Thursday, October 01, 2009

OTC 8: "The Leopard" -- Italy

This is my 8th novel for the Orbis Terrarum 2009 Challenge.

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, originally published in Italian in 1958, translation by Archibald Colquhoun published 1960.

This novel is considered one of the most important 20th century Italian novels. The story focuses on an aristocratic Sicilian family, the Salinas, which is in the process of decline during the mid-19th century, the period of the Risorgimento. During this time, Italy was emerging from its medieval form of numerous small, fragmented, and conflicting states dominated by feudal aristocracies often governed by foreign nations and instead becoming a single republican nation with a unified government with strong democratic views which led to the eventual disappearance of the aristocracy.

The central figure of the novel is Prince Fabrizio, head of the Salina family who thinks of himself as "The Leopard" which is the family crest. Fabrizio, though he recognizes that the family wealth has declined, still conducts himself for the most part as a titled and entitled member of the aristocracy and sees himself as just living up to the obligations of his position in society. In truth, he fails to understand how society is changing and that his family and his social class are the last decaying vestiges of a vanished world. He convinces himself that the only changes which are occurring are that older families are being replaced by newer, rising families and that the feudal class system itself will continue to exist, a view that brings him considerable comfort. It also afflicts him with a sense of inertia that prevents him, for instance, from accepting a position in the newly-formed Senate, a position which would have allowed him a voice in the new government and new society which are emerging from the ruins of the old.

In contrast to Fabrizio is his nephew Tancredi whose aristocratic inheritance is limited to a physically decayed palace and a title the value of which is disappearing. Recognizing the bankruptcy of the aristocracy, Tancredi throws himself in the tide of political reform, accepting various positions allied with the leading reformers which makes him an important political figure and marrying into a wealthy merchant family providing him with the financial resources to pursue his ambitions.

Over the course of the novel (which runs from 1860 through 1910), we watch the respective fortunes of the two men and their families. Lampedusa doesn't particularly seem to approve more of one over the other, although he does appear to regret the loss to society of what Fabrizio and his family could have contributed had they been more perceptive and more adaptable, as Tancredi proves to be. I would recommend this novel; it is a particularly good example of a novel which illustrates the kind of transformation that much of European society -- not just Italy -- underwent during the course of the 19th century, preparing the way for the even more drastic changes of brought about by the 20th century.


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