Memorable novels are not just dramas. At one level they tell a story, of course, as they invite you into another world, where relationships are laid bare, adventures undertaken, mistakes made, and mysteries encountered, some explained, and quite often some left frustratingly unresolved. In that sense they are entertaining, and when well-written, they draw you in: you want to know ‘what happened’. At another, subtler level, they act more like a kind of mirror, drawing you into the world the author has created, and in so doing gently nudging you, inviting you to reflect on how you see your life and the people around you. They are also aspirational, as you are drawn to be part of the action, wanting to sort out the messes and muddles, and ensure puzzles are solved, emotions satisfied. Finally, they offer possibility, especially when you read fantasy and science fiction, and join in the author’s delight in constructing a place unlike anything you have met in your daily life. To read a really good novel is to live in another world for a while, even if, when you reach the end, you have to return to the way things ‘really are’. The return to ‘reality’ can be something of a shock.
Novels set in previous centuries add yet another perspective. They describe distant events, in settings often almost wholly lost to the past, where you have to reconstruct that context based on smudgy images of the way things were. There’s a tendency to read these novels as history, and, we might conclude, no longer relevant to present life, not to current society nor its political and economic character. However, really good – can I say great – novels are about people, about relationships, about love, misunderstanding, hope and death. The setting is incidental, providing the scenery against which the interpersonal events are set, creating events to propel the lives of the key characters into situations and dilemmas necessary into situations that make the story complex and compelling. If real historical events are used, the novel has to describe them in enough detail to provide a convincing backdrop to the story. Outstanding historical novels are those that pull off the trick of making the past vibrant and relevant, real or imagined, while ensuring events don’t overtake the lives of the characters.
Intriguingly misnamed, The Leopard, a novel by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, is set in 19th Century Sicily. It is a beautiful written, tragic account of the effects of war, revolution, death and decay at the time of Garibaldi’s Risorgimento, one step in the eventual unification of the country we now call Italy. Misnamed? The Italian title of the book is ‘Il Gattopardo’, which refers to the serval, not the leopard: the serval is a medium-sized member of the cat family, with a golden-yellow or buff coat spotted and striped with black, and a short, black-tipped tail, native to sub-Saharan Africa. I can’t help thinking that the decision to change the animal in the title was an unintended but apposite reflection on the book, which is also about categories changing as Garibaldi’s men swept across the island, and old aristocratic families disappear to be replaced by a new upper class, nouveau-riche landowners and ‘minor gentry’.
The structure of the novel reveals its almost cinematic quality (I’ll address the film of the book later). Like a series of set pieces, chapters focus on specific days, frequently a long time apart, but each scene is richly depicted: you can ‘see’ what is taking place. It is like reading acts in a play, with details of the scenery and stage directions included.
The underlying story is set a critical time in Sicily’s history. The novel’s first set piece takes place in May 1860. Garibaldi’s Redshirts have landed on the Sicilian coast. Change is in the air as we are invited to observe the aristocratic Salinas family, headed by Prince Fabrizio. The Prince is in an unsatisfactory marriage, bound by his Catholic faith. He has a series of mistresses. He likes to spend time on his hobby, amateur astronomy. He has three daughters, but he’s particularly fond of his nephew Tancredi Falconeri, the son of another count. As the novel begins, he has learnt Tancredi has joined Garibaldi’s Redshirts.
However, if this time of dramatic change is the setting, we quickly discover we are about to enjoy a classic romance. The local mayor, Don Calogero Sedara, wealthy through various dodgy business transactions and political deals has an extraordinarily beautiful daughter, Angelica. Tancredi falls in love with her, much to the dismay of the Prince’s oldest daughter, Concetta, who loves Tancredi. Although aware of his daughter’s feelings, the Prince accepts the inevitable and helps arrange Tancredi’s betrothal to Angelica. The two enjoy a happy, untroubled engagement, but you know it’s only an interlude. Complications are coming.
In the next scene, weeks later, we learn the revolutionary forces have been moving forward. Tancredi’s minor role in the Italian nationalist movement seems likely to progress, and he is to join Garibaldi in the mountains. All these events ensure the Prince’s worries grow. He imagines his beloved nephew dead, outside in his garden with his guts trailing out, just like the real body of an imperial soldier he’d just seen. He tries to stop Tancredi, who is young and insistent: he’s fighting for a cause. As events develop, the Prince receives a letter urging him to flee to safety from the revolution, which he ignores. However, as the Salinas gather at church, he reads about Garibaldi’s approach. Yes, he is a little disturbed but reassures himself that Garibaldi will be reined in by his Piedmontese masters.
It doesn’t take long for things to change. Now we move forward to a quiet family evening, interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Tancredi with his friend, Count Carlo. Tancredi and the Count are in full dress uniforms, fascinating the Prince’s daughters and puzzling the Prince. Weren’t they partisans, up in the mountains, fighting for Garibaldi? The mountains were dirty, and Tancredi and the Count had been disgusted with the conditions. In a moment they had changed sides, taking up positions with the new king’s army. More to the point, love is in the air, and Tancredi produces the ring he’s bought for Angelica. Prince Fabrizio had moved his family to his palace at Donnafugata, and there, hopes for romance and rejections absorb his daughters, not war. Tancredi and Angelica drift through idyllic days, a happy prelude to the miserable, unsuccessful marriage to come.
In the next scene, a government representative, Chevalley di Monterzuolo, arrives to advise the Prince that, given his aristocratic background and social influence, Garibaldi’s new government wants him as an appointed (unelected) member of the Senate. In a prolonged, intense and often rather poetic fashion, the Prince explains why he, like other Sicilians, has no interest in being involved in government. He suggests that Don Calogero, the mayor, is more the type of man they should be considering. Fabrizio is slowly withdrawing from an active life, regretfully recognising he’s the last true prince of the Salinas, the last leopard.
In a key scene towards the end of the novel, we are witnesses to the Salinas family preparing to attend a ball, one of the most important events in the Palermo social season. The Prince is both excited and concerned about the evening to come. It will be the first time the beautiful Angelica will be presented to the public, alongside her father who is likely to make a fool of himself (Calogero has poor social graces – ah, those nouveau riche!). Of course, beauty triumphs, Angelica is a huge social success, in part thanks to detailed training in etiquette given to her by Tancredi. The Prince is left to wander through the rooms of the Palazzo Ponteleone, becoming increasingly gloomy at the callowness of the young men, the boredom in the older men, the silliness of the girls. It’s another step in his withdrawal from society.
Unexpectedly, Angelica asks the Prince to dance with her. Flattered, he agrees to a waltz, and Fabrizio’s memory flashes back to the days of his youth “when, in that very same ballroom, he had danced with the Princess before he knew disappointment, boredom and the rest”. As the dance finishes, he realizes the other dancers have stopped and are watching them, his ‘leonine air’ preventing the onlookers from bursting into applause. Angelica asks him to eat with her and Tancredi, and for a moment he almost says yes, but he remembers his youth. How embarrassing would it be for her to have an old man eating with her and her lover. He politely excuses himself, and walks home, alone with his thoughts.
In a moving section of the novel, we realise that for years, the Prince has felt that he is dying, “as if the vital fluid…life itself in fact and perhaps even the will to go on living, were ebbing out of him… as grains of sand cluster and then line up one by one, unhurried, unceasing, before the narrow neck of an hourglass”. A last-minute visit to a doctor has tired him so much that it is decided that he should not go back to the villa outside Palermo and stays in the city. Alone with his thoughts, he contemplates the fate of several of his family members, especially Tancredi’s political success in the new Kingdom of Italy. He realises what impresses him isn’t Angelica or Tancredi, but the dignity of his eldest daughter, Concetta, who, he recognises, is the true heir to the noble and enduring character of the family.
The end of the novel is both brief and emotional. Fabrizio, close to death, receives the final sacrament. He reflects on the joys of life he’s experienced, sensual, spiritual, and political , and especially time with his loving and playful dog, Bendicò, together with the corresponding sorrows, also political, sexual and familial, that he has lived through. We read that as he looks back, he concludes that of the 73 years he has been alive, he has only fully lived three of them. In his last moments, as his family gathers around, he sees a young woman appear, beautiful, exquisitely dressed, sensitive, and smiling lovingly. She’s described in the same way as the beautiful woman he’d glimpsed at the train station once on the way back to Palermo. He knows death had been present in his life even back then.
Love and sadness are rapidly set aside after the priests depart, when Concetta, the most pragmatic of the three sisters, foresees what is about to happen, the confiscation of the relics and the paintings and the re-consecration of the chapel, the inevitable spreading of stories of the Salinas’ humiliation, and the equally inevitable destruction of what is left of the family’s reputation and prestige. Her thoughts are interrupted by a footman announcing the arrival of Princess Angelica Falconeri. The well-preserved Angelica, widowed after Tancredi’s death a few years before, meets Concetta in the sitting room. She tells Concetta of her plans for celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Garibaldi invasion: revolutionaries have become the establishment. She promises to use her influence to keep the family’s poverty private.
Angelica adds that an old friend is coming to call. Senator Tassoni is a veteran of Garibaldi’s Redshirts, a close friend and confidant of Tancredi, and a former illicit lover of Angelica. Tassoni is shown in, and after speaking flatteringly of how well Tancredi had spoken of her, he explains that one night Tancredi had confessed to him that he had once told a lie to Concetta in a story about a raid on a convent. Tancredi had wanted to kiss Concetta, but she’d reacted so angrily he’d lived with her rejection ever since. A horrified Concetta now realises Tancredi loved her. Her reaction to Tancredi’s story of the attempt to enter the convent had pushed aside his planned marriage proposal, her angry words interpreted as rejection. After fifty years, Concetta is stripped of the comfort of blaming others for her broken heart. Yes, like all good romances, there’s a lot of disillusionment and sorrow!
In 1963 The Leopard was released an award-winning film, which received the Palme D’Or at Cannes. Directed by Luchino Visconti, it was a multicultural actor fest, with the three key roles filled by Claudia Cardinale (born Tunisian and later nationalised as an Italian), Alain Delon (French) and Burt Lancaster (American). Burt Lancaster? Yes, the one who had previously starred in such movies as. From Here to Eternity, Gunfight at the OK Corral, Judgement at Nuremburg, and The Birdman of Alcatraz. The film doesn’t follow the plot of the book in detail, but it does open with Don Fabrizio leading his family at prayer, echoing the way the novel begins. Among many set pieces, Don Fabrizio invites the mayor to dinner, in an inspired scene of subtle social comedy in which Visconti shows us how gauche the mayor is and how pained the prince is to have to give dinner to such a man. It is in this scene we first meet Angelica, played by the suitably beautiful Claudia Cardinale.
The core of the film is the ballroom sequence, lasting 45 minutes. “This is a set piece that has rarely been equalled” according to the film critic Derek Malcolm. Another critic, Dave Kehr, called it “one of the most moving meditations on individual mortality in the history of the cinema.” The ball is the last glorious celebration of the dying age; Visconti cast members of noble old Sicilian families as the guests. In their faces, we see what can’t be conveyed by actors. The orchestra plays Verdi, the young people dance on and on as the older guests watch and gauge the market of future families, assessing romances and liaisons. The prince moves like a shadow, going from room to room, each illuminating his thoughts, his desires, his sadness. Finally he dances with Angelica. A powerful scene, an acknowledgment of mortality. He could have had this woman, would have made her his wife and the mother of his children and heard her cries of passion, were it not for the 25 years that separate them. He knows that she knows that, but we also know he wouldn’t have married her. He’s a Prince; she’s the mayor’s daughter. Please read the book or watch the film. Both are brilliant.
Perhaps this focus on the details of the story suggests it’s like a melodrama. Far from it. It is a meditation on power and patronage, on the choice to cling on to upper-class privilege or to break tradition to secure the continuity of a family. A central theme of the story is the struggle between mortality and decay (death, fading of beauty, fading of memories, changing political systems, false relics, etc.), and abstraction and eternity (the prince’s love for the stars, continuity and the resilience of the Sicilian people). It is about a man’s reflections on his life, and his approaching death: the rest is the embroidery around the edges. In a letter to a friend, the author noted: “Be careful: the dog Bendicò is a very important character and is almost the key to the novel”. It’s true, this much loved and faithful companion is going to die too. Nothing lasts: everything has its moment in the sun, everything will end.
For a very different final word, I decided to ask ChatGPT if The Leopard was a good novel. The response: “The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa is considered to be a masterpiece of Italian literature and one of the greatest historical novels of the 20th century. It was first published in 1958, posthumously, and has since been translated into many languages and adapted into a movie. The novel tells the story of a noble Sicilian family during the Italian unification in the mid-19th century, exploring themes such as class, identity, and the passing of time. ‘The Leopard’ has been highly praised for its lyrical prose, vivid descriptions, and insightful characterization. It offers a rich and complex portrayal of Sicilian society and its traditions, as well as a poignant reflection on the passage of time and the inevitability of change. The novel is widely regarded as a masterpiece of Italian literature and a landmark of European historical fiction. So, yes, ‘The Leopard’ is considered a good novel by many readers and literary critics.” Not Lampedusa’s style, but a clear, succinct, and brief introduction. However, you wouldn’t have gathered how poignant and insightful it is!