Saturday, October 21, 2017

Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard

Introduction

Opening Passage:

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 Glorious and the Sorrowful 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 taht 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. (p. 5)

Summary: Don Fabrizio is Prince of Salina in Sicily, the head of an old and crumbling noble House. They are not in a poor way, but their great estates have steadily been sliced off to pay for this emergency and that debt, to be bought up by the up and coming members of the mercantile classes, such as Don Calogero, Mayor of Salina. Don Fabrizio is a popular aristocrat, in part because of a certain negligence and lack of rigor in the collection of taxes, in part because of the prestige of the family name, which despite its accelerating decline nonetheless keeps that most stable of legitimations, that of being the devil you know. But change is in the air, and soon Garibaldi, operating partly in defiance of his Piedmontese/Sardinian masters, brings Italian Unification to the island. There is some sympathy for it, especially among the mercantile classes, who see it in part as a way to modernize Sicility. While modernity may have partly passed Sicily by, the peasantry is not stupid, and they have been observant to see that these new nationalist governments pressed on others by liberal revolutionaries are not cheap, and that the reliable fallbacks for paying for them have tended to reduce to two: more ruthless forms of taxation, particularly on peasants, and expropriation of Church property. But their votes do not count; despite the foofaraw of a plebiscite, the No votes will simply be ignored, and not even acknowledged. Don Fabrizio, for his part, recognizes that there is nothing he can do to stop the change, and concerns himself most with trying to make sure his House will survive in some form, particularly by marrying his nephew Tancredi, neck deep in the new regime, to Don Calogero's lovely and, of course, wealthy daughter, Angelica. The tale, in short, is a tale of extinction, the extinction of the symbol of Don Fabrizio's House, the serval (or leopard, as it always is in English translation).

This is a novel that is driven very much more by character than by plot; it is chiefly a sort of sketch of Don Fabrizio as he passes through the most significant change of his life. There is a lot of talk and relatively little action, and what story we get is mostly just change of circumstance. It is far from being dull, however, as the problems are genuinely human problems, and the style of the novel in its description of them is excellent -- a very balanced mix of bittersweetness and humor.

The style reminds me a great deal of Flaubert, although Lampedusa is consistently more humorous than Flaubert. Since Lampedusa was an enthusiast for French literature, there may indeed be some direct influence, but what particularly draws the mind to the parallel is the extremely polished description. There is never anything haphazard about it, and one can tell from the balance of events, from the very careful preparation and articulation of figures of speech, and from the fact that you can pick almost any passage at random and find some very carefully developed verbal excellence, that the author spent a great deal of time on every word of every sentence. As with Flaubert, this results in parts that are undeniably perfect and a totality that will seem either flawless or else artificial and absurdly overstretched, depending on the mood in which you read it. But the focus on character fits this well; it really is more of a series of episodes than a definite plot.

Archibald Colquhoun's translation is very nice -- it is smooth and readable, full of humor and vividness of description.

Favorite Passage:

"As for the boy, you know him; and if you did not, I am here to guarantee him in every possible way. There is endless good in him, and it is not only I who say so. Isn't that true, Father Pirrone?"

The excellent Jesuit, dragged from his reading, found himself suddenly facing an unpleasant dilemma. He had been Tancredi's confessor, and he knew quite a number of his little failings: none of them very serious, of course, but such as to detract a good deal from the endless goodness of which the Prince had spoken; and all of them such (he almost felt like saying) as to guarantee the firmest marital infidelity. This, of course, could not actually be said both for sacramental reasons and from worldly convention. On the other hand he liked Tancredi, and though he disapproved of the wedding with all his heart, he would never say a word which could either impede it or in any way cloud its course. He took refuge in Prudence, most tractable of the cardinal virtues. "The fund of goodness in our dear Tancredi is great indeed, Don Calogero, and sustained by Divine Grace and by the earthly virtues of Signorina Angelica he may become, one day, an excellent Christian husband." The prophecy, risky but prudently conditional, passed muster. (pp. 126-127)

Recommendation: Recommended.

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Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard, Colquhoun, tr. Pantheon Books (New York: 2007).

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