How The Leopard changed its spots by Griselda Heppel
I’m finally getting round to a book I should have read long ago. It’s one of the world’s great classics and I’m slightly embarrassed not to have tackled it before, especially as so many people have told me how brilliant it is.
Set in Sicily in1861, The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa is a powerful account of the Italian Risorgimento through the eyes of Prince Fabrizio Salina, whose coat of arms provides the book’s title. But rather than a blood and thunder depiction of Garibaldi’s arrival with his 1000 Redshirts, followed by the collapse of the Bourbon royal forces under his swift onslaught, the narrative concentrates on the effects such huge social and political upheaval had on the Sicilian class system, still largely unchanged since feudal times. Accustomed to a power over household, lands and the local populace that Henry VIII - no slouch himself when it came to autocracy
- might have envied, Prince Fabrizio
|No slouch to autocracy: Henry VIII
forced to bow to expediency, voting for the Unification of Italy against the interests of his own class, and dealing with the unsavoury, corrupt, fabulously wealthy-through-illicit-means Don Calegero, several rungs beneath him on the social ladder. Politically astute, the prince does these things to survive. ‘Everything must change in order for everything to remain the same,’ is the most famous quotation from this book.
To my surprise, The Leopard is a terrific read. All that everyone has said about it is true.
So why the surprise? Well, when I said I’d never tackled it before, that wasn’t quite true. A long time ago, in my gap year, I spent a couple of months in Florence learning Italian (mainly by way of articulating ice cream flavours and trying not to be accosted in the street). Somewhat ambitiously, I borrowed a copy of Il Gattopardo from the library but got no further than the first few pages. Not just because the language was difficult; if the story had grabbed me I’d have persisted, or at least switched to an English translation. No, it was the character of the prince himself that disgusted me, in particular the cruel, disdainful way he treated all the women around him. A hero who behaved like this was one I wanted nothing more to do with. And this was decades before #metoo.
Now, taking The Leopard up again, I was prepared to find my rudimentary Italian of the time at fault. Surely Salina couldn’t have been as bad as all that.
Oh yes, he could. I hadn’t grasped the half of it. In the first 20 pages, he terrifies his grown-up children into quaking submission, while a timid gesture of affection from his wife prompts him to call publicly for his carriage late at night in order to visit a brothel, leaving the hysterical Princess alone and pleading from the bedroom window. At the brothel, Marianina, blank-eyed and worn out by over use, duly obliges, poverty and social inferiority giving her no other choice. Both her miserable situation and his sad, neglected wife’s give the prince a brief twinge of conscience, but not much. I very nearly threw the book on one side all over again.
But I didn’t. And reading on, I realised what Lampedusa was doing. He allows his hero to behave this way not because he finds it admirable, but the opposite. Significantly, Salina never again shows such heartless brutality as in these first pages; rather, he develops as an intelligent, reasonable, even kind landlord who doesn’t hound his tenant farmers for their rents and tries to persuade them to give the new regime their mandate, knowing it will be the worse for them if they don’t. By creating such a rounded portrait, Lampedusa shows how power corrupts even the most decent, humane, magnanimous spirit; the prince is a tyrant to his wife, family and underlings because he can be. I expected The Leopard to be a lament for a golden, paternalistic age; instead, while Lampedusa portrays the new nationalist government as hypocritical and corrupt from the word go, he is equally clear-eyed about the flaws of the system it is replacing.
|Garibaldi, red-shirted hero of Italian Unification
Oh, and there’s also that small matter of Tancredi having to marry money - a lot of it - since before dying, his father managed to gamble away the entire Falconeri family’s wealth. Really, the nobility - a class to which the author himself belongs - doesn’t come out of the story very well.
While I wish I hadn’t left it quite so long, I’m glad I didn’t force my 18 year-old self to continue reading The Leopard (bad enough having to do that with Middlemarch, a book I’ve never learnt to love). I’m not sure I’d have got the subtleties at that age, and fear I might have fallen for the easy, boyish, swashbuckling charm of Tancredi, just as his uncle does.
And I’m only half way through. Tancredi may yet develop into something more than a handsome figurehead for the old aristocracy, surviving by allying itself to a voracious, politically aware, ruthless nouveau riche in the form of the beautiful Angelica Calagero.
I’m not holding my breath.