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The Leopard BY GUISEPPE DI LAMPEDUSA. Harvill Press. Hardcover, 224 pages. $32.

The cover of The Leopard

At the time of his premature death, in 1957, at the age of sixty, only a handful of people knew that Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa had written a novel. They included his wife, Licy, a Latvian-born psychoanalyst; his recently adopted heir, Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi; his cousin, Lucio Piccolo, a prizewinning, late-blooming poet; and a few other close friends and relatives.

Most of Lampedusa’s intimate friends were in fact relatives of one sort or another—even Licy was the stepdaughter of one of his uncles. Whether this lack of interest in outsiders was due to inherent shyness, aristocratic hauteur, Sicilian clannishness, or some other combination of factors is finally unknowable. All that can be said with certainty is that, for most of his life, the last Prince of Lampedusa led a strange and solitary existence. Even the nickname his cousins affectionately gave him—il mostro, “the monster”—hinted at his singularity.

Part of what made him monstrous was his intense immersion in literature. He seemed to have read everything, not only in Italian but also in French and English, and to a certain extent in German, Russian, and Spanish. (He and Licy, who had dogs instead of children, spoke to each pet in a different language.) His own literary style was perhaps most influenced by Montaigne, Stendhal, and Dr. Johnson, but the writer he loved best in the world was Shakespeare. “If I was told that all the works of Shakespeare had to perish except one that I could select,” he wrote in a thousand-plus-page document on English literature, composed in order to teach a seminar to a single pupil, “I would first try to kill the monster who had made the suggestion; if I failed, I would then try to kill myself; and if I could not manage even this, well then, eventually, I would choose Measure for Measure.” It’s an odd choice but not a bad one, and something of that play’s darkly ironic view of human nature, something of its highly modulated doubts about princely wisdom and religious purity, as well as something of its ultimate love for the sensual aspects of life, can surely be found in Il Gattopardo (The Leopard).

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, ca. 1965.
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, ca. 1965.

While you are reading The Leopard, and particularly while you are rereading it, you are likely to feel that it is one of the greatest novels ever written. If this sense fades as you move away from the book, it is only because one’s memory cannot fully retain the pungent artfulness of Lampedusa’s brilliant sentences. The Leopard is a true novel: It has a fully formed central character, a narrative thrust that keeps you reading, even a historical grounding in the events surrounding Garibaldi’s landing in Sicily and the creation of modern Italy. But unless you treat it essentially as a poem—unless you memorize its sentences as if they were lines by Keats, Hopkins, or Eliot (all of them, incidentally, poets whom Lampedusa adored)—the novel’s power will dissipate with eerie rapidity the minute you finish reading. It is as ephemeral as the state of mind it chronicles, which is, in turn, part of a vanishing civilization, and no amount of nostalgic remembrance or effortful evocation will do it justice. This is partly why the Luchino Visconti movie of the book, beautiful as it is, is such a betrayal: The movie cannot help celebrating in a rather simpleminded way the visual glories of the faded past, whereas Lampedusa’s skill lies precisely in puncturing those glories with a pinprick of subtle wit. That we share this wit and subtlety with Lampedusa, and that he expects us to, despite his vaunted disdain for most of humanity, are what make The Leopard a generous rather than a crabbed or cranky achievement.

Don Fabrizio, the Prince of Salina, is the Leopard of the title. Like Falstaff (one of Lampedusa’s favorite characters—he said he would have traded ten years of his own life for an hour of Falstaff’s company, and perhaps he did), the prince is larger than life in a metaphoric sense but also physically larger than anyone around him. Lampedusa often compares him to a feature of the landscape (“When the peak and slopes of the mountain were dry” is how he describes the prince toweling himself off after a bath) and even more often to a large, carnivorous beast. The leopard, Salina’s emblem, was in fact the heraldic device of Lampedusa’s own ancient family, and he drew from the life of his great-grandfather Giulio Tomasi di Lampedusa in creating the character of the prince.

A Sicilian aristocrat who comes from a long line of Sicilian aristocrats, Salina is well aware that his own power and that of his class are in decline. His perspective on this is a combination of irritation, resignation, and, above all, a kind of distanced irony. Faced with the political problems of modern Sicily and the economic troubles of his own household, he prefers to contemplate the stars. (His cherished hobby, which has earned him some degree of international renown, is astronomy, and the seeming timelessness of outer space is not the least of its comforts.) Much but not all of the novel’s subtle wit belongs to the Leopard himself; the rest is Lampedusa’s gift to us, his way of putting us both inside and outside Don Fabrizio’s mind.

Unfortunately for reviewers, this curious melding of viewpoints means that the humor and irony are pretty much unquotable. You have to have been with these characters for many pages—not just the prince but also his beloved nephew, Tancredi; his household priest, Father Pirrone; his favorite dog, Bendicò; his variously adequate and inadequate sons and daughters; his frail, hysterical wife; his faithful retainer and hunting partner, Don Ciccio; and his coarse but wealthy future in-law, Don Calogero—in order to grasp what is hilarious but also terribly sad about any particular observation.

Burt Lancaster as Don Fabrizio in Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), directed by Luchino Visconti, 1963.
Burt Lancaster as Don Fabrizio in Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), directed by Luchino Visconti, 1963.

How, for instance, can one characterize or convey the delicacy of tone in a passage like this one, describing Don Fabrizio and his dog?

He was sitting on a bench, inertly watching 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.

That moment, in the prince’s garden just outside Palermo, takes place in May 1860, in the opening chapter. At the tale’s end, in May 1910—fifty years later, and twenty-two years after Don Fabrizio’s extremely moving but never sentimental death—Concetta, one of the last surviving Salina spinsters, orders a maid to throw away the preserved “heap of fur” that is all that remains of her father’s favorite dog. “As the carcass was dragged off,” Lampedusa tells us, “the glass eyes stared at her with the humble reproach of things that are thrown away, that are being annulled. A few minutes later what remained of Bendicò was flung into a corner of the courtyard visited every day by the dustman.” The phrase “what remained of Bendicò” echoes, in turn, an earlier passage, in which the dying prince is subjected to the noise produced by a barrel organ just outside his window:

It was grinding out You who opened your wings to God,” from Lucia di Lammermoor. What remained of Don Fabrizio thought of all the rancor mingling with all the tortures coming, throughout Italy, at that moment from mechanical music of the kind. Tancredi, intuitive as ever, ran to the balcony, threw down a coin, waved for the barrel organ to stop.

The character of Tancredi, and the prince’s quite warranted affection for him, are evidently based on Lampedusa’s feelings about his young cousin, Gioacchino Lanza, whom he and Licy adopted as their heir in 1956. (“More charming than ever,” Lampedusa wrote—in English—about Gioacchino in his diary, and he wrote it so often that he took to abbreviating it “m c t e.”) There was nothing much to inherit by the ’50s: The title had been abolished by the Italian Republic, and the wealth that was rapidly diminishing in great-grandfather Giulio’s era had been further reduced by a half century of legal wrangling. By the time he adopted the twenty-year-old Lanza, the aging Lampedusa had barely enough money to keep himself in books and pastries, his two daily indulgences. Nor did rescue of the familial fortunes arrive through publication. Though The Leopard would prove, after it came out in November 1958, to be one of the greatest Italian best sellers of all time, the poor bargain that Licy had made with its publishers insured that almost nothing of the initial profit accrued to the family.

But this irony was one that came too late for Lampedusa himself to appreciate. Less than a week before his death in Rome, where he had gone to take cobalt treatments for an advanced stage of lung cancer, he received the second and seemingly final rejection of his only novel. The lukewarm publisher felt that The Leopard was “very serious and honest” but also “rather old-fashioned” and “essayish.” When Gioacchino, in an uncanny recapitulation of the fictional deathbed scene, came to visit Lampedusa a few days later, the dying man told him about the rejection letter, remarking with typical dryness, “As a review it’s not bad, but publication no.” (This quotation, like every other I’ve used from Lampedusa’s life and unpublished works, comes from David Gilmour’s highly informative 1988 biography, The Last Leopard. I also recommend Javier Marías’s lovely biographical essay, contained in his 1992 Written Lives.)

Partly because Lampedusa took the opportunity to vent his spleen against Italian opera, Sicilian indiscretion, political corruption, greed, and a whole host of other shortcomings he associated with his native place, The Leopard has been viewed by many of his countrymen as anti-Sicilian or even anti-Italian. Its politics have also been disparaged as right-wing or reactionary, though Louis Aragon, the French Marxist, interpreted it instead as a left-wing critique of the right-wing aristocracy. Such views strike me as severely inadequate. If The Leopard manifests doubts about the Sicilian character, it does so very much from the inside, and if it has any politics at all, it is neither of the right nor of the left, but rather a politics of irony.

But can there be such a politics? Fervid electioneers and dyed-in-the-wool adherents of the various ideological isms would say no. On the other hand, slyly dissident satirists of the Soviet system, German-speaking Jews like Karl Kraus, and the helpless, hopeless critics of the present American administration might all say yes. To see the local with the distance of the astronomical and at the same time to feel its tragedies locally: That is politics, surely, of a very useful sort.

Indeed, there is a strange little chapter at the heart of The Leopard that addresses the political critique directly. It focuses on the prince’s household priest, a man who has previously functioned mainly as the butt of Don Fabrizio’s jokes about Jesuits. Here, though, we see Father Pirrone away from the Salina palaces, visiting his backward Sicilian village on the anniversary of his father’s death. Late one night, Father Pirrone gets into a serious conversation with the local herbalist, who eventually falls asleep during one of the priest’s long-winded philosophical explanations. But as Lampedusa observes (in a remark that reflects back over the tone of his whole novel), “Father Pirrone noticed this and was pleased, for now he would be able to talk freely without fear of being misunderstood.” And what he wants to talk about are questions of class, and snobbery, and contempt—questions that lie at the heart of how we interpret this book:

You, Don Pietrino, if you weren’t asleep at this moment, would be jumping up to tell me that the “nobles” are wrong to have this contempt for others, and that all of us, equally subject to the double slavery of love and death, are equal before the Creator; and I would have to agree with you. But I’d add that not only the “nobles” are to be blamed for despising others, since that is quite a general vice. A university professor despises a parish schoolmaster even if he doesn’t show it, and since you’re asleep I can tell you without reticence that we clergy consider ourselves superior to the laity, we Jesuits superior to the other clergy, just as you herbalists despise tooth-pullers who in their turn deride you. . . . The only people who also despise themselves are laborers; when they’ve learned to jeer at others the circle will be closed and we’ll have to start all over again.

This chapter almost didn’t make it into the finished book. It was one of two that Lampedusa completed in the last few months of his life, and both of them got left out of the package that was mailed to, and finally accepted by, the editor Giorgio Bassani. When Bassani contacted the widowed Principessa of Lampedusa to see if there were any more bits of the novel available, she offered him only the chapter about a ball. (“A ball is always a good thing,” Bassani agreed—and how would Visconti ever have made his movie without it?) It was not until Bassani’s subsequent visit to Palermo, made specifically to ferret out any other missing pieces, that he obtained from Lanza Tomasi the full manuscript, including the chapter about the priest. Licy never did feel happy about the publication of that chapter: Apparently, Lampedusa had expressed last-minute doubts about it. But it is impossible to imagine the finished book without it, and one is grateful to Bassani for his vigorous intervention. Like so much else in the history of this novel, this story seems to demonstrate that only a nearly random process could have yielded such perfection as its endpoint.

For those of us reading the book in English, part of the perfection has always lain in Archibald Colquhoun’s miraculous translation. Perhaps because Lampedusa’s style and perspective were so heavily influenced by the English writers he loved, the English version of The Leopard feels especially true and right, as if the deliciously wry brand of humor had somehow come home to its native roost. But that is to give too much credit to the language and too little to the linguist. Colquhoun’s 1960 translation is so masterful—so subtle and amusing and moving and particular, so evocative of a single author’s voice and so unreminiscent of any other author in the world—that no translator has tried to better it.

What we now have from Pantheon is a reissue of the Colquhoun text, framed by some very interesting new material. Lanza Tomasi, the heir himself, explains in a foreword the complicated publishing history of The Leopard, including the fact that two “good” versions, a typescript and a manuscript, survived at Lampedusa’s death. To these, over the years, have been added several other fragments and tentative notes discovered by relatives and scholars. According to Lanza Tomasi—who now serves as director of the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, and whose prose style is as charming as one might expect from Lampedusa’s diary notations—the forty-nine minor differences between the 1958 printed text, from which Colquhoun made his translation, and the 1957 manuscript, from which the “definitive” Italian version derives, do not seriously affect the novel. Nor do the newly discovered fragments, he feels, belong with the finished novel; still, he has included the two most significant in an appendix, labeling them “A” and “B.” (Both the foreword and the appendix, by the way, are translated into excellent English by Guido Waldman.)

These fragments give us a few snippets of Salina family history and contain a sprinkling of witty observations in vintage Lampedusa style, but other­wise they detract from the novel rather than adding to it. Do we need to know explicitly, for instance, that the prince is infatuated with Tancredi’s lovely fiancée, Angelica? And do we need, God forbid, to read his poetry on the subject? Lanza Tomasi has wisely decided that we do not, but he has also generously allowed us to choose for ourselves.

The appendix may be optional, but the foreword is essential reading for anyone interested in Lampedusa. It not only includes Lanza Tomasi’s own account of the deathbed visit he paid his adopted father but also quotes in full the author’s last will and testament, his final letter to his heir, and his note to a close friend, Enrico Merlo, describing his unpublished work. What he writes in the note to Merlo—which was only discovered in 2000, tucked away among the late princess’s papers and possessionsconfirms our sense of The Leopard as it stands. “It seems to me,” he says, “to offer a measure of interest because it evokes a Sicilian nobleman at a moment of crisis (not to be taken to mean simply that of 1860) . . . seen from within, with a certain connivance of the author.” That he has written a book about himself as well as about his great-grandfather is made clear, though with characteristic elusiveness and allusiveness, in that parenthetical remark. Lampedusa concludes this note—his last message to reach us from beyond the grave—with a postscript written on the envelope: “N.B.: the dog Bendicò is a vitally important character and practically the key to the novel.”

Wendy Lesser is the editor of the Threepenny Review.