A few years back, the Dilettante had the real pleasure of ten or so days driving around Sicily, the setting of The Leopard. It was the best travel experience I’ve had. If anyone ever has the chance of going to Sicily: go; the mix of history and cultures – Greek, Roman, Moorish, Byzantine and so on – is incredible and the highlights are too numerous to mention. Of course, as it is anywhere in Italy, one highlight is the food. Food features constantly in The Leopard, and like his feasts, Tomasi’s sumptuous language is good enough to eat.
Set against the backdrop of Sicily’s ‘fall’ into the hands of the new kingdom of Italy, The Leopard deals with a major moment of change in Sicilian history. It ponders large themes, such as the decay of the nobility and its loss of power, the rise of the middle class’s new wealth, the more general pitfalls of greed and decadence, and the question of how to come to terms with great change – does one resist or adapt? There is an all-pervading sense of decay and death throughout the book; even the feasts echo the sense of decadence as the characters devour what remains of their past. There are some wonderful lines that perfectly capture the change that is forced upon the Prince of Salina, Don Fabrizio: the Leopard. His enigmatic nephew, Tancredi, is off to fight with Garibaldi’s invaders and states, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
The Leopard is forced to face up to his changing circumstances when the family travels to his summer Palace, Donnafugata, where the local mayor, Don Calogero Sedàra, a wily, tasteless upstart, has amassed a wealth that rivals the Prince’s. However, it is his daughter, the beautiful Angelica, who captures the eye of everyone, including Tancredi. They fall in love and are married; the two families are thus fused, but not before the Prince is forced to outline to Sedàra that his nephew, whilst of a noble name, is poor, for the Prince’s ever dwindling wealth will go to his daughters. He can only marvel at the dowry Angelica’s father endows the pair, for his wealth is far greater than the Prince had first imagined. The Prince now must spend time with Don Calogero and notices his growing affection for a man that should repel him. He sees the skills with which the man has built his wealth and admires him, including his move to ‘buy’ the family an ‘old name’, that is, to buy themselves a noble past.
It is at Donnafugata where Angelica is presented to the Prince and Princess at one the dinners in all of literature…
… the aspect of those monumental dishes of macaroni … worthy of the quivers of admiration they evoked. The burnished gold of the crusts, the fragrance of sugar and cinnamon they exuded, were but preludes to the delights released from the interior when the knife broke the crust; first came a spice-laden haze, then chicken livers, hard boiled eggs, sliced ham, chicken and truffles in masses of piping hot, glistening macaroni, to which the meat juice gave an exquisite hue of suede.
Yum! The food is so enticing the priest makes a sign of the cross, then “plunged in head first without saying a word”!
The Leopard’s impassioned rejection of an offer of a Senate seat given by an emissary of the newly declared Italian state, and his description of the character of Sicily is eloquent and powerful. In his rejection he comes to see that the man who should be offered the position is Sedàra, and he counsels the emissary thus. The Leopard finds himself “swung between the old world and the new” – the choice of the word ‘swung’ is perfect, aping the death throes of a man in his last days, of a time that is passing. He is brutal when analysing Sicilians themselves, saying they have no want to improve themselves and only wish for sleep: “Sleep is what most Sicilians want, and they will always hate anyone who tries to wake them, even in order to bring them the most wonderful of gifts…”(!). And the reason for not wanting to improve themselves? “… for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery…”.
In response to the emissary’s final claim that “This state of things won’t last; our lively new modern administration will change it all”, Don Fabrizio sums up the destiny of himself and those who rule after him: “All this shouldn’t last; but it will, always; the human ‘always’ of course, a century, two centuries … and after that it will be different but worse. We were the Leopards and Lions; those who take our place will be little jackals, hyenas; and the whole lot of us, Leopards, jackals and sheep, we’ll all go on thinking we’re the salt of the earth.” Just as things may change, other elements of life and history will always be repeated.
The themes of avarice, gluttony, history’s passing, and death, all come to the fore in the wonderful, brief chapter entitled A Ball. It provides a microcosm of the entire novel. Despite the joyous occasion, the chapter is book-ended by images of death, and death is a constant presence. On the way to the Palazzo Ponteleone the family’s carriage is stoped as they are passed by a “priest bearing … the Last Sacraments; in one of those barred houses someone was in a death agony.” At the splendour of the ball the Prince nods in approval at the jewel-like rooms, but is overcome by a loathing for the rise of Don Calogero and his ilk, with their “tenacious greed and avarice”, whose prominence looms over the nobles’ palaces like death. He becomes melancholic knowing that everyone at the ball, even the young who are dancing up a storm, will eventually die, but then finds compassion for them, “for how could one inveigh against those sure to die?” Retiring to the library for a rest, he examines a painting entitled, Death of the Just Man, before being rescued by Tancredi and Angelica, with Tancredi prophetically asking, “Are you paying court to death?” After a dance with Angelica, the Prince then surveys the spread of food which is, of course, amazing. There are “waxy chaud-froids of veal … turkeys gilded by the ovens’ heat, rosy foie-gras under gelatine armour, boned woodcocks reclining on amber toast decorated with their own chopped guts, dawn-tinted galantine, and a dozen other cruel, coloured delights.” The desert tray is similarly blessed. At six in the morning, as things draw to a welcome close, the family leaves, but the Prince decides to walk home for ‘some fresh air’. He finds solace in seeing Venus still ablaze just after he is passed by an open wagon “Stacked with bulls killed shortly before at the slaughter-house”. The Prince sighs and wonders when Venus would “decide to give him an appointment less ephemeral”.
Tancredi was right, the Prince is indeed courting death, and though it soon arrives ‘for an elopement’ for us readers in the next chapter, a good twenty years have passed since the ball; it is now 1883. Don Fabrizio has given us such an entrancing sojourn into the world of the nobility, that when he realises his death will mean the end of the Salinas, one cannot help but be moved and wish there was some other possible end. But just as the Prince noted at the ball, death comes to us all, and soon the tinkle of the Last Sacraments are heard coming up the stairs and into his room. After the priest leaves, as Tancredi holds his hands and talks of political manoeuvres going on elsewhere, the Prince is instead totting up a balance sheet of his life, “trying to sort out of the immense ash-heap of liabilities the golden flecks of happy moments.” This is no time to calculate incorrectly, and he concludes that, “I’m seventy-three years old, and all in all I may have live, really lived, a total of two … three at the most.” It is a scene of impeccable strength and imagery, made complete when a young lady he saw just the day before at the train station in a brown travelling dress, whose face has a “sly charm”, comes into the room where all his family have gathered, his doctor too, this beautiful representation of Death elbowing her way into the room, come to claim her Prince, the Leopard, last of the Salinas.
Said to live the life of a ‘literary dilettante’ – and thus clearly a kindred spirit of mine! – Tomasi was perhaps the only person who could have written The Leopard, being the last in line of minor Sicilian princes, and the events and characters depicted mirror both his own experience and that of his grandfather. In letters to his family before his death – reproduced in the Forward of this edition – Tomasi concluded after his after his original thought of setting the novel in a 24-hour period in the life of his grandfather on the day Garibaldi landed at Marsala: “I can’t do a Ulysses”. Instead, he’s achieved something just as great (and far more accessible!) in The Leopard. Says Hartley on the back cover: “Perhaps the greatest book of the [20th] century”. That’s a big call, and a debate I’m perhaps not equipped for, but it is a sumptuous, wonderful, defining book, and deserves its reputation and stature as ‘one of the greats’. Unfortunately for Tomasi, he died in 1957 before it was accepted for publication (in 1958); he had left specific instructions for his family to continue to seek a publisher – and we are grateful that he, and they, did so.
For a further review, see the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club’s excellent panel discussion on The Leopard.
Lastly, if you’re ever in Taormina on Sicily’s east coast and you enjoy great gelato, then make a pilgrimage to the aptly named Gelatomania. It’s a real pleasure palace for those of us with a sweet-tooth; I promise you’ll be going back for seconds! If you can’t make it that far, feast instead on The Leopard!
The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
230 pages (including Appendix, not including the 22-page Foreword)