The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Aristocratic decay…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It is 1860, and Fabrizio, Prince of Salina in Sicily, is already aware of the forces of modernity that are bringing newly rich men to prominence while the aristocracy struggles to maintain its ascendancy. Now Garibaldi is on the march, about to invade Sicily as part of his drive to unite all of Italy under one king. The old guard view this with anxiety, unsure of how it will affect them. Some of the younger Sicilians, though, are fired with enthusiasm for Garibaldi and his “revolution”. Fabrizio is jaded and cynical – his strong sense of history tells him that many invaders have arrived in Sicily over the centuries, and that after a period of upheaval everything reverts to how it has always been, though perhaps with a change of personae in the ruling class. His main hope is to come through with as little change to his leisured life of luxury as possible.

This was a real mix for me. There were long, long stretches that bored me rigid with their lingering descriptions of the sumptuous lives and possessions of the aristocrats, and the central romance between Fabrizio’s young swashbuckling pro-Garibaldi nephew, Tancredi, and the beautiful if low-born Angelica is signally unromantic despite (or perhaps because of) the endless scenes of them breathlessly teasing each other and barely controlling their mutual lust.

On the other hand, it provides tremendous insight into the Sicilian mindset and the sharp divides in society, with the aristocracy living rather pointless lives of luxurious ease while the rest of the populace exist in abject poverty, not just in material terms but also poverty of education, opportunity and spirit. We see the stranglehold of the Catholic Church, as so often helping to keep the common people down in order to please their generous patrons amongst the rich. And Lampedusa shows the rise of the new type of men, their money coming from trade and industry rather than land, rougher and less cultured, but also less effete, with the drive to perhaps effect real change for the first time in centuries. And yet we see these new men ambitious to marry their children to the children of the old aristocracy, effectively buying their way into the existing ruling class, and we wonder if Fabrizio’s cynicism is right, that gradually the new men will become indistinguishable from the class they are replacing. (Four legs good, two legs better.)

Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale as Tancredi and Angelica in Visconti’s 1963 film

While the bulk of the book covers the two year period before, during and immediately after Garibaldi’s invasion, there are two additional sections: the first set twenty years later in 1883 when we find out how Fabrizio’s life played out after the revolution; and the second set later still, in 1910, when we meet again with some of his children and are shown how the aristocratic class has continued to fade, their once glittering homes now looking tawdry and tarnished, and their lives an anachronism in their own time.

I enjoyed both of these sections considerably more than the much longer main section, where the book committed one of my personal pet hates of staying with characters who remain neutral and uninvolved while all the action is going on elsewhere, off the page. We never meet Garibaldi, we don’t get taken into the revolution. We spend all our time in the splendid drawing rooms of the rich, watching them play the game of courtship, heavily spiced with Fabrizio’s musings on the decline of his class. This is simply a matter of taste, though – as I’ve said many times, I am always more interested in the political than the domestic sphere. Of course, the whole book is political in the sense that it is describing the lethargy and decadence of the old ruling class and its ultimate decay, but I’d rather have spent my time with the enthusiastic supporters or even opponents of the revolution.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

It is, I freely admit, entirely unreasonable for me to grumble that Lampedusa wrote the book he wanted to write rather than the one I’d have liked to read, but so it goes sometimes. There was still plenty in it for me to enjoy it overall, especially since the bits I found most interesting all came at the end, leaving me feeling much more enthusiastic about it than I had been halfway through. Putting my subjective disappointment with its focus to one side, I can quite see why many people have hailed it as a great book and I wouldn’t want my rather lukewarm review to put anyone off reading it. And in the end I’m glad to have read it, and feel I have gained a good deal of insight into a place and time about which I previously knew almost nothing.

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46 thoughts on “The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

  1. I read this at an age when I thought I should read classics and felt out of step for not appreciating it, so long ago now that I can’t remember why that was but your review rings a few bells. Before the current global crisis, we’d been thinking about a holiday in Sicily and it might be worth a reread if that ever comes off.

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    • I think I’d have found it even harder to appreciate when I was young since ageing is a big part of it, and it also assumes a bit of knowledge of the historical context, which happily these days is easy to acquire from google! It would probably be well worth re-reading before a visit to Sicily – it made me want to go there someday and see if these grand houses still exist…

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  2. I also had a mixed experience with this book, although I think I liked it a bit more than you did. There were definitely places where I wished something would happen! But I found the atmosphere really well evoked – that’s what has stayed with me more than the plot.

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    • It’s a few weeks since I finished it and the atmosphere has definitely stayed with me more than the details of the story. I appreciated all the descriptive stuff more than I enjoyed it – the early part of the book crawled. But either I got used to it or it speeded up because the second half held my attention far better,

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    • You may well – it has about a million glowing reviews on Goodreads! The descriptions of the houses and the courting aristos are great – they just slowed it all down too much for me. I wanted to be off fighting with the soldiers! 😀

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  3. I too read this so long ago I remember little about it, so thanks for jogging my memory. I just checked Wikipedia; apparently the title in Italian, ‘Il gattopardo’, translates as ‘serval’ rather than leopard! It’s a medium-sized cat, smaller than a leopard, found mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, but also in N. Africa. It features on the Lampedusa coat of arms. I’ve not seen the film, but think the casting of Burt Lancaster was a little strange. He may be underrated as an actor, but I don’t see him in this setting…

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    • Ha! I saw that on wiki while I was looking up the book – the English translator must have thought no one would know what a serval is – and in my case, he’d have been right! 😉 I haven’t seen the film, but my brother who’s a film buff thinks it’s well worth watching so I might have a go. I agree – Burt Lancaster does seem an odd choice but he seems to have got a lot of praise for it…

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  4. I actually think I might quite like this novel. I don’t know much about this particular period of history either, and I possibly get on a bit better with Domestic Fiction than you do on the whole, although I suspect the romance might start to bog things down a bit if it isn’t really adding much to the story. I love the way we all respond to different things while reading, there must be something in the notion that no two people ever read exactly the same book.

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    • It’s not so much that the romance doesn’t add to the story, it’s more that it’s not a very romantic romance. Deliberately so, though – he was kind of showing how the aristos married for money and the new men married their daughters off for a bit of class. It has loads of glowing reviews on Goodreads, so I certainly think it’s worth reading if the idea appeals. I know – with lit fic especially I always feel it’s a partnership between the author and the reader. We all bring our own ideas and prejudices to any book we read…

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  5. I’m with you, FictionFan, when it comes to long descriptions and those drawn-out sorts of romances. I can see how you lost your interest in those sections. Still, it does sound like an interesting look at a place and time, with some insights about social class, too. And that, I must say, interests me a lot. Books like this one remind me of how much we have in common as a species, even across place, time, society, etc…..

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    • Yes, I definitely like a plot to move along at a reasonable pace or, if it’s slow, to be more about getting to know than the characters than lots of physical descriptions. But I did enjoy it in the end, and it very much reminded me of various books in other settings on the same subject of the decay of the upper classes so I agree about those similarities across cultures… 😀

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  6. It does indeed sound like a mixed bag. I wonder if the romance was an obligatory feature the author included because of editorial prompting. “(Gotta add some romance in this.”) Still, the book seems meaty otherwise.

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    • He was really using the romance to make a point about new money and old class, but somehow that made it feel like a very unromantic romance! But there was still plenty to enjoy, so overall a win… 😀

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  7. Well, gee, am I the only one who hasn’t read this book?? I did enjoy your review, FF, even though I still have no plans to read The Leopard. I guess I’ll have to content myself with my ignorance of this time period!

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    • Haha! Looking at the comments, it seems to me it’s only the Brits and Europeans who’ve read it so maybe it’s not well known on your side of the Atlantic! I’d never heard of it myself till a few years ago – too many books in the world! 😀

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  8. Not only have I not read it, I’d not even heard of it before I saw it on this blog! Meh…. I don’t think it sounds like one I’d enjoy at this point in life. Too many other things I’d rather read.

    I see we’re both reading Serena right now. 😉

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    • Haha! I was just saying to Debbie that from the comments it looks as if it’s only the Brits and Europeans who’ve read it, so I’m guessing it’s not so well known on your side of the pond.

      I’m planning to start it tonight – hope we both enjoy it… 😀

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    • It was the first half that really seemed to drag for me – it picked up in the second half but it took me a long time to get there! I often find I’m glad to have read classics even if I don’t love them – they so often get referred to in other books and it’s always good to know what they’re talking about… 😉

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  9. I read this a few years ago and I remember struggling at the beginning because of my complete lack of knowledge of the historical context. Once I got into the book I ended up enjoying it, but I did have some of the same problems with it as you did.

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    • Yes, I didn’t have a clue about the historical context either, and eventually had to google Garibaldi, which then made it begin to fall into place. The second half worked much better for me than the first – all those endless descriptions and Tancredi and Angelica running off to spoon… 😉

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  10. If I were to take another holiday in Italy, I’d like to travel to the southern parts. I’ve never been further south than Rome. But I’m not sure your review would tempt me to read this book before or during my visit. I’ve developed a real aversion to everything gold-plated and pompous.

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  11. Well, FictionFan, I’ve just bought this on Amazon. I’m interested in everything 19th century now, and your review brings back memories of Sicily.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’m interested in reading this solely based on my enjoyment of Price’s novel Lampedusa. Your description of this one sounds like its in line with the author’s character as presented in the other novel and it would be interesting to compare how the real Lampedusa vs the fictional Lampedusa approach these subjects.

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  13. I read this last year for the classics club and was bored for huge chunks so I think your review is very fair! I too am glad I’ve read it but I’m not quite sure why it has such adulation?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I often find that with classics. Many seem to deserve their reputations but others leave me a bit baffled. With books in translation like this one, I always wonder if they read better in the original language.

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  14. I’d never heard of this book before your review so I guess I’m adding to the anecdotal evidence about us over the ocean, ha ha! I don’t think I’m drawn to this one but I’m glad to have read your review – it was very balanced.

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