MY TOP SHELF – 43 – The Leopard

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

THE LEOPARD

Giuseppe di Lampedusa

Folio Society, 2000; bound in red cloth with red slipcase; translated by A Colquhoun; illustrated by John Holder.

But I’ve still got my vigour; and how can I find satisfaction with a woman who makes the sign of the Cross in bed before every embrace and then at the critical moment just cries ‘Gesummaria’?

This beautiful little book was written by a Sicilian prince about a Sicilian prince who had to come to terms with a failure by God, a failure by his wife, and the end of his caste.  It is a beautifully elegiac period piece about old Sicily and the impact on it of Garibaldi.  It is a free standing masterpiece.  It owes nothing to Joyce or Proust.  It is at once plain but eerily nostalgic.  Like the Kesey novel, a great book led to a great film.  It starts this way.

‘Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.  Amen.’

The daily recital of the Rosary was over.  For half an hour the steady voice of the Prince had recalled the Sorrowful and the Glorious mysteries; for half an hour other voices had interwoven a lilting hum from which, now and again, would chime some unlikely word; love, virginity, death; and during that hum the whole aspect of the rococo drawing-room seemed to change; even the parrots spreading iridescent wings over the silken walls appeared abashed; even the Magdalen between the two windows looked a penitent and not just a handsome blonde lost in some dubious daydream as she usually was.

That evening, Prince Fabrizio would call on his favourite courtesan, for reasons suggested in the citation, and take the family priest, a Jesuit, into town to accompany him.

A protégé of the Prince falls in; love with the daughter of a very vulgar new man on the make, and they will marry and fuse the classes.  In the wonderful Visconti film, Burt Lancaster plays the prince; Alain Delon the young lover; and Claudia Cardinale his wife to be.  There are great set pieces in the book and the film.  There is the visit to the country estate of the prince, and a mansion so vast that people get lost.  There is the hunting sequence where the prince unburdens himself to one of his men – and then, in a reversion to feudalism, locks him up to prevent his revealing a secret.  There is the ball and a supper.  The film does not treat of the very moving two last chapters.

The author’s princely house had gone broke in two generations.  The aristocrats elsewhere had been more roughly handled a lot sooner.  Lampedusa never left his house without his copy of Shakespeare in his bag.  He kept The Pickwick Papers with him to comfort him on sleepless nights.  He regarded The Charterhouse of Parma of Stendhal as ‘the summit of all world fiction.’

Here is another more or less random sample of the soft and lovely tone of this book.

He got up and passed into the dressing room.  From the Mother Church next door rang a lugubrious funeral knell.  Someone had died at Donnafugata, some tired body unable to withstand the deep gloom of Sicilian summer had lacked stamina to await the rains.  ‘Lucky person’ thought the Prince, as he rubbed lotion on his whiskers.  ‘Lucky person, with no worries now about daughters, dowries, and political careers.’  This ephemeral identification with an unknown corpse was enough to calm him.  ‘While there’s death there’s hope,’ he thought, and then he saw the absurd side of letting himself get into such a state of depression because one of his daughters wanted to marry.  ‘Ce sont leurs affaires, après tout’, he thought in French, as he did when his cogitations persisted in playing pranks.  He settled in an armchair and dropped into a doze.

The book caused a sensation in Sicily when it was published not long after the death of the author in 1957.  A Cardinal of Palermo thought that it was one of the three factors that had led to the dishonour of Sicily – the other two were the Mafia and a social reformer.  I suspect that the author would have sympathised with the German scholar who said that the Sicilians had perfected the Counter-reformation – the problem was just that they had never experienced the Reformation.

E M Forster called The Leopard ‘a noble book’.  He said that it was not an historical novel, but ‘a novel which happens to take place in history.’  It does in truth deal with issues we all face, and it does so in a way that is almost musical or painterly.  Like the movie, it is something I can and should enjoy at least once a year.

 

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