the leopard


This is a slim volume that I feel compelled to read every few years, just to relive the beautiful prose and sly humour, and to taste writing that somehow manages to evoke regret without any taint of bitterness.

I have raved about this story once before, a story seemingly without promise but sustained by sheer writing ability. I had come across enticing references to this book many years ago while reading Peter Robb’s excellent Midnight in Sicily, and the mystery of The Leopard’s author, a Sicilian nobleman whose sole novel this was and who died before it even got published.

It’s the story of Don Fabrizio, a prince of Sicily at the time of Italian reunification in the 1860s. Times are changing, and the prince senses himself to be the last of something, but what something? Somehow I find it hard to explain the story, or its attractions, but they are there in spades. Without quoting vast tracts of text you won’t get the flavour of it either.

But maybe I should try. So here’s the Prince, on entering a gilded ballroom full of his peers:

That solar hue, that variegation of gleam and shade, made Don Fabrizio’s heart ache as he stood black and stiff in a doorway; this eminently patrician room reminded him of country things; the chromatic scale was the same as that of the vast wheatfields around Donnafugata, rapt, begging for pity from the tyrannous sun; in this room, too, as on his estates in mid-August, the harvest had been gathered long ago and stacked elsewhere, leaving, as here now, a sole reminder in the colour of burnt up useless stubble. The notes of the waltz in the warm air seemed to him but a stylisation of the incessant winds harping their own sorrows on those parched surfaces, today, yesterday, tomorrow, for ever and ever. The crowd of dancers among whom he could count so many near to him in blood, if not in heart, began to seem unreal, made of the raw material of lapsed memories, more labile than even that of disturbing dreams. From the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling and inexorable as a summer sky. They thought themselves eternal; but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn., was to prove the contrary in 1943.

I’d love to unravel this paragraph, but it would be an essay in itself. The prince’s peers: “useless stubble”; the music an echo of the desiccating Sicilian summer wind; the whole thing ending with a shocking anachronism echoing the destruction of the author’s own property during the Second World War.

So once again I prove myself to be no reviewer. Trust me, and read the book. And then watch Visconti’s cinematic version

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