There is no such thing as the indispensable book or author, and the world would be exactly the same if Kafka, Proust, Faulkner, Mann, Nabokov and Borges had never existed. It might not be quite the same if none of them had existed, but the non-existence of just one of them would certainly not have affected the whole. That is why it is so tempting – an easy temptation if you like – to think that the representative twentieth-century novel must be the one that very nearly didn’t exist, the one that nobody would have missed (Kafka, after all, did not leave just the one work, and as soon as it was known that there were others, as well as Metamorphosis, any reader was then at liberty to desire or even yearn to read them), the one novel that, in its day, was seen by many almost as an excrescence or an intrusion, as antiquated and completely out of step with the predominant ‘trends’, both in its country of origin, Italy, and in the rest of the world. A superfluous work, anachronistic, one that neither ‘added to’ nor ‘moved things on’, as if the history of literature were something that progressed and was, in that respect, akin to science, whose discoveries are left behind or eliminated as they are overtaken or revealed to be incomplete, inadequate or inexact. But literature functions in quite the opposite way: nothing that one adds to it erases or cancels out what came before; rather, new books sit alongside earlier books and they coexist. Old and new texts breathe in unison, so much so that one wonders sometimes if everything that has ever been written is not simply the same drop of water falling on the same stone, and if, perhaps, the only thing that really changes is the language of each age. The older work still has to ‘breathe’, despite the time that has elapsed since its creation or appearance; and some works – the majority – are erased or cancelled out, but this happens of its own accord, not because something else comes along to take their place or to supplant or eject them; rather, they languish and die because of their own lack of spirit or – more precisely – because they aspired to being ‘modern’ or ‘original’, an aspiration that leads inevitably to an early senescence or, as others might say, they become ‘dated’. ‘It’s very much of its time,’ we tell ourselves when we read these books in a different, later age, because, given the unstoppable and ever-accelerating speed with which the world moves, ‘in a different age’ can sometimes mean a mere decade later. This is the case even with stories written by some of the great modern authors, such as Kafka, Faulkner, Borges on occasions and Joyce almost always. They can sometimes seem slightly old-fashioned or, if you prefer, dated, precisely because they were so innovative, bold, confident, original and ambitious.
The same cannot be said of Isak Dinesen or of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. The latter is not in any way an old-fashioned nineteenth-century novel as some critics said at the time, misled perhaps by the century in which the action takes place. It is, without a doubt, a contemporary novel of the kind written by the authors mentioned above, and its author was fully aware of the new techniques and ‘advances’ in the genre, if you can call them that, and was even modest enough to abandon one possibility – that of describing a single day in the life of Prince Fabrizio di Salina – saying: ‘I don’t know how to do a Ulysses.’ But he did know, for example, how to make masterly use of ellipsis, telling a story in fragmentary fashion, unemphatically, even withholding information and leaving unexplained what the reader need only glimpse or intuit, setting up illuminating connections between disparate and apparently secondary or merely anecdotal elements, adroitly bringing together what the characters say and do with what they think (all of which is much more common in the twentieth-century novel than in the novel of the nineteenth century), and, above all, he observes, reflects, suggests and qualifies.
As we know, The Leopard was very nearly never published at all, and its author did not live to see it in printed form; indeed, only a few days before his death on 23 July 1957, he received another rejection letter from one of the best Italian publishing houses, which thus added its short-sighted ‘critical perceptions’ to those of another no less prestigious house. More than that, though,The Leopard might never have been written at all. Lampedusa was not a writer, and proved to be one only after his death; and he began writing his novel in the last years of his life for, it seems, entirely trivial reasons: the relative late success of his cousin, the poet Lucio Piccolo, which led Lampedusa to make the following comment in a letter: ‘Being absolutely certain that I was no more of a fool than he, I sat down at my desk and wrote a novel’; another reason was his wife, Licy, who encouraged him to write – to write anything, with no pretentions to greatness – simply as a possible way of neutralizing his deep-seated nostalgia; a third reason might have been his solitude: ‘I am a person,’ he wrote, ‘who is very often alone. Of the sixteen hours of daily wakefulness, at least ten are spent in solitude. And being unable, after all, to read the whole time, I amuse myself by constructing literary theories . . .’ He did, in fact, spend most of his life reading and, when he went for his daily stroll around the city of Palermo, he always carried a briefcase with him, stuffed with far more books than he could possibly need. He even read (and he read in five or six languages) mediocre, second-rate authors, whom he considered to be as necessary as the literary greats: ‘One has to learn how to be bored,’ he said. So there was very little drive and scant ambition behind The Leopard. Indeed, as I say, it might never have existed, for Lampedusa himself had doubts about its timeliness and its value. On one occasion, he said to his pupil Francesco Orlando: ‘It is, I fear, complete rubbish,’ and he said this, apparently, without false modesty and in good faith. At the same time, though, he believed that it deserved to be published (which is not so very remarkable given how many books – good, mediocre and bad – were published in the twentieth century, not to mention all those that have already been published in the twenty-first century). In ‘Last wishes of a private person’, he wrote: ‘I would like every effort to be made to publish The Leopard . . . this does not mean, of course, that it should be published at the expense of my heirs; I would consider that to be a great humiliation.’ So while there was little drive and scant ambition when it came to beginning the task, at least there was a certain pride in finishing it.
Lampedusa had good reason to feel proud. The Leopard is fresh and bold and free of any of the inhibitions that afflict novelists who feel an undue sense of responsibility towards themselves and their career thus far; it is entirely free of intellectual airs and vanities and of any desire to be original; it has no intention of dazzling or scandalizing or of ‘opening up new paths’; on rereading The Leopard more than fifty years after it was first published and in another century, it seems to me to be a solitary masterpiece four times over: first, because it is the author’s only complete novel; second, because it appeared when he was already dead, and thus stepped out into the world, so to speak, alone; third, because it was the work of an islander cut off from ‘public’ literature until his death; and fourth, because although it never aspired to originality, it is, nonetheless, extraordinarily original. Much has been written about this novel since, and it would be presumptuous of me to attempt to add anything more. We can all agree that it is the pre-eminent novel about Sicily and about the unification of Italy; that it gives us a portrait of the end of an era and the death of a whole world, as well as a picture of opportunism as embodied in that famous and oft-quoted line: ‘For everything to remain the same, everything must change’ – repeated ad nauseam by those who have never read The Leopard – although those words are, in fact, just another fortunate phrase in the book as a whole and incidental to the plot. For me, it is, above all, a novel about death, about one man’s preparation for and acceptance of death, even a certain impatience for it to come. Death stalks the book not in any insistent way, but tenuously, respectfully, modestly, almost as part of life and not necessarily the most important part either. Perhaps two of the most moving passages in the book are the Prince of Salina’s contemplation of the brief death agony of a hare he has shot during a hunting party, and the final paragraph, in which, almost thirty years after Don Fabrizio himself has died, his daughter Concetta decides to relegate to the rubbish heap the stuffed carcass of a dog that belonged to her father and of which he was particularly fond, Bendicó.
Of the hare, Lampedusa writes: ‘Don Fabrizio found himself being stared at by big black eyes soon overlaid by a glaucous veil; they were looking at him with no reproval, but full of tortured amazement at the whole ordering of things; the velvety ears were already cold, the vigorous paws contracting in rhythm, still-living symbol of useless flight; the animal had died tortured by anxious hopes of salvation, imagining it could still escape when it was already caught . . .’ And of the dog he writes: ‘As the carcass was dragged off, the glass eyes stared at her with the humble reproach of things discarded in the hope of final riddance,’ and this leads the reader to remember another line, much earlier, in which he speaks of the world of Donnafugata as being ‘deprived thus of that charge of energy which everything in the past continues to possess’.
Lampedusa knows that all things take a long time to disappear, that everything takes its time; even something that is already past lingers and resists leaving, even the stuffed carcass of a dog that departed this world decades before. And one can only oppose this slow, inevitable disappearance with a humble, but never rancorous reproach to the order of things. Anyone who knows or senses the existence of this order gradually becomes used to the idea and to the prospect of disappearing, even thinking of it as a ‘salvation’. For example: ‘he had achieved the portion of death that one can safely introduce into one’s existence without renouncing life’ and, elsewhere: ‘Where there’s death there’s hope . . .’ This doesn’t apply solely to places and animals, who do not understand (still less the eyes that are not even eyes, but the glass imitations used by the taxidermist when creating the stuffed version of Bendicó). It applies to people too, most of whom are still unaware and full of life, still convinced that death is something that hap- pens to other people, and yet who are still worthy of compassion. In the famous ball scene, he writes:
‘The two young people drew away, other couples passed, less handsome, just as moving, each submerged in their passing blindness. Don Fabrizio felt his heart thaw; his disgust gave way to compassion for all these ephemeral beings out to enjoy the tiny ray of light granted them between two shades, before the cradle, after the last spasms. How could one inveigh against those sure to die? . . . Nothing could be decently hated except eternity.’
As he says at the end of the sixth chapter: fifty or more years are a mere instant ‘in the region of perennial certitude’. Perhaps it is long enough, though, for all of us still living, still ephemeral novelists – blind, touching figures caught between two shades – to start earning the right to hate The Leopard.