The Leopard

This week saw the sesquicentennial of the foundation of the unified Italian state. This notable anniversary inspired me to snack on some antipasti and quaff a glass or three of Valpolicella; thus refreshed, I pulled my old copy of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard from the shelf, and settled down to reread one of the classic works of European literature.

The Leopard has in fact been called “Perhaps the greatest novel of the century”, though that was by L.P. Hartley, whose admiration is understandable when one considers that his best-known work, The Go-Between is very similar thematically.

The praise is not too hyperbolic though; Lampedusa’s tale of the twilight of the aristocratic order and the rise of the bourgeoisie in the days of the Risorgimento is a compact masterpiece. It works powerfully on several levels; as a vivid description of the political events of the time, as a portrait of individuals struggling with the conflicting pulls of love and duty, but perhaps most affectingly as an examination of mortality, and the perpetual impermanence that is an inevitable part of the human condition.

That feeling of loss that pervades the book makes it a very conservative work; it is an elegy for the lost nobility, and the picture it paints of the bourgeoisie who succeeded them is decidedly unflattering. This interpretation of the events of the 1860s couldn’t be further from my own, but the novel’s melancholic tone is sufficiently sympathetic to my general outlook on life that such political differences seem irrelevant.

I may be making The Leopard sound rather depressing, and in some ways it is, but it is one of those sad stories that is so beautifully told that the overall effect is uplifting. The events it portrays may now be distant history, but the message that destruction is the unavoidable cost of progress is as relevant as ever.

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