Sunday, October 08, 2017

Fortnightly Book, October 8

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, born in Palermo, Sicily, spent a considerable portion of his life thinking through a novel. He had the idea of writing a story about nineteenth-century, in the time of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, based loosely on the life of his great-grandfather, who was Prince of Lampedusa in that period, and he worked on it, off and on, for decades. Every word, every sentence was closely scrutinized. Finally, in the 1950s it began to take shape, and he knew it to be good. So he submitted it to a publisher. It was rejected. He submitted it to another publisher. It was rejected. One of those rejections may or may not have been due to a clerical error. But Lampedusa was dying of a tumor in the lung, and so he never saw it published. His will asked that his heirs do everything in their power to get it respectably published, and so it was, in 1958, a year after his death, under its final title, Il Gattopardo. It is often regarded as the greatest Italian novel of the twentieth century.

A gattopardo is apparently a serval, but the English title has always been The Leopard. I will be reading the Pantheon Books edition, translated by Archibald Colquhoun, which is based on a more careful examination of the manuscript (Lampedusa had only one final draft manuscript) than some of the early published versions, and has an introduction by Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, Lampedusa's cousin and heir, who was involved in the process of getting it published.

It is the 1860s, last decade of a divided Italy; the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, decadent and degenerate, is on the verge of destruction by the Risorgiomento. Garibaldi has already started the process that will bring the Kingdom to its knees. And, among the soon-to-be-extinct aristocracy, Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, must decide whether to uphold the older values of the aristocracy or, as his nephew Tancredi advises, change so as to maintain the family's influence. Either way, much will crumble to dust.

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