Notes on Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard

Idle reflections on completing The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, which is a book largely narrating several events in the life and afterlife of the 19th-century Sicilian noble Prince Fabrizio of the House of Salinas at a crucial moment in the history of Sicily and Italy.

Cover of an Italian edition of The Leopard (Il Gattopardo)

• Years ago I saw the Luchino Visconti‘s The Leopard (1963), which was based on this work, and had not the slightest knowledge of the origin of the narrative. I saw the film because it was Visconti and was part of my film education. I remember little, except that it starred Alain Delon and Burt Lancaster (my apologies to Claudia Cardinale). One consequence of this order of things is that, while reading the book, Fabrizio was at every page heard speaking in the voice of Burt Lancaster.

Footnote: Speaking of Burt Lancaster, have you seen The Swimmer (1968)?

• The book’s narration is quasi-omniscient, albeit mostly focused on the train of thoughts of Fabrizio. And Fabrizio’s train drags all along with it, like the Berkeley’s knowing subject: outside of Fabrizio, the existence of the world is in question. He’s a fascinating subject/knower. His observations always set their object in a broad historical and political context.

Still from Visconti's 1963 film The Leopard, in which Burt Lancaster plays the leading role
Prince Salina (Burt Lancaster)

Footnote: Most narratives remain at the level of caricature and sketch. For example, although Harry Potter 5 is (again, only as far as I’ve read) the best because of its portrayal of male teenage psychic life, it’s still just a very accurate drawing, a graphic cartoon, one might say … but there are still no real human beings here. Just tacit representations.

• Lampedusa offers the occasional break in the historical narration that brings the author forth … the effect is bizarre:

“… put in modern terms, he could be said to be in the state of mind of someone today who thinks he has boarded one of the old planes which potter between Naples and Palermo, and suddenly finds himself set within a Super Jet …” (119)

While the jet analogy here is weak, the narrative effect is shattering, and it’s offered without any explanation and then quickly passed beyond, back into the seamless world of the mid-19th century.

Cover of the Pantheon edition of the translation of Lampedusa's Il Gattopardo.

• The narration is death-bound (which is always sexy). Intimations of destinies appear now and again. Knowing, from the table of contents, that the later part of the book would tell the Prince’s passing, I hesitated for a few days to finish it. As we read those pages, we hear that same sand passing away. We admire Fabrizio’s strength of mind and his ability to face that without anxiety.

• Lampedusa closed his book gracefully without the Prince. Some 25 pages, at least. This ending was not tacked on or inorganic. The afterlife of the House of the Salina was always on Fabrizio’s mind. We needed to know what happened to his legacy in a succinct lyric. We are not treated to Tancredi’s demise, but see Angelica and Concetta live beyond him. The latter is haunted by him; the former has been served by him.

• I like not wanting to finish a book and then finishing a book. Melancholy is a pleasure for me. A little.

Interested in what I’ve written about other novels?
What I’ve written on short stories?