Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel The Leopard fooled me twice when I recently read it. First, I thought what mattered most about the novel was the story of how it came into existence rather than what it was about. Lampedusa was an Italian aristocrat whose forebears held royal office in Sicily before Italy’s reunification in the latter half of the nineteenth century. He wrote the book in his final years and failed to find a publisher for it before he died in 1957. Almost immediately after his death, his book found a publisher. It fast became a modern Italian classic, selling millions in multiple editions, and has since been translated and published around the world. Most recently, the author’s experiences inspired an eponymous novel-cum-homage, Lampedusa, in which Canadian novelist Stephen Price artfully imagines Lampedusa’s life as he writes The Leopard. The story-of-the-story, in other words, has long been more accessible and popular than the story itself, insofar as it’s a universal consolation and promise to every frustrated author. The second way the novel fooled me has to do with its opening lines: “Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen. The daily recital of the Rosary was over. For half an hour the steady voice of the Prince had recalled the Glorious and Sorrowful Mysteries; for half an hour other voices had interwoven a lilting hum…”
Catholic novel! Catholic novel! Modern-literary-classic-little-known-as-actually-a-Catholic-novel! The lizard part of my religio-literary brain began throbbing at this discovery, but this was a mistake. From its Hail Mary start to its ramshackle reliquary finish—replete with family chapels and village churches and assorted priests, bishops, and even cardinals—the book features a thick and rich (if not healthy) vein of Mediterranean Catholicism that’s braided into its larger account of personal and public life. That said, Lampedusa discloses the main matter of the novel in its second paragraph, which describes the situation after the family finishes reciting its daily rosary one afternoon in May 1860: “Now, as the voices fell silent, everything dropped back into its usual order or disorder.” The keyword is “usual.” Don Fabrizio, the middle-aged Prince of Salina, which is part of greater Sicily, presides over this world, whose deep-set patterns are about to be permanently unsettled. Within a few weeks, Garibaldi and his Redshirts will land in Sicily; thereafter he will lead military and political campaigns to help bring the lands of Sicily and Naples out of their Bourbon monarchical autonomies into what became, by 1870, the geographically unified modern nation-state of Italy (minus Vatican City).
The Prince, modeled on Lampedusa’s great-grandfather, is an ambivalent, self-preserving, and self-defeating actor in these developments, which pose clear risks to himself and his family. The prospect of change also calls into question the nature of his responsibilities to the many people in his greater household and lands who have long depended on his laissez-faire leadership and largesse, whether gratefully or resentfully. As the novel begins, he wanders with melancholic languor around his house and properties, all marked with variations on the family’s leopardine coat-of-arms. He spends his days and nights eating with his seven children, sleeping with his wife, sleeping with his mistress, hunting, dabbling in astronomy, chatting up his loyal Great Dane and long-suffering family priest, receiving peasants bearing meager gifts in place of payments for what they reap on his land. Lampedusa makes it clear that the Prince, like the princes before him, has always lived like this and can’t imagine his descendants living otherwise—but now he has to decide how to respond to the approach of a new world in which this way of life can no longer be taken for granted. I can’t think of another novel that provides such an intimate and fine-grained sense of what it means for a family man of public standing to confront the pressures of modernity increasing day by day, visitor by visitor.
Lampedusa evokes this pressure through the novel’s most famous line, when the Prince conferences with Tancredi (his charismatic, hustling nephew) about Garibaldi’s encroaching presence and the greater implications for the Prince’s life. Tancredi tells him: “‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. D’you understand?’” He does, and he doesn’t, and the novel movingly presents the Prince’s attempt to understand and live out a relationship between continuity and disruption he struggles to accept, whether it has to do with supporting family members’ marriages to new-money people with vulgar mores, or deciding whether—and then how—to vote in a plebiscite about Italian unification or join a new Italian Senate. Given the Prince’s standing, his participation legitimates the very thing that delegitimizes that standing, some portion of which he might be able to preserve if he joins a greater popular movement that seeks to deny his hereditary primacy altogether.