Sicily is Sicily—1860, earlier, forever.
So writes Giusseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in a letter describing The Leopard to Baron Enrico Merlo di Tagliavia. This idea—of an immortal, unchanging land that defines its people—is at the heart of his novel. And the idea of land and landscape as myth and the simultaneous fascination—even identification—with and revulsion of a rustic, violent past are recurrent narrative motifs that, more than once, bring to mind Borges. The Leopard is, as others have pointed out, a quiet book. Though set during the “Risorgimento,” the period of the unification of Italy, the revolution stays largely in the background, rumbling and occasionally thundering, but never seizing the narrative. The novel is more concerned with the tale of the gentle fall into oblivion of the aristocratic Sicilian house of Salina.
Lampedusa had originally conceived the novel as an account of a day in the life of its aristocratic protagonist, Don Fabrizio, the Prince of Salina. However he eventually dropped it in favour of a much more elegant scheme that led to its current form: a narrative of eight chapters, anchored in time at events of great political and cultural significance to Italy and Sicily or of great personal significance to the Salina family or both. This turns out not only to be an elegant construction, but also a poignant one with the sombre, understated, contemplative beauty of a classical music composition.
Though influenced by the irresistible forces of historical, political, and cultural change, the narrative compass of The Leopard stays firmly rooted in the intimate and the personal. And for long stretches of the novel, this sense of intimacy is conveyed by the interior monologues of Don Fabrizio himself—by turns intelligent, philosophical, cynical, worldly, and occasionally arrogant and snobbish, but always suffused with a profound sense of solitude. The only time the narrative veers completely away from the prince’s inner voice is when the family priest, and the prince’s occasional confidant, pays a visit to his native village in the chapter known as “Father Pirrone Pays a Visit.” And also in the very last chapter “Relics,” which, however, is more of an epilogue set after Don Fabrizio’s death.
The novel is spread in time over a period of roughly fifty years from May 1860 to May 1910. As it opens, Don Fabrizio has just led the family in the daily afternoon recital of the Rosary and is about to spend a few cherished, quiet moments in his odorous ramshackle of a garden. The revolution is very much real, a thunder certainly, but as yet a distant one. We are also introduced to the other members of the Salina family: the Princess Maria Stella, the children, in particular, Francesco Paolo, the eldest son, and the daughters Carolina and Concetta, and the prince’s nephew, Tancredi; also, the family dog Bendicò. The relationship equations among them are also established: In the Germanic-blue eyes of the hulking blonde haired Don, his wife is a tender and emotionally fragile sexual prude. His favourite among the young people is not his son and heir Paolo, but the effervescent Tancredi, for whom his daughter Concetta has deeply felt feelings. Tancredi has great respect for his uncle, but his feelings toward his love-struck cousin are not so clear. Soon, great changes in relationships and fortune come knocking at the gates and doors of the Salina family’s palatial San Lorenzo mansion. And it begins with the shrewd Tancredi running off with Garibaldi’s revolutionaries and returning as an officer of the new Italian government under Victor Emmanuel.
However, nothing overtly violent occurs. When the officers of the revolution are posted at Don Fabrizio’s estate, it is done quietly, even politely, and with great respect. It is only a minor inconvenience for the family and a period of great excitement for the younger people. The winds of change are largely emotional for the Don and his family and economical and political for the Sicilian aristocracy at large. Very soon, things are nearly back to normal, and the prince and his family find themselves on their yearly way to their country retreat at Donnafugata. And it is here that, possibly, the greatest blow to Don Fabrizio’s aristocratic sensibilities occurs. On arrival, affairs at Donnafugata seem deceptively in conformance to age-old traditions. Gradually, though, it becomes clear that an ambitious middle class is on the rise, amassing wealth and power. Chief among such families is that of Calogero Sedàra, the Mayor of Donnafugata. Tancredi breaks Concetta’s heart and his uncle’s pride by falling in love and then proposing to marry Calogero’s daughter, the angelic Angelica, whose radiant beauty makes up for lack of aristocratic poise and manner. At this moment, it becomes abundantly clear to Don Fabrizio that his world has, for better or worse, changed forever.
Throughout this jump-cutting chronicle of the transient changes in fortune of the Salina family and its eventual acquiescence to its altered circumstances, the Don remains an astute, stoic presence. Though he doesn’t condone anything, he understands everyone and everything: himself, his wife, his family, his ambitious nephew, his time and his people, their land, and its landscape—the unforgiving, scorching, eternal Sicilian land and landscape and its mostly rustic, violent inhabitants. He understands change and the need to make compromises to accommodate it. Hence he understands Tancredi’s decision to join the revolutionaries and even admires him for it, though he never overtly condones it. He swallows his pride to negotiate Tancredi’s marriage to Angelica. (He also understands that—this is only subtly hinted at—he could never have her.) When an emissary of the new government proposes that he take up the task of representing his people, he recommends Calogero Sedàra for the position. He understands that the new government is no place for an old-time Sicilian aristocrat averse to change.
In the end, though always surrounded by family, friends, and servants, Don Fabrizio is a fundamentally solitary person quite incapable of not being alone—an outsider both in looks (his mother, we come to know, was German) and attitude (keen on intellectual pursuits including astronomy and mathematics) who nevertheless fully understands his Sicilian homeland. And this paradoxical sense, of belonging while being an outsider and being alone while never alone, is never more profoundly pronounced than when the prince dies in the evocative, dreamy chapter, “Death of a Prince.”