It is interesting to muse on the possibility that The Leopard (Italian: Il Gattopardo) might never have been published. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s script was rejected by two of Italy’s leading publishers before Feltrinelli came to the rescue by posthumously publishing it in 1958.
The initial reception of the work was generally negative, even hostile; the work being pilloried not only by those on the right in Italian politics but also by those on the left. However, the controversy generated proved to be a great blessing as only a year after its publication, the novel was awarded the prestigious Strega Prize, Italy’s highest literary award. Over the years it has amassed considerable critical acclaim, not least from the English novelist E. M. Foster who descibed it as “one of the great lonely books”.
I first read the novel in 1975 and instantly fell under its hypnotic spell. In 2017, a few months before coming to Symi, I finally got round to watching the restored, full-length version of Luchino Visconti’s 1963 adaptation of the novel starring Burt Lancaster in the title role in the wake of his earlier successes in Elmer Gantry (1960) and The Bird Man of Alcatraz (1962).
According to Wikipedia:
“The novel is the story of Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina a 19th-century Sicilian nobleman caught in the midst of civil war and revolution. As a result of political upheaval, the prince's position in the island's class system is eroded by newly-moneyed peasants and “shabby minor gentry”. As the novel progresses, the Prince is forced to choose between upholding the continuity of upper class values, and breaking tradition to secure continuity of his (nephew's) family's influence ("everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same").”
Tomasi, the last in a line of minor princes in Sicily, writes with an extraordinary elegance that matches the restrained personal observations of Don Fabrizio. This is a novel about politics and destiny, but it’s also about the sensuous opportunities occasionally afforded by wealth and privilege as most notably illustrated by this passage:
“It was a garden for the blind: a constant offence to the eyes, a pleasure strong if somewhat crude to the nose. The Paul Neyron roses, whose cuttings he had himself bought in Paris, had degenerated; first stimulated and then enfeebled by the strong if languid pull of Sicilian earth, burnt by apocalyptic Julys, they had changed into objects like flesh coloured cabbages, obscene and distilling a dense almost indecent scent which no French horticulturist would have dared hope for. The Prince put one under his nose and seemed to be sniffing the thigh of a dancer from the Opera. Bendico, to whom it was also proffered, drew back in disgust and hurried off in search of healthier sensations amid dead lizards and manure."
Ultimately The Leopard is a novel about hindsight as much as foresight; it's about coming to terms with the inevitable and in some mysterious, unfathomable sense making peace with it.