Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Leopard

The Leopard, by Guiseppe Di Lampedusa, is set in Sicily during the 1860s, when Giuseppe Garibaldi and his Redshirts conquered the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. This led to the reunification of Italy under King Victor Emmanuel II in 1861. It chronicles the changes that took place in the Sicily of the author's paternal great-grandfather, Giulio Fabrizio, the Prince of Lampedusa. The Prince of Salina, the Leopard, is based on Fabrizio.

The book was rejected by two of the leading publishers in Italy, but was published in 1958 by Feltrinelli, after the author had died. It became the top-selling novel in Italian history, and is considered one of the most important novels in modern Italian literature.

The atmosphere Di Lampedusa has created pervades The Leopard with the feel of Sicily at this time of great change. The sensual beauty of the country is evoked. The sexuality of the Prince and others in the story, is suggested and lingers in the air. There is an undercurrent of uncomfortable tension and melancholy as the old world of tradition and refined culture slips away. It is being replaced by the world of the newly rich, and their lack of any veneer of the niceties of the old way of life.

The pragmatic attitudes of the Prince of Salina are revealed in his acceptance of the changes happening in his society. The marriage of his nephew to the daughter of the local mayor who had become rich under Garibaldi, epitomises the shift in power in the new order.

Bendico, the Great Dane who accompanies the Prince of Salina everywhere, is a symbol of what is happening to the upper class in Sicily at that time. When the story begins, Bendico is lively and full of life. He ages, dies, and his carcass is preserved by the art of taxidermy. Concetta, the Prince's eldest daughter keeps the dead animal, and at the very end of the book, the cadaver is thrown out. It is full of dust, smells, and as it is discarded, seems to dance briefly in the air, with an expression of reproach.  

The Leopard is a classic in that it tells the universal story of the replacement of one ruling class and power structure with another. Di Lampedusa paints his picture in the unvarnished truth. This is not a romantic vision, nor is it sentimental.

When it was published in Italy in 1958, it was immediately attacked from all sides of Italian society. The Conservative Right and the Church of Rome didn't like the portrayal of the decadence of both the nobility and the clergy. The Left objected to what they perceived as the criticism of the unification of Italy and the destruction of the nobility. They had a much more idealized, glorified vision of events. The Communist Party of Italy was enraged by the definitely non-marxist depiction of the Sicilian working class.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, this controversy, The Leopard gained great critical acclaim, and won the Strega Prize, Italy's highest award for fiction.

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