The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa: A Lakeview Book Club Review

These are the Lakeview Book Club notes from the discussion about 1958 novel, The Leopard by Giuseppi Tomasi di Lampedusa. It is the best selling Italian novel of all time and considered one of the very best historical novels ever written. The Lakeview Book Club recommends it highly!

Hello Everyone,
 
The meeting was really interesting. our discussion leader had much to share with us, including a portrait of Garibaldi, the leader of the "Risorgimento," the civil war between supporters of monarchy and aristocracy and their opponents, who wanted democracy and a unified Italy. The reorganization was completed in the 1860s with a constitutional monarch at the helm of an united Italy. Garibaldi was a very colorful character. We might read a good biography about him later.
 
The novel, The Leopard, was published posthumously in 1958. It took three years for author, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa to write it and it was rejected several times before it was finally published. Every faction or class depicted in this novel hated Tomasi's interpretation of them and railed against it. The other factions thought the descriptions of the other factions were dead-on accurate. It was so popular, it was a runaway best seller in Italy and remains the best selling Italian novel of all time.
 
It was the only novel Guiseppi Tomasi di Lampedusa ever wrote. "Di Lampedusa" is the princely title Guiseppi Tomasi inherited upon the death of the previous prince. His novel is based on his Sicilian family in the 1850s and had the sweet sense of the loss of a gentle, successful aristocratic world.
 
The Leopard in the story is the symbol of the princely family. It was not actually a Leopard, as we visualize, it was in reality a spotted wild cat similar to a serval cat from Africa, which until the 1850s actually lived around Lampedusa. They are now extinct in Europe. The image of the Il Gattopardo (Leopard) was on the Lampedusa coat-of-arms. The main character, The Prince, was considered to be the personification of The Leopard. He was tall, majestic, masculine, strong, commanding, handsome, virile, honorable, brilliant and kind. In contrast, he was attracted to a simple philosophy of life. We noted that he hunted, but he wasn't a good hunter. It was something he did, because it was expected of him. We agreed that the passage where he and his servant are hunting and stop to discuss the coming changes and the recent vote, was tender and memorable. The servant confides that he voted against the coming changes, even though he was expected to vote for them. For the servant, life was understandable and good just as it was.
 
Images of animals, besides The Leopard, are strong elements in this novel, often symbols of what is going on. Bendico, the dog, was a strong friendly presence, so beloved by the family that after his death, he spent part of his eternity preserved, stuffed and in the family palace. The toad and flies are a strong presence and many of the characters have animal's names, such as Tancredi Falconeri (Black Falcon).
 
The narrator was omniscient and lyrical in his explanations and descriptions. The weather and seasons became like actual characters contributing to the change coming to The Leopard's family. The hot weather was like a death rattle. Death seemed like a character of its own and it was arriving in this vibrant family. The land of Sicily was a character that drove people to action or ennui. The author states that most people leave Sicily never to return. If they do not leave by the age of 20, then it is too late to leave. Everyone left behind despises all the others in the community.
 
Women seem to be loved from afar, including the wife, Stella, the female daughters and mistresses. The Prince really likes woman of all kinds, especially Angelica, the lower class, daughter of a nouveau riche power broker businessman. Angelica was to marry his nephew.  His two sons, on the other hand, are barely mentioned and seemed to be disappointments, even though they were "successful." The men whom The Leopard really cared for were a lifetime servant and Tancredi, his nephew, who is a major character in the novel and eventually marries Angelica.
 
One member of our group felt the end was very sad, because our main character dies years later and his two daughters, who missed out in the few opportunities for love or marriage, become old and alone in the disintegrating palace. Others in the group thought the ending was not sad, but realistic. Children fade away and old age often brings the longing for people who are gone and things which have changed. It is interesting to note that the author said that The Prince lived 73 years, but LIVED only 3 years. He felt life going out of him like an ocean.
 
We noted that there were a few anachronisms, such as, when the author compares the movement in the novel to airports, which were, of course, not extant in the 1850s. He also made an analogy that compared action in the novel to a 1943 bomb in Pittsburg. Several of us did double and triple takes with those. It was startling since everything else mentioned was in the correct period in history.
 
Members noted the humorous depiction of the "bumpkins" in the community. We noted that all of the characters, even if The Leopard was irritated by them, were treated respectfully and with love by the author and by The Leopard . We discussed the feuds of the people of the countryside, the sharp rise of the wily businessman with the beautiful daughter Angelica, whose mother is described as a beautiful, but totally unacceptable person for society. We noted the peasant who collected medicinal herbs to sell, who would be forced to pay for a license to collect them and sell them. The peasant felt baffled that something God made would have to be taxed.
 
We spent some time discussing the role of the Church for this family and community and commented on how accurate it sounded and how rigid the patterns of the day were. Saying the rosary, changing for dinner, having one half hour of free time and then gathering at the exact time, kept order in their lives. The presence of the Church was everywhere, even though the war was trying to dismantle its power. We discussed there is still hostility in mainstream Italy for the power the Church held and still holds over its people.
 
We also acknowledged the role that proper clothing played. There were many rules about that and the poor choices of the newly rich were discussed at length in the novel.
 
Tancredi, the nephew, was a favorite character. He would be on the winning side no matter what. He straddled two worlds. His love interests, The Prince's daughter, Concetta, and the daughter of the newly rich village leader, Angelica, were symbols of the Old Ways (Concetta) and the New wild and free World of Sicily (Angelica). Angelica adapted well to her new world, being wily, like her father. The best time in Tancredi's life is when he was "in love," but did not love. All of us loved Tancredi's exploration of the palace and its hidden rooms with Angelica. One member mentioned that if you knew where all the rooms in your palace were, then the palace was not a palace.
 
Concetta, the Prince's daughter, later in life, blamed herself for the lost opportunity of the love of Tancredi. We discussed the scene where she realized she pushed him away. Some of us thought this was a confusing scene. We wondered why the author included it.
 
The party at the palace was memorable. They only lit 24 of the 48 candelabras. It was a sign of the beginning of not having the funds they needed. (The Prince spent money as if it were in limitless supply, and it was running out.) The young aristocratic women at the party were ugly and inbred. The Prince thought that at any moment they would be like monkeys climbing the chandeliers and throwing nuts.
 
We were impressed that as just and intelligent as The Prince was, he turned down a position in the new government.
 
There are two famous quotes in the book about the coming changes:
From Tancredi, the nephew: "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change."
 
From The Prince, Don Fabrizio : "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."
 
We discussed the 1963 film, which some of us had seen, The Leopard, directed by Luchino Visconti. Visconti was also from a formerly aristocratic family and completely understood the world which is gone. The scenes are beautiful and very true to the book. Visconti did, however, leave out the ending of the novel. Some thought this was better, because the slow decay described in the book was sad. Some of us preferred the book's ending which resolved all the loose ends and was very true to the characters and to reality. We agreed that Burt Lancaster was a perfect choice to play The Prince.  We recommend that everyone see this film. Oakland Public Library has it. It is in two versions in the same dvd box, English and also Italian with subtitles. The Italian version is better.
 
The Leopard is a universal story of change written so elegantly, so wisely and lyrically that images and concepts stay long afterward. We all loved this book and recommend it highly. The Observer, a British magazine, mentioned The Leopard as the 10th best historical novel of all time. We can see why!
 
Happy Reading!
 
Mary

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