Ready to escape the grey, cold winter for a few hours? Try this sensual and sensuous Italian classic set in the 1860s amongst the arid hills, frescoed palazzos and turquoise seas of Sicily. It’s the story of the aristocratic Salina family’s decline, of ageing and mortality, of politics and passionate love all mixed up into a fabulous Italian literary feast.
It is the time of Garibaldi’s unification of Italy and political changes are sweeping Italy. The novel centres on the House of Salina’s formidable family patriarch, Prince Fabrizio as he watches the family’s feudal power and finances slowly disintegrate.
Not that he was fat; just very large and very strong; in houses inhabited by common mortals his head would touch the lowest rosette on the chandeliers; his fingers could twist a ducat coin as if it were mere paper; and there was constant coming and going between Villa Salina and a silversmith’s for the straightening of forks and spoons which, in some fit of controlled rage at table, he had coiled into a hoop.
It’s Prince Fabrizio’s nephew Tancredi, rather than his own son Paolo, who emerges as his favourite. Fabrizio sees his younger self in the charismatic, dashing and brave young man. When Trancredi announces his love for Angelica, the nouveau riche local mayor’s stunning daughter, the Prince despairs. He had in mind his own daughter, the kind but plain Concetta, for Tancredi. But he also realises that, just like Italy’s transformation, it is part of the inevitable. Watching Angelica and Trancedi’s youth, beauty and passionate romance, Fabrizio becomes painfully aware of his own age and mortality.
As far as books dealing with mortality and decline, this has got to be one of the best. Through the eyes of the formidable, unconquerable Prince, we become witnesses to his own deterioration and death and the disappearance of ‘old’ Italy. Lampedusa, himself a Sicilian aristocrat, knew a thing or two about the downfall of that class; it’s a story written by an insider but one with a critical view.
The Leopard is not an easy read, the richness of Lampedusa’s language will keep you on your toes. You might find that you need to read a sentence twice, and many of them you will want to read twice. You will be rewarded, though; Lampedusa’s descriptions of landscapes, people, clothes, interiors, and smells are sublime. It’s a great shame he only wrote this one novel, not published until after his death. It has since sold 3.2 million copies.
To finish off, watch Luchino Visconti’s classic 1963 film adaptation of The Leopard. A heavenly combination.
The Leopard is published by The Harvill Press or Vintage Classics and others, 190 pages.