Friday, December 31, 2010

Reading group: The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

I've been so busy working on promotion for The Birth Machine and, for a time at least, trying to keep going with my WIP, that I just haven't been keeping up with the book group reports, and Ann has kindly offered to take over reporting for the November discussion (when we looked at M J Hyland's Carry Me Down). However, it's still down to me to report on our October discussion of The Leopard, and I'll do what I can, though I'm afraid that by now my memory of the meeting is sketchy.

Written in the nineteen-fifties by a minor Sicilian prince, the book is set in Sicily and primarily in the two years following Garibaldi's May 1860 landing on Sicily's south coast, which kick-started a revolution in the south and strengthened the Risorgimento, the movement for the unification of Italy and the destruction of the feudal system. The novel concerns Fabrizio Corbera, Sicilian Prince of Salina, who must come to terms with these social changes, and towards its end moves forward to 1883 and his death and finally to 1910 and the fate of his children. I hadn't had time to read the book by the meeting, and it may have been me, but I came away from the meeting with the impression that this was essentially the story of a love affair and a marriage: Don Fabrizio's daughter Concetta is in love with his orphaned and favoured nephew, the charming and wily Tancredi, and for a time Tancredi appears to be returning her affection. However, once he claps eyes on the beautiful and nouveau-riche Angelica, he decides to marry her instead. By the end of the novel and 1910, however, Angelica is a widow, and in their old age the two women have become friends, something which Jenny said she really relished, and where she felt the novel, which she had found rather hard-going, became more interesting and enjoyable.

In fact, when I came to find time to read the book I discovered that the story of Concetta, Tancredi and Angelica is an aspect and consequence of a much wider story, that of the ways, both politically and psychologically, Prince Salina handles or fails to handle the social changes taking place around him.

Opinion in the group was divided. Jo, who had suggested the book, and Doug both loved it, mostly for its vivid descriptions of the oppressive Sicilian climate and the plush and faded palaces. Clare agreed about the descriptions and was impressed by the symbolism - she mentioned in particular the precious grafted peaches which Don Fabrizio's gardener has grown and which Tancredi, without asking permission, has ceremoniously delivered to Angelica - but Clare was sorry, she just couldn't stand Don Fabrizio himself, she thought he was just an awful person, so sexist and bossy, which made her dislike the book. As far as I remember, Jenny and Ann found the book heavy going with its old-fashioned prose, though Ann was interested to find out about the politics of the period. I don't think Mark was keen, though as far as I remember Trevor liked it, and John was divided between the two groups, having found the book heavily historical without being very enlightening if you didn't already know the history, though he too found the symbolism interesting, mentioning the broken legs of the Salina heraldic leopard on a keystone.

Personally, although I would say the book was not an easy read with its dense prose and ponderous pace, I loved it for the delicious irony with which all of the characters and the political situation are portrayed. A direct literary descendant of Machiavelli's Prince, Don Fabrizio is an arch pragmatist - he deeply regrets the breakdown of the old order but sees the necessity of accommodating and absorbing the new, developing the philosophy that 'everything must change in order to stay the same'. He grieves the dilution of his aristocratic line but sees the inevitability of his penniless nephew's marriage into the bourgeoisie and thus works to enable it. Aptly he's an amateur astronomer with a wide view of that large picture, the heavens. But unlike Machiavelli, di Lampedusa ironises that pragmatism. A big man respected and feared by all including his family, Don Fabrizio is yet a touchingly ridiculous figure. He's so big he inadvertently breaks things; he performs mental acrobatics to convince himself that he's in charge of situations, nowhere more comically than the scene in which the priest, Father Pirrone, inadvertently enters for an audience as he is emerging naked from the bath:
...he hurried to leave the bath expecting to get into his bathrobe before the Jesuit entered; but he did not succeed, and Father Pirrone came in at the very moment when, no longer veiled by soapy water, not yet shrouded by his bath sheet, he was emerging quite naked, like the Farnese Hercules, and steaming as well, while water flowed in streams from neck, arms, stomach and legs, like the Rhone, the Rhine, the Danube and the Adige crossing and watering Alpine ranges... [Father Pirrone] stuttered an excuse and made to back out, but Don Fabrizio, annoyed at not having time to cover himself, naturally turned his irritation against the priest. "Now, Father, don't be silly; hand me that bath-robe, will you, and help me to dry, if you don't mind... And take my advice, Father, have a bath yourself." Satisfied at being able to give advice on hygiene to one who so often gave it to him on morals, he felt soothed... When the peaks and slopes of the mountain were dry ... the Jesuit sat down and [Don Fabrizio] began some more intimate moppings of his own.
Pragmatic he may be, but the Prince's aristocracy is doomed, and right from the beginning the prose signals this sense of doom: cicadas make a 'lament' that is like a 'death-rattle', a drinking well is also a 'cemetery' for corpses, the oppressive sun of the Sicilian summer is 'a deep gloom'; the ladies' ballgowns arrive from the dressmakers in cases 'like coffins'. Tancredi, the main agent of change for the family, is 'black and slim as an adder'. Ironically, however, the revolutionary spirit is also diluted: Tancredi begins as a follower of Garibaldi, but ends up an officer in the Piedmontese army despising the rebels. In one non-ironic moment Don Fabrizio explains the political inertia as a result of centuries of invasion and the oppressive climate:
Sleep, that is what Sicilians want, and they will always hate anyone who tries to wake them... our sensuality is a hankering for oblivion, our shooting and knifing a hankering for death...
The novel is ultimately despairing, I found: the truce, indeed loving friendship, between Angelica and Concetta is founded on a pragmatic repression of the past, but that past is briefly revived and Concetta must face the fact that she has lived with a personal legacy of emptiness echoing the wider political impotence that the novel portrays.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.
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