Thoughts: The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, translated by Archibald Colquhoun

First off, let me take a moment to appreciate the names of both author and translator. Those are some good names. And The Leopard is a good book.

I’m annoyed at myself for leaving it so long to review it, because, much like the golden age of the Sicilian nobility, my sharpest memories have receded into the past. Still, let’s give it a go.

I picked this up in a secondhand bookshop in Chester when we were visiting family (first time in the UK since Covid, wooo), and I did so purely on the strength of random Guardian commenters over time in the Books section, who consistently championed it, held it up as a very high standard of literature, and in general behaved as though The Leopard was the last word in twentieth century literature, though I’d never heard of it outside these comment threads.

The Leopard (as everyone who talks about it is compelled to say by law, the leopard of the title is actually a serval) is a case study in the decline of the Italian nobility and the rise of Garibaldi. It’s a short book, and the prose is hardly spare (it’s almost decadently lush), but somehow it contains an entire era, two eras even and the transition between them in chapters like snapshots.

I feel like I can’t quite capture how it does what it does, or describe it. How does it make the characters so real? How does it manage to encapsulate the decline of a whole social class and an entire family and the Prince himself somehow all at once? The Salinas aren’t in their glory days even at the beginning, really, already owing much of their influence and privileges to tradition and the memory of better days, and the Prince edging past his prime, but it’s still clear that he’s the last of the great ones. Young Tancredi, adaptable and intelligent, his fortunes rising throughout, is something entirely different.

I can’t believe how many stories are going on at the same time in this book, given its length, but it’s bursting with them. Each character has their vibrant life, every corner of every palace room creaks under the weight of history. Father Pirrone, Concetta, Tancredi, Angelica… Ugh, so much going on, and honestly it doesn’t take much of a nudge for it all to come cascading back to me. And the ending! Ugh. Perfect.

I feel a little underqualified to say much more, partly because it was a few months ago that I read it, and partly because it’s one of those highly-esteemed books about a country and period of history I don’t know that much about. Other people will have studied and analysed it and its themes in much more intelligent ways.

The moral of this one is: Listen to the commenters in the Guardian Books section.

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