“The Leopard” by Tomasi di Lampedusa

As someone who hasn’t visited Sicily but who loves Italy and has an interest in history, “The Leopard” was a fascinating glimpse into the lives of Sicilian nobilty around the time of Garibaldi and the unification of Italy.

The tale, written by a modern descendent of Sicilian nobility in the 1950s, is based in thinly disguised real places and on some real events. It follows Don Fabrizio, the Leopard of the title. His family’s crest is the leopard and he is definitely the alpha-male of his tribe. But the political upheavals of 1860 onwards cause him to rethink everything about his privileged existence. He tells his friend “we live in a changing reality to which we try to adapt ourselves like seaweed bending under the pressure of the water.”

He struggles to live with the changes thrust upon him and it’s hard for a modern, non-aristocratic reader, to understand when he thinks someone wearing the wrong suit to dinner is more traumatic than Garibaldi’s landing on the island. However, having watched and read plenty of English upper-crust dramas from the 1860s, this concern was hardly unique to Italian nobles.

Fabrizio is ultimately a character I had to empathise with, regardless of his upbringing and his constant infidelities. The book covers half of his lifetime and we get to see him changing with the times, to the point where he’s happy that his nephew marries for money and to get ahead under the new regime. Others around him “stick in the mud” but he’s wise enough to learn. The book ends shortly after Fabrizio weighs up the balance sheet of his life in his dying moments and it was with a definite sense of leaving a warm, elegant, stay in another era that I laid down the novel.

I recommend this novel to any fan of Victorian English literature and to anyone who enjoys family sagas. The heat of Sicily radiates from every page.

(read May 2012)

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