Monday, November 21, 2022

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.     

“THE LEOPARD” by Giuseppe di Lampedusa (Il Gattopardo first published in 1958; Archibald Colquhoun’s English translation first published in 1960; translation revised in 1961) 

Some authors are known for a single renowned book and the renown comes only after the author is dead. Think Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. Think John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacyof Dunces. (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights are also one-hit wonders, but both those two authors produced much more than a single novel.) One of the most extraordinary examples of the single novel that makes the author posthumously famous is Il GattopardoThe Leopard. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957) was a minor Sicilian aristocrat, officially Prince of Lampedusa, who turned out to be the last of his line as he had no heirs. He had a very eventful life, but he was always influenced by tales of his family’s ancestral past. He was aware that his ancestors once had power and high status, but he was also aware that the family had, over the generations, lost much of that power and status as regional aristocracy became less important in a unified (and ultimately republican) Italy. Prince Fabrizio Corbera, the main character of The Leopard, is clearly based on di Lampedusa’s great-grandfather. Di Lampedusa spent many years conceiving and planning this novel before he wrote it. Only after his death was it accepted by a publisher. 

Is the novel written as an elegy for a lost way of life? Or is it proving that change is inevitable? Readers have to make up their own minds as it can be interpreted either way. However it is read, The Leopard is definitely neither sentimental not nostalgic. The period it covers is presented with minutely observed realism.

The Leopard is structured in eight long chapters. The bulk of the narrative takes place in the years from 1860 to 1862. The Risorgimento is in progress - the unification of Italy as the Savoy House in Piedmont (officially the “Kingdom of Sardinia” ) and its king Victor Emmanuel proceed to take over other kingdoms and duchies by force. This means war on the Bourbon kings who rule Naples and Sicily (officially the “Kingdom of the Two Sicilies”). But the Risorgimento also involves Garibaldi, who ultimately wants Italy to be a republic but, for the time being, is willing to support unification under a Piedmontese monarchy.

Prince Fabrizio Corbera owns a large estate in Sicily, with many towns and many tenants under his control. Early in the novel, his character is set out clearly. He has “an authoritarian temperament, a certain rigidity of morals, and a propensity for abstract ideas; these, in the relaxing atmosphere of Palermo society, had changed respectively into capricious arrogance, recurring moral scruples and contempt for his own relatives and friends, all of whom seemed to him mere driftwood in the languid meandering stream of Sicilian pragmatism.”… “poor Prince Fabrizio lived in perpetual discontent under his Jove-like frown, watching the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance without ever making, still less wanting to make, any move towards saving it.”  (Chapter 1)

Essentially he is a paternal landlord, looking after his tenants in the traditional way, but often escaping from work by dabbling in astronomy, which takes him far from the madding crowd and also gives him a sense of eternity and the rightful order of things. Of course he observes diligently Catholic rites, leading the family in the Rosary every day, regularly attending mass and keeping a Jesuit priest, Father Perrone, as the family’s chaplain. Not that this stops him from visiting the local brothel, which he does in the opening chapter to the wails of his wife Stella. He remembers fondly many affairs, but, now in his mid-fifties, he’s getting a bit too old for dalliances… and anyway, he knows Father Perrone will give him absolution for his sins. If this leads readers to think that Prince Fabrizio’s religious beliefs are a charade, they would be wrong. His religion is an essential part of who he is. It’s also worth understanding that while the priest Father Perrone is a sort of domestic servant, he is no fool and is capable of making pungent comments on the way Sicily is changing.

As well as having three young and almost marriageable daughters, the eldest being Concetta, Prince Fabrizio also has a son and presumptive heir, Francesco Paolo. But the Prince regards his son as a ninny and a booby, neither tactful nor capable of running an estate. He much prefers his swashbuckling, lively and witty nephew Tancredi. Tancredi joins the Garibaldini, even wearing their red shirt and proclaiming republican views. But once the fighting is over, and once the Bourbons have been driven from Sicily, Tancredi deftly changes colours, joins the Piedmontese army, and advises Prince Fabrizio on how the aristocracy will be able to hang on to their privileges under a new regime. His pragmatic advice to the Prince is “Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they’ll foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” (Chapter 1) [The latter sentence is apparently the most widely-quoted phrase from the novel).

But how can things change?

Tancredi knows, and Prince Fabrizio knows, that to survive with some status they will have to collaborate with the bourgeoisie. The aristocracy may own much land, but they are not making as much money as the more successful middle-classes. How can Fabrizio repair his fortune? The answer is – get a member of the family to marry the daughter and heir of a wealthy middle-class entrepreneur. At first Tancredi appears to be in love with Fabrizio’s daughter Concetta. But his roving eye soon settles on the wondrously beautiful Angelina, daughter of the plutocrat Don Calogero. Tancredi, like most aristocrats, has no money. Angelina’s father is rolling in money. It’s a match made in heaven… so the central “plot” of The Leopard concerns the manoeuvres of the decaying aristocrat to get a relative married into immense wealth.

Thus it is settled even if, in his pride, Fabrizio still resents having to collaborate with a lower class. As he seals the deal with Don Calogero, and it is arranged that Angelina will enrich Tancredi with a huge dowry, Prince Fabrizio has to shake Don Calogero’s hand. We are told how he really thinks about it: “Don Fabrizio was overcome with sincere emotion; the toad had been swallowed; the chewed head and gizzards were going down his throat; he still had to crunch up the claws, but that was nothing compared to the rest; the worst was over.” (Chapter 3) It is only much later in the novel (Chapter Six) that Fabrizio becomes fully reconciled to the deal when an elaborate ball is staged to honour Tancredi and Angelina and, for the first time, Fabrizio begins to reflect that he is ageing, his time is passing, and the world has moved on… even if he is still capable of dancing gracefully with Angelina to the admiration of a watching crowd.

This deal, this melding of the social classes in the new order of things, may be the core of the novel, but The Leopard has many other things to say. Regarding the Risorgimento, Giuseppe di Lampedusa is well enough versed in history to know how contradictory the process of unification was. The promise of liberty and democracy came with conditions. It is clear that the plebiscite, in which Sicilians were asked if they accepted the new (Piedmontese) monarchy, was a rigged plebiscite. There is a scene (Chapter Three) where Don Fabrizio goes on a hunting ramble with the church organist Don Ciccio, who is angry that his “No” vote hasn’t even been recorded. The local polling stations have declared that the “Yes” vote was unanimous. Later (Chapter Six) Fabrizio converses with an army officer who joined the new Piedmontese forces, and fought against Garibaldi in his ill-timed attempt to invade the Papal States. The officer admires Garibaldi, but sees Garibaldi’s followers as a fanatical rabble. So much for the universal brotherly love that supposedly inspired the Risorgimento in the first place. There are clearly contending factions.

Under-riding Fabrizio’s thought is an awareness that, though it may now be part of a united Italy, Sicily has a unique culture and history. He often thinks of the many civilizations (Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Normans etc.) that have at different times ruled Sicily. He also thinks of the island’s unique climate. In reading the novel, we are always aware of both the squalor and the heat of Sicily. This is sounded very early and emphasised often. Consider the sheer heat of Sicily, as in “The sun, still far from the blazing zenith on that morning… was showing itself the true ruler of Sicily; the crude, brash sun, the drugging sun, which annulled every will, kept all things in servile immobility, cradled in violence and arbitrary dreams.” (Chapter One)

It is Father Pirrone who expresses the view that history simply repeats itself, a bit like the ancient invasions that the Prince considers. When speaking to the poor peasant herbalist Don Pietrino, Father Pirrone remarks shrewdly on the existing ruling class, and notes “…if, as has often happened before, this class were to vanish, an equivalent one would be formed straight away with the same qualities and the same defects; it might not be based on blood [ i.e. inherited privilege] any more, but possibly on, say, length of time in a place, or pretended knowledge of some text presumed sacred.” (Chapter Five) These are the words of a priest who knows something about human nature and behaviour.

As for Prince Fabrizio’s own status, he knows that, even if he has sworn loyalty to the new regime, he is not wholeheartedly part of it. When rejecting an offer to become a senator in the new parliament of the united Italy, held far away in northern Turin, the Prince says “I cannot accept. I am a member of the old ruling class, inevitably compromised with the Bourbon regime, and bound to it by chains of decency if not of affection. I belong to an unlucky generation, swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both. And what is more, as you must have realised by now, I am without illusions; what would the Senate do with me, an inexperienced legislator who lacks the faculty of self-deception, essential requisite for anyone wanting to guide others? We of our generation must draw aside and watch the capers and somersaults of the young around this ornate catafalque.”   (Chapter Four)

It is in the last two chapters that the novel leaps forward from the 1860s and the era of Risorgimento. In Chapter Seven, set in 1883, the Prince dies at the age of 73, knowing that the world has changed, a little regretful but aware that, where the welfare of his family was concerned, he did the best he could. To emphasise how the aristocracy has fallen on harder times, Chapter Eight, set in 1910, is appropriately called “Relics”. Prince Fabrizio’s three daughters, now in their sixties, are all still unmarried. The eldest of the three, Concetta, still, after all these years, holds a grudge because Tancredi passed her over for Angelica… and yet Concetta welcomes into her home the aged Angelica, now hobbling with varicose veins. The three sisters are devout and have a chapel in their home, filled with relics. But even the church has moved on and is now more wary of the manufacture of fake relics. A church archivist comes to inspect the sisters’ relics, and quickly concludes they are mostly fakes. The fake relics are thrown out with the rubbish… perhaps like the old aristocracy. And the novel ends.

So does history move on? (More-or-less Fabrizio’s eventual – if guarded - view.) Or is history un eternal retour? (More-or-less Father Pirrone’s view.) You can take it either way. My battered old Fontana paperback of the novel carries as blurb the declarations of a number of British writers that The Leopard is a masterpiece – E. M.  Forster, L.P. Hartley, Evelyn Waugh, William Golding. Surprisingly, too, the French Marxist Louis Aragon calls The Leopard one of the greatest novels of all time”. Could it be that the Marxist saw di Lampedusa’s novel solely in terms of class struggle as the bourgeoisie usurps the role of the aristocracy? If so, then Monsieur Aragon missed much of what the novel is about. The Leopard is just as much concerned with the sensuality of people and things. There are so many memorable vignettes – Prince Fabrizio’s remembered visit to the shabby and decaying court of the Bourbon king in Naples (Chapter One); the long rambles that the betrothed Tancredi and Angelina take in the decaying and abandoned rooms of one of Prince Fabrizio’s mansions, as if the lovers are seeking in their discoveries their own bodies (Chapter Four); the elaborate description of the ball that is staged for Tancredi and Angelina (Chapter Six); the feel of the run-down town which the Prince visits so often. We absorb a whole culture, and di Lampedusa’s detailed descriptions are never padding.

Di Lampedusa also shows an awareness that he is addressing a modern (mid-20th century) readership. He frequently inserts “flash-forwards”. Halfway through novel he forewarns us that the marriage of Tancredi and Angelica will not always be calm: “Those days were the preparation for a marriage which even erotically, was no success; a preparation, however, in the way sufficient to itself, exquisite and brief; like those overtures which outlive the forgotten operas they belong to and hint in delicate and veiled gaiety at all the arias which later in the opera are to be developed undeftly, and fail.” (Chapter 4) He nudges the modern reader, at one point describing a neat social manoeuvre of Angelina’s as “a highly successful line, comparable in its perfect timing to Eisenstein’s business with the pram” (Chapter 4). In describing a chamber of a stately home he writes, “From the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling and inexorable as the summer day. They thought themselves eternal; but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn., was to prove the contrary in 1943.” (Chapter Six) The horrors of history.

One crowning achievement. Giuseppe di Lampedusa writes what amounts to a family saga, but, elaborate descriptions and all, he is not tempted to produce a fat, multi-page doorstopper, as other chroniclers of family fortunes have done. The Leopard says so much, but clocks in at a modest 220 pages. Bravissimo.

Pedantic footnote: In case you were wondering, the novel’s title Il GattopardoThe Leopard -  refers to the crest of Don Fabrizio’s family. However all sources point out that the Italian word gattopardo does not really mean leopard. It refers to a much smaller African wild cat, the serval, which is something like a lynx.

Damned Silly Footnote: I first read The Leopard when I was a teenager, clearly missing much of what the book was about. For some reason, years later (and before I recently re-read the novel) all I remembered was a scene in which the Prince receives a letter from young Tancredi. The Prince admires the cunning way Tancredi presents it in such a form that one upsetting part can be witheld from the rest of the Prince’s family. The upsetting part of the letter “was written out exactly on one sheet of paper so that if he [the Prince] wanted he could let others read the letter while subtracting this revolutionary chapter” (Chapter 3). Now why on Earth should this little detail have stuck in my mind? Funny what one does or does not remember from a book years later.

Inevitable Film Footnote: Yes, Luchino Visconti (the same director who made Death in Venice) did make a stately and beautiful film version of The Leopard in 1963. Visconti was himself of aristocratic stock and he was aware of the declining status of aristocracy. For this reason, as he once explained, he preferred to make films about things that were coming to an end. Thus his The Leopard (decline of aristocracy), The Damned (destruction of German industrialist family as Nazis take over), Death in Venice (bye-bye Aschenbach) and Ludwig (decline of obsessed and somewhat mad Bavarian king). Wisely, the film had only a few Risorgimento battle scenes (they are, after all, mainly “noises off” in the novel) but it also missed out the coda of the family in later years. The film ends with the Prince walking away wistfully from the ball that is honouring young Tancredi and Angelica. There is no death scene. 

The film was very long (over three-and-a-half hours) and was originally released in English-speaking countries in a dubbed and severely cut-down version, which rendered much of it incomprehensible. Mercifully, a restored version of the whole film, with original soundtrack, was released in the 1980s, where at last I got to see it in a film festival. I balked somewhat at having Burt Lancaster cast as the Prince (dubbed into Italian) and I thought French heart-throb Alain Delon wasn’t really my idea of resourceful Italian Tancredi. But of course I was completely smitten by the film’s Angelina because she was played by Claudia Cardinale, for whom I have had a severe crush since I was a teenager. (She’s the epitome of Italian beauty, dammit.)

One trivial anecdote. I took to the screening of the restored film an elderly woman who was a devoted Italophile. At one point in the film, the audience (including me) burst out laughing in a serious scene. “Why?”, the elderly woman asked me. I had to explain, after the show, that the audience were laughing at the sudden appearance, in a bit part, of the blue-eyed, curly-fair-headed Italian actor Mario Girotti, who was better known under the adopted name “Terence Hill” and who appeared in a series of knockabout farcical westerns along with his buddy Carlo Pedesole, who called himself “Bud Spencer”. When I was a film reviewer in the 1970s and 1980s, a “Terence Hill” movie would turn up on the film circuit just about every school holidays. It was just the complete incongruity of his popping up in a film like The Leopard that set the audience off.


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