. The Prince’s symbol is the Leopard, hence the title. He is both smart and strong, and sees through the theater of revolution, with the help of his nephew Tancredi. The Prince is disgusted by other cowardly members of the aristocracy for fleeing Sicily.
The novel beautifully captures the noble, the picturesque, and the sordid sides of Sicilian culture and society. As it’s a time of transition, the contrast of old and new plays a major role. The old, cultivated Prince and his Peers live among “faded gold, pale as the hair of Nordic children, determinedly hiding its value under a muted use of precious material intended to let beauty be seen and cost forgotten. Here and there on the panels were knots of rococo flowers in a color so faint as to seem just an ephemeral pink reflected from the chandeliers.” This atmosphere of “solar hue, that variegation of gleam and shade, made Don Fabrizio’s heart ache…” (224).
Conversely, a philistine industrial millionaire in the same room “was standing beside him [the Prince]; his quick eyes were moving over the room, insensible to its charm, intent on its monetary value” (225). The aged beauty of past’s aesthetic subtlety is held in contrast against “the flashy gilding which decorators slap on nowadays” (224).
The contrast is seen in people as well. Gauche ill-mannered youth appeared unbearably giggly, “a populous colony of these creatures had appeared … he felt like a keeper in a zoo set to looking after a hundred female monkeys … loosing a stream of shrieks and grins” (222). By contrast, the few still well-bred young women in the same house remained exquisite—they “glided by like swans over a frog-filled pool” (222).
The nauseating foolishness of cheap revolutions and cheapening culture are countered and alleviated by death. As the death knell tolls for a recently deceased townsman, the Prince observes “Lucky person … while there’s death, there’s hope” (72).
Don Fabrizio makes a lot of observations throughout the novel. Ideas such as “better to bore oneself than to bore others” (233) speak to the culture, where even in light entertainment, one gives rather than receives. Other quotes contrast subtle intelligence versus blustery know-it-alls of the nouveau riche: “a meal in common need not necessarily be all munching and grease stains”; “a conversation may well bear no resemblance to a dog fight; “to give precedence to a woman is a sign of strength and not of weakness”; and “sometimes more can be obtained by saying ‘I haven’t explained myself well’ instead of saying ‘I can’t understand a word’” (137).
After the post-revolution government was settled, they sent an emissary to invite the Prince to join the new Senate. After the emissary’s many attempts at persuasion, the Prince still declined. Senators, like all public officials, must be “good at masking their personal interests with vague public ideals … and clever enough to create illusions when needed” (181). The Prince leaves the government emissary with a parting comment, the famous quote from the novel, “We were the leopards, the lions, those who take our place will be jackals, hyenas” (185). He closes with, “and we’ll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth” (185).
Ultimately, Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, changes his feeling towards the young, from disgust, to compassion. “Don Fabrizio felt his heart thaw; his disgust gave way to compassion for all these ephemeral beings out to enjoy the tiny ray of light granted them between two shades, before the cradle, after the last spasms. How could one inveigh against those sure to die?” (226).
The reader experiences the joys, disappointments, victories, and the nausea that bear upon the heart of the Prince—who constantly searches inside himself, questioning the meaning of everything happening around him.
The novel is based on true events in the history of Italy of the 1860s, and the characters are based on real individuals of that time. Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, is the great grandfather of the author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. That fact gives the novel more interest, combining a great novelistic narrative with fascinating history.
The final chapters nicely followup with “how everyone turned out”—a sort of epilogue with the Prince’s eventual death twenty-six years later in 1888, and how his daughters are getting along as late as 1910, therefore spilling over into the lifetime and memory of the author.
The novel is considered a great work of literary art. But just as important, as a reader in 2017, I recommend it as a very entertaining read, with profound observations that speak clearly to today, and with a wealth of universal insights about travelling through life.