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Article Text:


THE LEOPARD BY GIUSEPPE TOMASI DI LAMPEDUSA (IL GATTOPARDO 1959)


[GATTOPARDO]

The Leopard is the most popular 20th-century Italian novel and the source of one of contemporary Italy's most engaging literary events. It is a rich historical novel blended with the author's nostalgic, yet tragic, vision of life. The novel tells of the decline of the Sicilian nobility, which was forced to come to terms with a rising bourgeoisie after the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was replaced by the Piedmontese bureaucracy during the latter part of the 19th century. Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa, a Sicilian prince who had remained outside the literary establishment and had published nothing during his lifetime except for three articles that appeared in an obscure Genoese periodical in the 1920s, wrote the book during the last two years of his life. First rejected by two major Italian publishers, the novel was finally accepted for publication in 1958, a year after Lampedusa's death, by the firm of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, which had earlier discovered and published Boris Pasternak's Doktor Zhivago (1957; Doctor Zhivago ).

The Leopard became an instant best-seller in Italy and abroad. It won the prestigious Strega Prize and, just a year after the award, had already been republished in 57 editions, an extraordinary achievement for an Italian novel. The Leopard elicited contrasting and polemical responses ranging from praise for its poetic treatment of the human condition to attacks for expressing a reactionary philosophy. Italian Marxist critics and the literary left criticized Lampedusa's narrow historical vision and apparent denial of progress, while Catholic intellectuals rejected its pessimistic outlook and anticlerical views. Intervening in the critical debate, France's major Marxist poet, Louis Aragon, declared the novel to be "one of the great books of this century, one of the great books of all time."

The controversy surrounding the novel was largely a result of its publication during a period of transition. Toward the end of the 1950s, neorealism had entered into a crisis and was being reassessed. Despite declaring neorealism to be substantially outmoded, the emerging experimental literature still placed a strong emphasis on the neorealist credo of political and social involvement. These years also witnessed a rising neo-avant garde that subjected the past to critical reconsideration and found modern narrative to be insufficiently experimental. What most troubled the neo-avant grade critics as well as Italy's leading neorealist writers was that seemingly traditional novels, such as The Leopard , were being rewarded by both popular and critical acclaim. The Leopard 's return to the 19th-century structure of the novel and its apparent lack of any innovative narrative technique was one of the fundamental reasons for its negative reception by these critics. A 19th-century story, set during the Risorgimento and told from the perspective of a Sicilian prince (Don Fabrizio, prince of Salina) who has grown disillusioned with the Unification's effects on the social structure, did not appear to be consonant with an Italy that was experiencing the so-called "economic miracle" and rapidly becoming an advanced industrialized country. Nevertheless, Lampedusa's pessimistic, fatalistic version of the Risorgimento in Sicily and his scepticism about new ideas and reforms struck a chord in many intellectuals as well as in the ever-growing reading public associated with Italy's economic boom. The Leopard signaled the end of neorealist fiction, replacing a bleak and antiliterary treatment of recently shared experiences such as war, unemployment, and social alienation with a lyrical evocation of a lost world.

Lampedusa's "Lezioni su Stendhal" (Lessons on Stendhal), published in the literary review Paragone in 1959, reflects his thorough acquaintance with the European tradition of 20th-century discussions of narrative technique, dating back to Henry James and including E.M. Forster, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce. As Olga Ragusa (1973) has pointed out, the "Lezioni su Stendhal" is fundamental for a more insightful reading of The Leopard . Lampedusa treats all of Stendhal's works, but he devotes special attention to the French writer's Le Rouge et le noir (1830; The Red and the Black ) and La Chartreuse de Parme (1839; The Charterhouse of Parma ), both of which represent the seemingly contradictory characteristics of The Leopard : "that of a historical novel and the 'lyrical' outpouring of their author's sentiments." The Leopard's 50-year chronicle of the Unification's effect in Sicily, dating from Garibaldi's landing on the island in 1860 to the final decline of a once-opulent Sicilian family, is selectively represented by the omniscient narrator who, from a vantage point of temporal distance, imposes his own feelings and impressions upon the flux of existence. Contrary to the classical form of the historical novel, the narrator's subjective voice does not aim at objectivity but instead allows the present to intrude upon the past. Moreover, The Leopard 's composition in blocks, whose sequence of episodes are relatively independent from one another, distinguishes it from the linear narration of the 19th-century novel. As Cristina Della Colletta (1996) notes, Lampedusa does not "aim at providing a total representation and a complete historical account" but, rather, is intent on revealing a fragmentary and conditional historical picture. By choosing as the novel's protagonist one of the last scions of the Sicilian aristocracy who will have no active role in the making of modern Italy, Lampedusa rejects the traditional representation of the Unification. Don Fabrizio's marginalized perspective enables Lampedusa to divest this historical moment of its heroic rhetoric and instead present it as a period of compromise, deception, and self-interest. The choice of an omniscient narrator allows the author to insert personal comments, ironic asides, and modern references into the text in order to draw parallels with the present. Consequently, Lampedusa's depiction of the Risorgimento as a failed revolution mirrors his negative sentiments toward more recent historical and social changes.

The Leopard bears many of the characteristics of the Sicilian and European historical novel. Its insistence on death, the pervading sense of languidness, and the sensuality of decay evoke qualities of the decadent novel. Its metaphorical, rhetorical, and highly literary style, however, are reminiscent of the art prose movement in Italy in the 1930s. All considered, The Leopard is a book that transcends its period and classifications, owing in large part to the novel's qualities of poliedricita ' (many-sidedness), a term that Lampedusa attributed to Stendhal.

Mark Pietralunga

Aragon, Louis, " Il Gattopardo e La Certosa ," Rinascita 30 (1960)


Buzzi, Giancarlo, Invito alla lettura di Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa , Milan: Mursia, 1972
Colquhoun, Archibald, "Lampedusa in Sicily: The Lair of the Leopard," The Atlantic Monthly 211: 2 (1963)
Della Colletta, Cristina, Plotting the Past: Metamorphoses of Historical Narrative in Modern Italian Fiction , West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1996
Forster, E.M., Aspects of the Novel, and Related Writings , London: Arnold, and New York: Holmes and Meier, 1974
Gatt-Rutter, John, Writers and Politics in Modern Italy , London: Hodder and Stoughton, and New York: Holmes and Meier, 1978
Gilmour, David, The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa , London: Quartet, 1988
Lansing, Richard, "The Structure of Meaning in Lampedusa's Il Gattopardo ," PMLA 93 (1978)
O'Neill, Tom, "Ants and Flags: Tomasi di Lampedusa's Gattopardo ," The Italianist 13 (1993)
Pacifici, Sergio, The Modern Italian Novel from Pea to Moravia , Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979
Ragusa, Olga, "Stendhal, Tomasi di Lampedusa, and the Novel," Comparative Literature Studies 3 (1973)
Salvestroni, Simonetta, Tomasi di Lampedusa , Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1973
Samona, Giuseppe Paolo, Il Gattopardo, i racconti, Lampedusa , Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1974

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