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.”