Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s only novel The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) came out in 1958, the year after he died. The book is a work of historical fiction that takes place in 1860, offering an intimate view of a turning point in the fortunes of an aristocratic Sicilian family much like the author’s own, during the Risorgimento period, when a movement to unify the territories of the Italian Peninsula resulted in the centralization of political authority and the democratization of institutions, creating new liberty, but also causing autonomous states like Sicily to lose their self-rule. The Salina family line has reached its last exemplar in Prince Fabrizio, the exotic “leopard” of the title, who grasps what is taking place on the island and lives out the contradictions of his existence even as the life force ebbs out of him. The novel has been cited as an example of “late style” but the tradition of which it is a peak achievement may not be immediately apparent.
No novel could be easier to enjoy on its own, but the key to the sensibility that produced The Leopard can be found explicitly presented in Lampedusa’s reflections on a handful of favorite authors collected in a volume of fugitive writings that bears the English title The Siren. He considers his masters from the perspective of a craftsman who thinks deeply about the problems of fiction writing. This care in recording his observations lets us in on a lifetime’s worth of trade secrets that would have remained a matter of speculation if he had not taken the trouble to formulate them.
He had a predilection for “the ambience of a conflict,” rather than the conflict itself, which set him apart from those who loved the popular forms of his time and place, as he recognized. Perhaps because of this essential difference, he loved English literature, especially Jane Austen. He wrote: “Disappointed at finding no daggers, no poisoned cups, none of those horribly explicit passions to which opera has accustomed it, the Italian public probably thinks that nothing happens in her novels.” The hearthside ardors and homestead tribulations of the tradition inaugurated by Oliver Goldsmith is closer to the heart of the Sicilian nobleman manqué than the blood feuds, crusades and betrayals that stereotype ascribes to his people.
His affinity for ambience also led him to dwell intensely on the fiction of Stendhal, whose given name was Marie-Henri Beyle – a psychologist in the Limousin tradition who wrote a bookOn Love, an Italophile who wrote a travelogue called Rome, Naples and Florence, and a music lover who wrote a critical Life of Rossini. Lampedusa values Stendhal’s novel The Charterhouse of Parma not for the adventures with which it abounds but for the aura of inviolability within which the author has placed his characters: “La Chartreuse overflows with tragedies, but to me they appear like submerged rocks beneath strong but calm waters which they do not disturb. For me this is the triumph of ‘ataraxy.’ The novel’s characters move in a divine calm, graceful swans who navigate the waters of Lethe without danger.” As Lampedusa reads Stendhal, a dispassionate remove frees the reader from completely empathizing with the people in the story, and creates an abstract art of fiction.
That’s so because the story’s main character Fabrizio isn’t likable in himself but for the effect his presence has on those around him. Here is his impact on the narrative, for Lampedusa: “The events are not meant to be recounted as they are but as they appear to the frivolous, courageous and arrogant temperament of Fabrizio, a ‘society man’ who reduces the external world to his own level.” Lampedusa’s feelings about the socioeconomic class to which he belongs are complex. He understands the attraction that this type exerts for Stendhal, saying that “in Fabrizio del Dongo … he created the man he would have liked to be,” and adding, “How many Fabrizios I have known!” As if by transference, when he has spent time with this type of person, “Fascist authorities, grim prefects, prison wardens and avowed trollops were seen only through their most superficial and often pleasant sides.” Here, then, is the ideal foil for society – a man you hate and want to be at the same time.
It is worth our notice how personal even the driest prose is to Lampedusa. He illustrates his vision with some comments on technique. Again the example is Stendhal. He calls the master’s style “svelte” and says that a novel should reveal people’s psychology and their states of being – but gently: “James Joyce’s are efforts of verbal concentration while Stendhal’s are aimed at a concentration of psychological moments … The transition between these and the rest of the story consists of indirect sentences forming a gentle slope.” In this kind of novel, surprisingly, the characters’ inwardness doesn’t show itself by dialogue but by the contrast of word and deed: “In real life verbal revelation is virtually absent. We understand much more of people’s characters through their deeds, their glances, their stammering, the way they play with their fingers, their silences and their rapid way of talking, the colour of their cheeks, the speed of their stride – almost never through conversation which is always either a modest or a shameless mask disguising their inner feelings.” That might strike you as a pretty unusual idea of what talking is all about, but then again, a Fabrizio Del Dongo doesn’t care, ignores what’s behind the mask, and lives the dream. That’s what causes all the trouble (the plot). Meanwhile the protagonist gives himself away: “Whenever he can, Stendhal tries to avoid direct conversation. He prefers to report, by all manner of allusive comment, by rectifying what has been said.” Lampedusa notes that in Stendhal’s novels there is always “a second series of sensations expressed through a silence that’s intended to attract the attention of the alert reader.” When we listen to music, the ear produces tones that complement the ones we hear; and when we look at paintings, the eye supplies colors to go with the ones we see: the imagination acts the same way when we read. Stendhal, says Lampedusa, leaves a lot of room for the reader to create what’s been left out. He reports him as declaring, “For me the ideal style is the Civil Code,” which is a bit like saying you follow the CIA Style Guide. Lampedusa looks up to his hero for “the low esteem in which he held even the most distinguished poets.”
The way Lampedusa sees the world couldn’t be more different from Henry James’ way. The former was impressed by the power of events to shape human destiny, the latter believed character was fate. The Prince of Salina and Isabel Archer personify these stances. A single moment in The Leopard may stand as an emblem of Lampedusa’s fiction and his outlook. It takes place at the Salina country estate on the evening of the first dinner of the summer. The family has just arrived from town and everything is in order. The most important guest is Don Calogero, the nouveau riche father of Angelica, who will marry Prince Don Fabrizio’s nephew Tancredi in lieu of the Prince’s own daughter, to the Princess’ chagrin. All is as it should be while the family waits for everyone to arrive, but the Prince’s pride sustains an injury that only the dread of his sexual obsolescence will surpass (in a swoon that comes over him later, when he is dancing with Angelica, foretelling his death). The revolution has taken place, Garibaldi has landed at Marsala, and the Prince has weathered it with no trouble, exercising the diplomacy and tact of his birthright, and even having the sagacity to decline an invitation to serve on the new legislature. But here, at dinner, the change comes home to him. Were it not for his superfine vanity, he’d be destroyed. In this triumph of Lampedusa’s method, the reversal of the social order is reified in an outfit:
The Prince had always taken care that the first dinner at Donnafugata should bear the stamp of solemnity: children under fifteen were excluded from table, French wines were served, there was punch alla Romana before the roast; and the flunkeys were in powder and knee-breeches. There was only one unusual detail: he did not put on evening dress, so as not to embarrass his guests who would, obviously, not possess any. That evening, in the “Leopold” drawing room, as it was called, the Salina family were awaiting the last of their guests. From under lace-covered shades the oil lamps spread circles of yellow light; the vast equestrian portraits of past Salinas seemed but imposing symbols, vague as their memories. Don Onofrio, with his wife, had already arrived, and so had the Archpriest, who, with his light mantle folded back on his shoulders in sign of gala, was telling the Princess about tiffs at the College of Mary. Don Ciccio, the organist, had also arrived (Teresina had already been tied to the leg of a table in the scullery) and was recalling with the Prince their fantastic bags in the ravines of Dragonara. All was placid and normal when Francesco Paolo, the sixteen-year-old son, burst into the room and announced, “Papa, Don Calogero is just coming up the stairs. In tails!”
Tancredi, intent on fascinating the wife of Don Onofrio, had realized the importance of the news a second before the others. But when he heard that last fatal word he could not contain himself and burst into convulsive laughter. No laugh, though, came from the Prince, on whom, one might almost say, this news had more effect than the bulletin about the landing at Marsala. That had been an event not only foreseen but also distant and invisible. Now, with his sensibility to presages and symbols, he saw revolution in that white tie and two black tails moving up the stairs of his own home. Not only was he, the Prince, no longer the major landowner in Donnafugata, but he now found himself forced to receive, when in afternoon dress himself, a guest appearing in evening clothes.
His distress was great; it still lasted as he moved mechanically toward the door to receive his guest. When he saw him, however, his agonies were somewhat eased. Though perfectly adequate as a political demonstration, it was obvious that, as tailoring, Don Calogero’s tailcoat was a disastrous failure. The material was excellent, the style modern, but the cut quite appalling. The Word from London had been most inadequately made flesh by a tailor from Girgenti to whom Don Calogero had gone in his tenacious avarice. The tails of his coat pointed straight to heaven in mute supplication, his huge collar was shapeless, and, what is more, the Mayor’s feet were shod in buttoned boots.
Don Calogero advanced toward the Princess with a hand outstretched and gloved…
A decayed custom confines the aggression of the mercantile interest to a gauche suit and the kiss of a lady’s hand – and the aristocratic interest defends itself by reflex, with a failsafe combination of amour propre and snobbery.
Luchino Visconti, an aristo himself, directed the film version, and it would be understandable for anyone who has seen it, when imagining the Prince, to recall the cool squint of Burt Lancaster hovering over the cravat and sideburns – vain, irascible, blunt and cold; circumspect and tactful but also perplexed and tentative; sensual and distracted; conservative and populistic; strict in his pampered laziness; anarchic and conformist; a Roman Catholic devotee of Aphrodite.