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They were the most moving sight there, two young people in love dancing together, blind to each other’s defects, deaf to the warnings of fate, deluding themselves that the whole course of their lives would be as smooth as the ballroom floor, unknowing actors set to play the parts of Juliet and Romeo by a director who had concealed the fact that tomb and poison were already in the script.

I am woefully ignorant of the history of the Italian state. It has always been a source of great curiosity for me, though I have yet to take the time to educate myself. Di Lampedusa’s novel offers a sop to the one desire, describing the advance of Garibaldi’s republican forces and the history of the island colony of Sicily, while also inspiring a new fascination with the life of the author. The Leopard was published post-humously and is one of two books available to modern readers by the writer, the other a collection of critical essays.

The novel describes the slow demise of the Italian aristocracy, faced with the twinned forces of a republican uprising and a burgeoning nouveau riche upper middle class. Prince Fabrizio of Salina presides over his remaining family estates and shrinking interests, attempting to gauge the movement of history. The story begins in the summer of 1860, with the prince paying tribute to his king and afterward granting audience to his own tenants and peasantry. Rumours are growing of an invasion by Garibaldi’s armies. Fabrizio takes council to determine if his interests are threatened by the soldiery. His own nephew Tancredi, for whom he has guardianship, announces that he has joined the red-capped revolutionaries. In him, Fabrizio sees the future of his family line, siding with the tide of modernity that will wash away the Italian fiefdoms and principalities.

The prince has that fatal quality of tragic heroes, being more intellectual and disinterested in his own fate, allowing younger men to take charge. The novel links the passing of old traditions and class with the encroachment of age. Fabrizio’s interest in astronomy is described as a scientific echo of long-dead Roman paganism. He yearns for a more concrete sense of an unchanging, eternal world, seeing only upstarts and vulgar soldiers becoming the new architects of society.

One such bourgeois, Don Calogero Sedara, has a daughter. The rakish Tancredi, returning from combat, spurns the interest of Fabrizio’s daughter Concetta for the more ravishing, and wealthy, Angelica. He entreats his uncle to make the match between the two families. While Fabrizio is wary of elevating the Sedara family’s station, he admires his nephew’s cunning and opportunism. Tancredi’s own father wasted his inheritance and left him penniless as a young man. In this marriage he seeks out a stronger position for himself, just as throwing in his lot with the republicans ensured he was not on the losing side of the conflict. Fabrizio finally agrees to the match, conscious that in doing so the Salina family’s decline is assured, though the young man he regards as a son will thrive.

It is gratifying that this translation of Di Lampedusa’s manuscript by Archibald Colquhoun retains so much of the original’s wit and wordplay. The free association of Roman gods and the starry sky at night; the prince’s retainer describing how Angelica’s grandfather was known as Peppe Mmerda, fertilizer which eventually led to Tancredi’s beautiful fiancé; the allusion to Shakespeare quoted above, as well as references to Eisenstein’s Battleship Potempkin. Luchino Visconti’s film of the novel was itself a study in opulence confronted with low vulgarity, with the leonine Burt Lancaster in the central roll.

The story itself continues on into the 20th century, showing the eventual fate of the once mighty blond prince’s family, whose feline intelligence is passed on to his embittered spinster daughter Concetta. The significance of the title is a reference to Fabrizio’s nickname, as well as to the fair-skinned, light hair of the Italian nobility. The prince explains to an emissary of the newly formed Senate at one juncture how Sicily is a much conquered colony, having hosted Moors, Spaniards, even the English, yet takes a perverse pride in its permeable heritage. The republican movement unknowingly is simply yet another authority, an aristocracy in all but name, which will be tolerated by the people of the island as every other invader has been.

This is a poignant study of mortality, both of the aging Leopard himself and his entire class’ way of life. A sublime classical work of historical fiction.

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