All Things Must Pass




The Leopard

by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

(Pantheon Books)

Rejected as being unpublishable, The Leopard, a short book written from a perspective of privilege concerning a time of change, seemed destined to be lost with the death of its author in 1957, at the age of sixty. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, an urbane Sicilian, a prince with a palace in Palermo, lived in Paris and London, but always maintained a strong love and association for the island of his birth.

He considered the project for a quarter of a century before embarking upon this novel, based largely on the experiences of his grandfather during the Garabaldian era. It is the work of a man with time on his hands, and time rests heavily on every page, but its ponderous nature creates a mood of benign reflection.

A book, narrow in backdrop, concerning an aristocrat, whose pragmatic outlook secures his family's status and tenure by colluding with the new order, it seems like a dry furrow, and a dull experience for readers. What one encounters is an astute and considered balancing act. A lesson in adroit economy, a work of vision and tremendous charm, it beguiles those who encounter its select setting. That it had the luck to find a publisher after many rejections, become a best seller, inspire a Visconti movie starring Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale, and remain a classic fifty years after its initial appearance, means one is in the presence of an unusual gift.

Initially the reader feels almost suffocated by the heady descriptions of gilding, tapestry, and brocade. There is little but wealth in the opening pages. Opulence, incense, and the rosary combine. An air of indolence pervades. The characters live well in the grandeur which cosseted their ancestors, but as Garabaldi and his men make inroads in 1860, this sense of refined stagnation begins to falter. The unthinkable becomes a possibility. Time might move on.

Lampedusa manages to render a flawed but intelligent aristocrat, fascinating and sympathetic, an adulterer and schemer whose foresight and canny manipulation of a series of events are crafty and inspired. His creation draws the story beyond the walls of moribund routine. What appears to be a narrative of regularity and thoughtless privilege, maintained by unquestioning centuries, becomes a movingly human fable of vulnerability, sadness, and decline. Everything turns slowly and tilts, like the sand in an hourglass. Hypocrites are revealed, avarices displayed, priests shown as manipulators, and absurdity annotated but never ridiculed. The old order is only revitalized by marrying the socially inferior new pretenders.

Deftly observed, the span of six decades brings the way of a small and particular world to a gradual close. It echoes Proust, but in theme alone. Lampedusa contains ,in two hundred pages, what the immaculate consumptive delineated over many, many volumes. There is a sense of resignation in the closing chapters. The description of the three elderly sisters, with their collection of largely fraudulent but lovingly collected religious relics and their frayed unity in the face of loneliness and spinsterhood, could be a novel in itself. Had Ibsen written of Sicily, he might have created such melancholia in sunshine. A sense prevails of missed opportunities and the manner in which they impact upon once vibrant lives.

Lampedusa had faith in the quality of his novel, his only completed work, but died before a publisher picked it up. This new edition adds freshly found fragments and attempts to rectify various anomalies inherent in earlier editions. It is the final word on that account, but where the book will continue to be passed from hand to hand, others will marvel afresh. That it was almost consigned to the oblivion it so accurately annotates is beguiling in itself.

That it wasn't is Lampedusa's posthumous reward and gift to the world in his absence. The final haunting vignette of an ancient black pelt, the coat of a once-beloved dog, appearing to run once more as it is casually discarded on the courtyard's rubbish mound, is one of the most hauntingly macabre moments a reader is ever likely, or lucky enough, to encounter. 

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