Among the ten best historical novels of all time

It was almost a decade ago our book club started so I don’t recall whether gratitude goes to Teresa, Anna, Susan or Ed (or me?) for suggesting our first read: The Leopard, by Sicily’s Giuseppe di Lampedusa, a classic gathering no dust on my bookshelf so often is it in my hands. Little did I dream that one day I would see Lampedusa’s original manuscript—in the ballroom of the palazzo in Palermo where he lived the last thirteen years of his life.

The Leopard. A masterpiece, consistently ranked among the world’s 100 best novels, the top-selling one in Italian history, more than three million copies printed in 40 different languages. Published posthumously in 1958, it is the author’s singular novel. The New York Times says: “The genius of its author and the thrill it gives the reader are probably for all time.”

Giuseppe di Lampedusa (Photo: Alma Books)

Told through the quiet observation of Don Fabrizio, the Prince of Salina, an aristocrat in decline (an imagined portrait of Lampedusa’s great-grandfather), the novel confronts the compromises of the Prince’s family and country under Risorgimento, Italian unification of the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Sicily and Naples) following Garibaldi’s triumph. Mesmerizing, the novel reveals the fatalism, sensuality and melancholy that characterizes Sicily, even today.

Taking place between 1860 and 1910 the story follows the fortunes of Don Fabrizio’s favourite nephew, Tancredi, an opportunist who supports Garibaldi and becomes a diplomat by marrying money, meaning “marrying down.” In wedding Angelica, the beautiful daughter of a rich peasant and an illiterate mother, Tancredi devastates the cousin who loves him. Don Fabrizio understands Tancredi’s choice; he himself declines a senate position, instead recommending Angelica’s father. “He has more than what you call prestige,” the prince says. “He has power.”

Lampedusa shines a light on this pivotal time:

We were the Leopards, the Lions; those who’ll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas; and the whole lot of us Leopards, jackals and sheep, we’ll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.

With Risorgimento, mainland politicians avoided Sicily, finding it easier to ignore rather than understand or antagonize its different factions with social, economic or religious reform. A common attitude in Sicily’s previous centuries of colonial rule.

Unscrupulous opportunists bought up church lands at derisory (“ridiculously small,” a perfect word I discovered in Lampedusa’s biography) prices. Early mafiosi confiscated and forcefully held common lands. The aristocracy was in denial, the middle class avaristic, the peasants ignorant and violent, the church duplicitous. “It was a garden for the blind: a constant offense to the eyes, a pleasure strong if somewhat crude to the nose.” A sharp observer of the human condition, Lampedusa transformed his fractured relationship with his aristocratic background and failing country into literature alive with freshness. Sparse, compressed; his writing devoid of ­­­­sentimentality or nostalgia.

…Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery; every invasion by outsiders, whether so by origin or, if Sicilian, by independence of spirit, upsets their illusion of achieved perfection, risks disturbing their satisfied want for nothing; having been trampled on by a dozen different peoples, they consider they have an imperial past which gives them a right to a grand funeral.

This, the most frequently quoted line from the novel, came to embody a philosophy known as Gattopardismo, broadly defined as the power of compromise.

For things to remain the same, everything must change.

The Leopard has “…the density, the gravity and the breadth that one can expect in a solitary work, meditated upon for an entire life, of which it expresses the essence,” writes Lampedusa’s David Gilmour in his much-praised biography The Last Leopard. Indeed.

…bad things: rubble preceding an avalanche
A well-arranged little bouquet of news
Nowhere has truth so short a life as in Sicily

And there’s humour. Here’s Don Fabrizio on the piety and peccadillos of his wife Stella:

…how can I find satisfaction with a woman who makes the sign of the Cross in bed before every embrace…seven children I’ve had with her, seven; and never once have I seen her navel…Why, she’s the real sinner!

Love. Of course, love. Flames for a year, ashes for thirty.

The dinner plates: “survivors of many a scullion’s massacre” the biggest reserved for the Prince, “who liked everything around him, except his wife, to be on his own scale.”

This passage from The Leopard inspired my menu for the first dinner of our new book club.

… the appearance of those monumental dishes of macaroni was worthy of the quivers of admiration they evoked. The burnished gold of the crusts, the fragrance of sugar and cinnamon they exuded, were but preludes to the delights released from the interior when the knife broke the crust; first came a mist laden with aromas, then chicken livers, hard-boiled eggs, sliced ham, chicken and truffles in masses of piping hot, glistening macaroni, to which the meat juices gave an exquisite hue of suède.

Not eating chicken livers or hard-boiled eggs or having a truffle budget or wanting to make a timballo (macaroni pie with a crust), I turned to a cookbook my sister Joyce gave me, to the Sicilian recipes of a cousin of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s who had owned a cooking school! In honour of Lampedusa’s character Father Pirrone, I made a macaroni eggplant pie with stracciatella, “Priest Choker,” a form of pasta resembling a clerical collar named by Sicilians for the gluttonous clergy. Quivers of alarm greeted the snails I served as appies. But I was redeemed with my Sicilian Cassata, sponge cake layered with jewels of glazed fruit and nuggets of chocolate folded into ricotta and whipped cream flavoured with Grand Marnier; above and below more cake and two layers of strawberry ice cream; the whole ensemble enrobed in a thin layer of almond paste tinted pale green. Positively Baroque.

My Sicilian Cassata, May 2011

Food—the catalyst for my literary pilgrimage.

Reading about a cooking class led by Nicoletta, the second wife of Gioacchino (Gio) Lanza (Lampedusa’s cousin whom he adopted to be his adult son in 1956, not uncommon in Sicily at the time apparently), I realized we could stay at Via Butera. Remember the cooking class?

The lunch our group prepared was served in the princely dining room. Gio, beloved by Lampedusa and likely all who make his acquaintance, sat at one end of the long table, Nicoletta at the other where I was minding my manners.

Then, a tour of their private quarters. Around, above, all through the house, heirlooms, portraits, leather spines, harmonious textures of familial treasures. The drawing room where Licy received patients (in the post-war years she was the only woman practicing as a Freudian psychoanalyst in Italy), the library, under glass the manuscript of Il Gattopardo.

Lampedusa enjoyed the pleasures of the table. For hours at his favourite cafés he read literature—Conrad, Dickens, Stendhal—and ate cakes. Introverted, extremely shy and taciturn, it is said he never went anywhere without one of Shakespeare’s books in his leather bag. He read several languages and was most at home in French, although he wrote The Leopard in Italian. Leading a self-enclosed life and having enough money that he didn’t need a job, Lampedusa spent his nights reading, listening to music or seeing films.

He viewed his childhood as a “lost Earthly Paradise” but the frivolous pursuits of his family’s decadence depressed him and his relationship with his father, Giulio, was “mutually incomprehensible.” Although the family’s patriarchal misfortunes were multigenerational, his mother Beatrice, who dominated his life, had some wealth and generous friends and his Uncle Pietro Tomasi was an ambassador to London. Lampedusa liked the anonymity of travelling abroad, making literary pilgrimages to the homes of Shakespeare, Bronte, Byron and Keats.

The Messina earthquake in 1908 and the murder of his mother’s sister two years later further reduced his family’s resilience. Lampedusa briefly studied law before he was called to military service in May 1915 and later interred in a prisoner-of-war camp. A pacifist, for the rest of his life he suffered from nervous exhaustion, nightmares and insomnia, augmented by his emphysema. He thought ill of all political systems, especially communism, and being all too aware of Catholicism’s shortcomings, had no belief in religion.

In 1925 he met Alessandra Wolff, known as Licy, the stepdaughter of his Uncle Pietro. Licy was Latvian, a linguist who shared his knowledge of European literature but whose principal interest was psychoanalysis. After Licy’s divorce, they married in Riva in 1932. The newlyweds lived in the palazzo in Palermo, encastled with Beatrice, who was so possessive of her son that within a year Licy returned to Riga. The couple barely saw each other twice annually. Their marriage was an epistolary relationship until Licy was forced to leave the Baltic during WWII.

In 1942 at the age of forty-five, Lampedusa enrolled as a student of literature at Palermo University. He served briefly in WWII before being discharged for periostitis in his right leg but for him the greater casualty was the Allied razing of his family’s home in Palermo in 1943. Two years later the family purchased a small palace on Vita Butera, its eighteenth century façade overlooking the marine drive. It had been heavily damaged by the shockwave, part of the roof and many of the second-floor ceilings had collapsed and there was no running water in the family’s half of the palazzo. Giuseppe didn’t have the money to restore it so he lived in the parts that were in better condition and rented half of the palazzo to the municipal gas board (which is now the apartment area where we stayed).

Licy had lost her family home, Lampedusa had lost his and in 1946 he lost his mother. They did however, have their beloved dogs. (The fictional Bendicò plays a major role in The Leopard, right up to the last paragraph when “in the air one could have seen dancing a quadruped with long whiskers, and its right foreleg seemed to be raised in imprecation.” Don’t feel badly; we all had to look up imprecation: a “spoken curse.” And don’t fret about Bendicò for by this time he was dead, but so beloved he had been preserved and stuffed.)

Lampedusa’s friend Francesco Orlando said of him:

Literature was the great occupation and consolation of this nobleman from whom various patrimonial misfortunes had removed all worldliness and practical usefulness, and who was reduced to living isolated, without any luxury other than his considerable expenditure on books.

Life changed in the 1950s when Gio and his friend Francesco Agnello began to visit Lampedusa to discuss literature and history. It led to Lampedusa holding informal courses at Via Butera three times a week for a small group of students.

The second turning point came in 1954 when Lucio Piccolo, a cousin of Lampedusa’s on his mother’s side with whom he had a strong friendship, won a literary prize for a poem he had written. “Being mathematically certain that I was no more foolishI sat down at my desk and wrote a novel,” Lampedusa penned to a friend. For Lucio, writing was a way of being known; for Lampedusa, reticent, bashful and reserved, writing was a way of knowing. “We are from a world that no longer exists. If I do not write that world, write it down, then what will become of it?” Lampedusa wrote.

Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Gioacchino (Gio) Lanza and Lampedusa’s cousin Lucio Piccolo (Photo: secerkytrovy.wordpress.com)

After a lifetime’s preparation, he was most productive during his last thirty months working on The Leopard. On March 17, 1956, he shared his novel with his students. Licy, Lucio and a handful of others had also read or listened to all of it but, “Only Licy was absolutely convinced of its quality.” Two leading publishers rejected his manuscript. He wrote a few stories, started another novel and revised The Leopard.

Diagnosed with a lung tumour, Lampedusa died on July 23, 1957, at the age of sixty. On March 3, 1958, Licy received word that Feltrinelli wanted to publish The Leopard. (The firm had printed the first official edition of Doctor Zhivago smuggled out of Russia.) Published in November 1958 in Milan, The Leopard became the first best-seller in Italian literature and, by the following March, even though initially, “Catholics disliked his pessimism, Sicilians said they were no more violent and irrational than others, and the left thought it too old-fashioned,” The Leopard went through 52 editions!

(Our book club is still searching for a novel of similar stature. On my metaphorical top shelf with The Leopard are Balzac’s Cousin Bette, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Ian McEwan’s Saturday Night, Women Talking by Miriam Toews.)

in one of first reviews of The Leopard, Luigi Barzini, an Italian politician and writer, said Lampedusa had portrayed

the inevitable decline of the old virtues and graces that have grown useless but made life human even for humble people; the triumph of other qualities, rougher but essential in the modern world, which do not correct the old injustices but merely show them up, make them unbearable, and replace them with others that are sometimes crueler and worse.

In another early review Massimo Ganci compared the irredeemable Sicily of The Leopard to

the sterility of modern man…suspended in a void between a past permanently dead, though evoked in a nostalgic tone, and a future from which he is ever more estranged.

Classic.

Navigation

Gilmour, David. The Last Leopard. London: Quartet Books, 1988.  One of the best biographies you will ever read. (Others must agree; I waited more than two years to get a copy from the VPL.) In 1987 David stayed with Gio and Nicoletta for periods during the summer and autumn of 1987, learning about the author’s life, including reviewing the thousand-page survey of English literature that Lampedusa wrote for his small group of pupils.

Lampedusa, Giuseppe di. The Leopard. New York: Pantheon Books, 2007. Translated by Archibald Colquhoun with a Foreword and appendix by his adopted son, Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi. The Guardian lists the books among the ten best historical novels of all time.

Lampedusa, Giuseppe Tomasi di. The Siren and Selected Writings. London: The Harvill Press, 1995. Here are a few bon mots: “But this symptom of a thaw had no sequel…They liked their glasses filled to the brim (“no collars”).”

Price, Steven. Lampedusa. Toronto; McClelland & Stewart, 2019. Steven’s excellent book takes an imaginary leap into Giuseppe’s heart and mind, into the personal and philosophical struggles at the end of his life as he writes The Leopard.

Tomasi Lanza, Gioacchino. A Biography Through Images. London: Alma Books, 2016.

Butera 28 Apartments in Palazzo Lanza Tomasi is a great place to stay in Palermo: well located, historical and with cooking facilities and cooking classes.

Lampedusa di, Giuseppe. The Leopard. US: Pantheon Books, 1960.  Watch for this in a future blog where we’ll feature Part II of our day with the Duchess.

Tasca Lanza, Anna. The Flavors of Sicily. Spain: Imago, 2001. My sister Joyce gave me this cookbook years ago. Anna (Nicoletta’s sister-in-law) ran Sicily’s most famed cooking school, now under the care of her daughter Fabrizia at Tasca Regaleali, where Magellan and I spent two nights.

 

 

9 replies
  1. Teresa
    Teresa says:

    Really fantastic post. And of course, the cassata (boom!)….took me right back to Palermo and wandering those streets. I so want to return to Sicily.

    Reply
    • Spice
      Spice says:

      David Gilmour writes that Lampedusa once said that London would never die because Dickens had made it immortal and that, to many people, Lampedusa has done the same for Palermo/Sicily. A return is unlikely for us—I’ll have to be content with rereads of The Leopard and making more cassatas. (The matcha tea version is pretty yummy, too.)

      Reply
  2. Wade+Blaser
    Wade+Blaser says:

    I think you have a really good start of a Masters in Literature Thesis here Gloria. What a thorough and enlightening dissertation on “The Leopard”..

    It is some years since I read it; and as a result of your writing I will revisit it. I however, do remember it as, certainly, good writing; but I have to say that the underlying tone of morosity detracted from the story for me..

    I find it curious that when I reflect on what Lampedusa says, about Sicilians; that “their vanity is stronger than their misery”.

    When I contrast this to the Norwegian (Scandinavian) ethos as reflected in their “hygge” – celebration of coziness and togetherness with a glass of wine and a blanket in the deep dark days of winter..

    Somebody should suggest to the Sicilians, given their very different geography and climate, that they get hold of a big, colorful, inflatable ball and go to the beach…

    Reply
    • Spice
      Spice says:

      You are onto one of Lampedusa’s themes—Sicilians are weakened by the intensity of their climate: “This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything… All these things have formed our character, which is thus conditioned by events outside our control as well as by a terrifying insularity of mind.” (Could be too much pasta, too!) Not at all like those resilient Norwegians!

      Morose it is, but replete with humour and a classic theme, plus the book came to me at the right time in my life when I was able to appreciate it much more than if I’d read it say, in my 20s.

      Reply
    • Spice
      Spice says:

      Opening The Leopard randomly this morning I’m still finding sentences that delight: Just now: “…with great hunks of bread they satisfied the hungry dogs standing there in front of them, impassive as bailiffs bent on getting debts paid.”

      Reply
  3. Barry+MacLeod
    Barry+MacLeod says:

    As in any endeavour, interpretation is always open to opinions by the reader, not sure “The Leopard” has enlightened or decayed my literary, future read list.
    I am most intrigued by the height of the ceilings within the Sicilian architecture, as most things of interest to the humanistic eye, ears, nose, sensual presentation is best had at head level, as that is where entrance to the human mind takes place.
    Placing artworks and architectural offerings above this level seems wasteful.
    Possibly my mechanical mind has ventured of the virtual track again. Happens

    Reply
    • Spice
      Spice says:

      Unconvincing then, alas, my tribute to Lampedusa. Being there I felt the high-ceilinged room, stuffed with furniture, paintings, leather-spiced books, glass objects, tapestries…draws you in every direction: up, down, across, around—like the novel.

      Reply

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