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The Leopard - Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa ”Among his friends Don Fabrizio was considered an “eccentric”; his interest in mathematics was taken almost as sinful perversion, and had he not been actually Prince of Salina and known as an excellent horseman, indefatigable shot and tireless womaniser, his parallaxes and telescopes might have exposed him to the risk of outlawry. Even so the did not say much to him, for his cold blue eyes, glimpsed under the heavy lids, put would-be talkers off, and he often found himself isolated, not, as he thought, from respect, but from fear.”

This book was translated as The Leopard, but the literal translation is The Ocelot. The publishers must have felt that the image of a Leopard lent itself more to their target audience than the rather smaller, and frankly cuddlier ocelot. I happen to be a bit fond of ocelots since watching the antics of the feline Bruce on the Honey West episodes.

The Ocelot, he knows he's not a leopard.

The Prince of Salina Don Fabrizio knows he is the last of his kind. His son will inherit the title, but not the sensibilities and traditions that go with it. Garibaldi has landed in Sicily in the spring of 1860 and has overthrown the monarchy in Naples. The Prince’s darling nephew, Tancredi has broken ranks to join the rebels and wants his Uncle to do the same. He is a favorite of the Prince and even though Don Fabrizio is unwilling to leave his class he does help arrange a marriage between Tancredi and Angelica whose father has benefited greatly from this rising class of successful men from the lower classes. In other words he hedges his bets.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in uniform

The author Guiseppe Di Lampedusa was drafted into the Italian army during World War One. He was captured during the battle of Caporetto and held in a Hungarian POW camp. He escaped and made his way back to Italy, and eventually leaves the army with the rank of lieutenant and moves back to Palermo to the family estate. He is asked to return during world war two as well, but his responsibilities for his estates soon recall him home. His palace is bombed during the war. His Great Grandfather who built the grand palace became the basis for the Prince of Salina in his novel. Guiseppe dies at the age of 60 before his novel can be published, but not before he is turned down by several publishers.

Don Fabrizio is melancholy, even the description of his garden seems to convey the state of his life with vivid smell still retained despite the shabby grandeur.
”The garden, hemmed and almost squashed between barriers, was exhaling scents that were cloying, fleshy and slightly putrid, like the aromatic liquids distilled from the relics of certain saints; the carnations superimposed their pungence on the formal fragrance of roses and the oily emanations of magnolias drooping in corners; and somewhere beneath it all was a faint smell of mint mingling with a nursery whiff of acacia and a jammy one of myrtle; from a grove beyond the wall came an erotic waft of early orange-blossom. It was a garden for the blind: a constant offence to the eyes, a pleasure strong if somewhat crude to the nose. The Paul Neyron roses, whose cuttings he had himself bought in Paris, and degenerated; first stimulated and then enfeebled by the strong if languid pull of Sicilian earth, burnt by apocalyptic Julys, they had changed into objects like flesh-coloured cabbages, obscene and distilling a dense almost indecent scent which no French horticulturist would have dared hope for. The Prince put one under his nose and seemed to be sniffing the thigh of a dancer from the Opera. Bendico (his dog), to whom it was also proffered, drew back in disgust and hurried off in search of healthier sensations amid dead lizards and manure.”

The arrival of Angelica, the woman betrothed to his nephew Tancredi puts not only a smile on his face, but also elicits an almost nostalgic flood of desire in the forty-five year old Prince. He hugs her, but he wants to ravish her. He smells her hair, but he wants to inhale every nook of her. He tamps down all those unseemly thoughts and takes great pride in seeing his handsome nephew with such a beautiful young girl.
”She was tall and well made, on an ample scale; her skin looked as if it had the flavour of fresh cream which it resembled, her childlike mouth that of strawberries. Under a mass of raven hair, curling in gentle waves, her green eyes gleamed motionless as those of statues, and like them a little cruel. She was moving slowly, making her wide white skirt rotate around her, and emanating from her whole person the invincible calm of a woman sure of her own beauty.”

Alain Delon as Tancredi and Claudia Cardinale as Angelica

The Prince has several daughters and with the arrival of other young aristocrats all moving in concentric circles around the splendid array of Angelica and Tancredi the palace seems to take on the desires of the group. ”Even the architecture, the rococo decor itself, evoked thoughts of fleshly curves and taut erect breasts; and every opening door seemed like a curtain rustling in a bed-alcove.”

The stars are Don Fabrizio’s passion, when not daydreaming about memoirs of his own passionate conquests he turns his eyes skyward. ”The stars looked turbid and their rays scarcely penetrated the pall of sultry air. The soul of the Prince yearned out towards them, towards the intangible, the unreachable, which gives joy without being able to ask for anything in return; like many other times, he tried to imagine himself in those icy reaches, a pure intellect armed with a note-book for calculations; difficult calculations, but ones which would always work out.” He is a dreamer, but due to his responsibilities is firmly rooted to the earth incapable of escaping his duties except for a few beautiful, peaceful, stolen moments when he finds himself alone to star gaze or take a bath or read a book. I felt that tug of recognition of a soul so close to my own. He is always on the verge of asking what if, but unwilling to break the bonds of his position to indulge himself in such potentially dangerous thinking.

Poster of the movie starring Burt Lancaster as the Prince

Even though he is a relatively young man of forty-five, (I say this because he is the same age as I am.) he is often stunned at signs reminding him of his age. Most of the novel takes place over the space of a year, at the end of the novel Di Lampedusa does give us a chapter showing the Prince in his seventies, but for most of the novel I had to keep reminding myself that the Prince was much younger than he seemed. He attends this ball in which he is enduring the proceedings wrapped up in his own thoughts, but he can’t help but notice and be repelled by even more reminders of the passage of time. ”The women at the ball did not please him either. Two or three among the older ones had been his mistresses, and seeing them now, grown heavy with years and childbearing, it was an effort to imagine them as they were twenty years before, and he was annoyed at the thought of having thrown away his best years in chasing (and catching ) such slatterns.”

The novel is at times pessimistic Of course, love. Flames for a year, ashes for thirty. A languid wonderful novel full of beautiful descriptions of exquisite smells and bewitching desires. A book that had me flying through pages and then going back to reread passages dripping with evocative language. The book at times especially towards the final chapters becomes clunky and feels unfinished. While looking up some information for this review I found references that many academics agree and believe that he never polished the final chapters. Despite those flaws I was enthralled by this novel. A bit of cultural history captured in the pages of a book of a time that will never exist again nor anything even resembling it.