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A READER'S JOURNAL GUEST REVIEW

The Leopard — A Homage
by
Guiseppe di Lampedusa

Guest Review by William D. Reeves
Published by Good Mountain Press in 2005
Edited by Bobby Matherne
©2005 by William D. Reeves

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The Leopard is my favorite novel and I urge you to read it. It combines a grand historical scope with intimate characterization. All of its details and incidents fit together to shape one artistic experience. In the sense that the novel is written through the eyes of one man, it exemplifies the F. Scott Fitzgerald dictum that all life is best looked at through a single window. For the critic Mary McCarthy, the bedrock of all novels is the "fact." The fact is the concrete detail and The Leopard is reared upon facts of Sicilian life at the time of the Risorigimento.

The historical scope is not quite as grand as the Napoleonic invasion of Russia, the subject of War and Peace. It is the Garibaldian invasion of Sicily in 1861 that led to the formation of the modern state of Italy from the many provinces into which Italy had been divided since the fall of the Roman empire. The field is smaller, but the language extends throughout history, it is the language of death and renewal, overlaid with the ironic feeling that nothing is new in the world, that all will be the same.

The novel's central character is Don Fabrizio Corbero, the Prince of Salina, whose emblem is the Leopard. The Prince has three castles that figure in the novel: his principal home at San Lorenzo outside of Palermo, his town palace inside Palermo where the family stayed during the season, and Donnafugata, his country palace buried in the distant aridness of Sicily.

Lampedusa's bold metaphors are extraordinary. The Prince has just climbed up the ladder to his observatory. "The two telescopes and three lenses were lying there quietly, dazed by the sun, with black pads over the eyepieces, like well-trained animals who knew their meal was given them only at night." Just as the Prince is ruminating on the plebiscite called by the revolutionary government of King Victor Emmanuel to ratify his government, he observes the ants.

Attracted by a few chewed grape-skins spat out by Don Ciccio, along they rushed in close order, morale high at the chance of annexing that bit of garbage soaked with an organist's saliva [read Sicily]. Up they came full of confidence, disordered but resolute; groups of three or four would stop now and again for a chat, exalting, perhaps, the ancient glories and future prosperity of ant hill Number Two under cork tree Number Four on the top of Mount Morco [read the Garibaldian enthusiasts]; then once again they would take up their march with the others toward a buoyant future; the gleaming backs of those imperialists seemed to quiver with enthusiasm…."

The book is full of observations on Sicily. An enigma of Sicily,"in this secret island, where houses are barred and peasants refuse to admit they even know the way to their own village in clear view on a hillock within a few minutes' walk from here, in spite of the ostentatious show of mystery, reserve is a myth."

Dogs, especially Bendicò, play a major role. The personality of the dog Bendicò contributes greatly to the happy feeling found at the commencement of the novel. Yet the first shadow has appeared in the form of a dead Royalist soldier found in the garden and hauled away. Ruminating in the garden a few weeks later the Prince watches "the devastation wrought by Bendicò in the flower beds; every now and again the dog would turn innocent eyes toward him as if asking for praise at labor done: fourteen carnations broken off, half a hedge torn apart, an irrigation canal blocked. How human! 'Good! Bendicò, come here.' And the animal hurried up and put its earthy nostrils into his hand, anxious to show that it had forgiven this silly interruption of a fine job of work." So Lampedusa has captured the Leopard's posture towards the Piedmontese and the Garibaldian revolution. Yet the Prince, ever ironic, sees that the revolutionary enthusiasm will end up merely tearing up some gardens.

For the Leopard's real heir, his daughter Concetta, Bendicò came to represent that supreme moment of happiness that seemed about to materialize in a proposal by her handsome dashing cousin Tancredi. Bendicò was there. But the proposal never came. Two hundred and fifty pages later the book ends as Concetta orders the fifty-year old embalmed carcass of Bendicò thrown from a window to the dust bin. "During the flight down from the window his form recomposed itself for an instant; in the air one could have seen dancing a quadruped with long whiskers, and its right foreleg seemed to be raised in imprecation. Then all found peace in a heap of livid dust." And so the novel ended.

Dogs accompanied the Prince and his hunter-retainer Don Cicco on their rabbit hunting trip in the hills of Sicily. After much conversation a rabbit appeared, and was instantly shot.

It was a wild rabbit; its dun-colored coat had not been able to save it. Horrible wounds lacerated snout and chest. Don Fabrizio found himself stared at by big black eyes soon overlaid by a glaucous veil; they were looking at him with no reproof, but full of tortured amazement at the whole order of things; the velvety ears were already cold, the vigorous paws contracting in rhythm, still-living symbol of useless flight; the animal had died tortured by anxious hopes of salvation, imagining it could still escape when it was already caught, just like so many human beings. While sympathetic fingers were still stroking that poor snout, the animal gave a last quiver and died; Don Fabrizio and Don Ciccio had had their bit of fun, the former not only the pleasure of killing but also the solace of compassion.

The Prince does not entirely seduce Lampedusa. As the prior passage indicates, Don Fabrizio is not a completely sympathetic character to our contemporary taste. Don Fabrizio has come to admire his nephew Tancredi's irony and intelligence, not to mention his wit. "…he could use the demagogic terms then in fashion while hinting to initiates that for him, the Prince of Falconeri, this was only a momentary pastime; all this amused Don Fabrizio, and in people of his character and standing the faculty for being amused makes up four fifths of affection."

The novel is full of observations of the various classes. The principal tension exists between the nobles represented by the Leopard and the up-and-coming rich mercantile class that supported the revolution. Tancredi has asked his uncle Don Fabrizio to propose to Angelica, the beautiful daughter of a scheming millionaire, on his behalf because he was away at war. The Prince cannot refuse Tancredi because he loves him and knows that the one element to complete Tancredi's successful future is money, something Angelica's father has in abundance. Nevertheless, Lampedusa's description of the conversation between the Prince and Don Calogero, Angelica's father, is captured in the metaphor used by the Prince to describe his reaction — he had to swallow a toad. Lampedusa described the Prince's toilet and preparation for the conversation.

As he crossed the two rooms preceding the study he tried to imagine himself as an imposing Leopard with smooth, scented skin preparing to tear a timid jackal to pieces; but by one of those involuntary associations of ideas which are the scourge of natures like his, he found flicking into his memory one of those French historical pictures in which Austrian marshals and generals, covered with plumes and decorations, are filing in surrender past an ironical Napoleon; they are more elegant, undoubtedly, but it is the squat little man in the gray topcoat who is the victor.…

But the Prince had to put the proposal to Don Calogero and it was done. Good Manners is the deity who is the protector of princes. "And he often intervenes to prevent leopards from unfortunate slips." But he charges a heavy price, and the prince had to be specific for once.

Don Calogero responded with a dowry positively mind boggling even to the Prince -- three estates and twenty linen bags each containing ten thousand ounces of gold. For the Leopard the toad had been swallowed. "Don Fabrizio was overcome with sincere emotion; the toad had been swallowed; the chewed head and gizzards were going down his throat; he still had to crunch up the claws, but that was nothing compared to the rest…."

The social class to which Angelica was now joining was quite different from her father's. "Her fiancé had already taught Angelica to be impassive, that fundamental of distinction ('You can be expansive and noisy only with me, my dear; with all others you must be the future Princess of Falconeri, superior to many, equal to all'). And so she greeted her hostess with a totally unspontaneous but highly successful mixture of virginal modesty, neo-aristocratic hauteur, and youthful grace."

The Prince was a defender and patron of the Church. His faith was in the stars, but on earth he obeyed Father Pirrone, the Jesuit confidant, retainer, and confessor. Lampedusa illustrates the Prince's attitude in an incident on the drive to the grand ball in Palermo a year after the revolution. The Prince is in full court dress. Suddenly the carriage stopped. "…there was a faint tinkle, and around the corner appeared a priest bearing a ciborium with the blessed Sacrament; behind, a young acolyte held over him a white canopy embroidered in gold; in front, another bore a big lighted candle in his left hand and in his right a little silver bell which he was shaking with obvious enjoyment. These were the Last Sacraments; in one of those barred houses someone was in a death agony. Don Fabrizio got out and knelt on the pavement, the ladies made the sign of the Cross, the tinkling faded into the alleys tumbling down toward San Giacomo, and the barouche, with its occupants given a salutary warning, set off again…." Can you see a prince of our society getting out of his car to kneel for anything or anybody? At the simplest level I see sincere religious devotion. At the level of the artistry, the blessed Sacrament is being carried to the death of the Prince's Kingdom of Two Sicilies.

Lampedusa reserved his strongest authorial voice for his judgment on the plebiscite. The ironical Prince voted for the new government and later that night learned that out of 515 registered voters 512 had voted. The "yes" vote was also 512. The Prince was disquieted. He felt something awful had happened at Donnafugta the night of the plebiscite. A few days later the Prince learned that a handful of his retainers had refused to express their allegiance to the new King. They had voted "no."

At this point calm descended on Don Fabrizio, who had finally solved the enigma; now he knew who had been killed at Donnafugata, at a hundred other places, in the course of that night of dirty wind: a new-born babe: good faith; just the very child who should have been cared for most, whose strengthening would have justified all the silly vandalisms. Don Ciccio's negative vote, fifty similar votes at Donnafugata, a hundred thousand "noes" in the whole Kingdom, would have had no effect on the result, would in fact have made it, if anything, more significant; and this maiming of souls would have been avoided.

Lampedusa thus seeks to explain the difficulty Italy has found itself in for the past century. Remember that Lampedusa wrote these words during the late 1950s at a time when the Italian Communist party was at its zenith.

The novel has a quality found in fractal mathematics — reproducibility at any scale. Facials are drawings of equations that yield lines very much resembling complex natural shapes such as mountain ranges and clouds. These mountain ranges represent the novel in its entirety. But the smallest incident also contains the whole theme. At the dinner following the departure of the Prince's nephew Tancredi Falconeri, Fabrizio raises his glass in a toast. Tancredi has joined the revolutionary army seeking to overthrow the Bourbon monarchy. The dinner crystal, a gift of the Bourbon King still in "power," bore the initials F. D. (Ferdinandus dedit). "He drained his wine in a single gulp. The initials F. D. which before had stood out clearly on the golden color of the full glass were no longer visible."

When you finish the novel, you will feel that you have seen a world slip below the horizon, a world you would not wish to see return. Yet the death of Don Fabrizio still leads to a feeling of loss in intractable human nature. The individual and the specific are the heroes of the novel. At the bottom, Don Fabrizio emerges as a real human being, irreplaceable.


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Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne

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