Should any of you find yourself at the end of your holiday reading list or in need of a new book to accompany the new year, there is no better time than now to take up and read the twentieth century’s greatest novel, Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, which turns 65 this year.
For every reader of The Leopard to whom I’ve ever spoken about the novel it has become a permanent piece of mental furniture. The great critic George Steiner once wrote of those works of art that “pass through us like storm-winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers.” There are few books that can be said to leave this kind of impression on most of the people who write or speak about them, but The Leopard surely ranks among them. E. M. Forster claimed that “reading and rereading it” made him “realize how many ways there are of being alive, how many doors there are, close to one, which someone else’s touch may open.”
The Leopard is a political novel without being a polemical one. One of its virtues is that its treatment of politics, history, and economics remains detached from the spirit of the partisan without ever succumbing to soullessness, cynicism, or flippancy. The book’s true glory, however, is the lush texture and exacting acuity of its prose (written originally in Italian, it was translated into English by Archibald Colquhoun.)
Set on the island of Sicily between the years 1860 and 1910, the novel moves with a striking ease of touch between the richly ornate rococo drawing rooms of the aristocracy and the formless, recalcitrant vistas that make up the island’s landscape. The story begins with the noble House of Salina finishing its daily recital of the rosary. The “oscillating skirts” of the family’s women withdraw from the drawing room “baring bit by bit the naked figures from mythology painted all over the milky depths of the tiles. Only an Andromeda,” we are told, “remained covered by the soutane of Father Pirrone, still deep in extra prayer, and it was some time before she could sight the silvery Perseus swooping down to her aid and her kiss.” This civilized excess of decorative form is set against a landscape “aridly undulating to the horizon in hillock after hillock, comfortless and irrational, with no lines that the mind could grasp, conceived apparently in a delirious moment of creation; a sea suddenly petrified at the instant when a change of wind had flung waves into a frenzy.”
The novel’s physical descriptions are surpassed, however, by its psychological portraiture. The central character is Don Fabrizio Corbera, prince of Salina and member in revered standing of the Sicilian nobility. The action of the novel takes place against the backdrop of an historical watershed as it chronicles the decline of the old feudal, landed order in Italy and the rise of bourgeois capitalism in its stead. As the novel opens, Italy is in the throes of its violent Risorgimento—its reorganization from a patchwork quilt of feudal fiefs and kingdoms into a modern liberal nation-state. Don Fabrizio finds himself stuck in a twilit epoch between the death of an old world and the birth of a new one. The fraught, often paradoxical, and usually tragic relationship between transience and permanence on both a personal and an historic scale is the novel’s central theme. Its most famous line is spoken to the prince by his nephew Tancredi. “If we want things to stay as they are,” he tells his uncle, “things will have to change.”
It is often said that there are two types of novelists; those who tend loosely to fictionalize their actual lived experiences (think of James Joyce setting all of his works in the Dublin of his early manhood) and those who seem able to conjure entire worlds out of whole cloth (J. R. R. Tolkien is the obvious example). Giuseppe di Lampedusa was definitively of the former school. Born in Sicily in 1896 he was 11th and last prince of Lampedusa, a minor title of Sicilian nobility. He died in 1957, a year before The Leopard, his magnum opus, was published. It’s clear that Don Fabrizio is to a certain extent a cipher for Lampedusa’s own thoughts and experiences. The interesting added wrinkle with respect to the book’s autobiographical character is its author’s decision to project his protagonist back into the middle of the previous century.
Given the one hundred years of political foresight that Lampedusa grants himself as an author by setting his tale in the past, perhaps the most striking thing about his protagonist is that Don Fabrizio cannot find it within himself to be a force either for progress or for reaction. He loathes the tasteless, lucre-loving, low-born businessmen who both he and the author know are set to supplant him and his class at the commanding heights of civilization. And yet he has no desire to join the battle against them in defense of the ancien regime. His eyes are bitterly open to the shortcomings of the old order as well. Speaking of the conservative Sicilian peasantry who ally themselves with the Church and the aristocracy against the innovating liberal capitalists, Fabrizio tells a fellow aristocrat that “their vanity is stronger than their misery; every invasion by outsiders … upsets their illusion of achieved perfection.” Don Fabrizio is both deeply unsettled by the speed of the changes overtaking Sicilian society and disappointed by that same society’s reactionary stagnation and refusal to grow. In this respect he is perhaps the quintessentially modern literary figure, despite all of his feudal trappings. This becomes clear when we read The Leopard alongside the work of a great diagnostician of modernity like the German sociologist Harmut Rosa. Rosa’s book Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity makes the case that the defining feature of the modern era is the constantly increasing speed of social change, which alienates people from both the past and the future:
“Observers of modernity are at one in their diagnosis of the kind of transformation of time at issue, even if they disagree about how to evaluate it: reports of the perception of an immense acceleration of time and history, often expressing a state of bewilderment, appear in rapidly increasing number since roughly 1750 … Note that this is long before the beginning of the industrial revolution and even before the French Revolution. With the introduction of the railroad this feeling intensified, and in the wake of the industrial revolution the practice of everyday life became, as it were, experientially saturated by it.”
Rosa goes on to note that “everything is constantly in flux, and the future is therefore completely open and uncertain and no longer simply derivable from the past and the present.” If we think of Don Fabrizio as a man living through this social acceleration as it was reaching an unprecedented speed, we begin to understand something vital about the historical epoch in which he lived and in which we still find ourselves today.
When the rate of change in a society is slow, the present feels similar to the past, and it’s safe to assume that the future will be similar, too. This allows people to feel that they are a part of a stable history with which they can identify and which they can confidently expect to continue in some form into the future. But when the rate of social change begins to speed up, even the near past begins to appear as increasingly strange and foreign to the present. This very estrangement makes the future uncertain also, and threatening besides. If today is so very different from yesterday, then tomorrow, after all, is likely to be very different from today.
In The Leopard, Don Fabrizio finds himself in this strangely isolated present that Harmut Rosa identifies with modernity. An educated man of the world with interests in politics, mathematics, and astronomy, he is too caught up and implicated in the hastening changes of modernity to feel wholly at one with the reactionary peasants who still live in the world of yesterday. And yet, the same rate of change that detached him from all that he hated about the past—the insular bigotry and incuriosity of old Sicily—threatens by its very speed to detach him also from all that he loves about the present—his remaining aristocratic privileges. He is, in every sense, a man out of time. Incidentally, this is probably why it was so easy for Lampedusa to project his own persona back in time a hundred years into the person of the prince. In the modern age, whether it be 1860, 1950, or 2023, we all live in a present made strangely timeless by the very speed at which the past disappears into the future. We exist at a vanishing point bypassed too quickly by the changing standards of historical belonging for any of us to adapt to them before they disappear. To be modern is to be cast out of history’s rhythmic and measured balance between continuity and change and into a strange new dispensation characterized by what the French philosopher Paul Virilio has described as a “frenetic standstill.” This formulation accounts for the simultaneous concerns over social dislocation and social decadence that characterize our own time as well as it characterizes Don Fabrizio’s psyche.
In the end, it is the power of the prince of Salina to symbolize what it means to be modern that makes The Leopard the greatest novel of the last century. He is a man who has become just as estranged from history as the many saints, mystics, and ascetics of the pre-modern age. But unlike them he is also entirely unacquainted with eternity as well. He experiences life as a paradoxical extension of timelessness without permanence. He is a stranger simultaneously to the most high things of heaven and to the time-tethered, mundane continuities of the Earth. Perhaps this is what accounts for Don Fabrizio’s two greatest sources of solace: his love of astronomy and his dog Bendicò. Unlike modern mankind, they are both free from the vagaries of social acceleration and historical estrangement. “Who worries about dowries for the Pleiades, a political career for Sirius, matrimonial joy for Vega?” the prince asks. Perhaps, after all, the great undiscovered palliative for modernity’s discontents is something known only to the celestial bodies and to their canine ambassadors here on Earth, residing together outside of our human entanglement with history and diagnosing it from a clear-sighted distance. “You see, you, Bendicò, are a bit like them, like the stars; happily incomprehensible, incapable of producing anxiety.”