Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Leopard - historical fiction as it should be written

I’m reading The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. After Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, the contrast is very marked. Tomasi di Lampedusa has created a historical novel that seems to rebound with ideas in the most vivid way, whereas Dickens seemed content to regurgitate very accepted and established (and not very well informed) views on the events he was describing.

It would take a separate post to compare the two approaches. In this post, I think it is sufficient just to admire the sheer talent that Tomasi de Lampedusa has in weaving together the several themes covered by his narrative.  

The book is arranged as a series of self-contained chapters.  Each chapter forms a whole – in fact the introduction to the book suggests that one of the chapters was discovered separately to the other chapters, and inserted after Lampedusa death. You would never believe it on reading the book

Consider the first chapter, the depiction of a meal in the aristocratic home of the Prince of Salina (the “leopard” of the title) and his family. In terms of politics, Lampedusa and Dickens are probably not so far apart, dreaming fondly of an idealised nobility confronted by a changing political and social situation – for Dickens, the French Revolution, and for Lampedusa, the Italian Risorgimento. But the effect with Lampedusa is so much more powerful! This introductory chapter skilfully combines several themes:

-          The contrast of the Prince, attempting vainly (but with resignation) to maintain the aristocratic order of things, with his family, who have no such motive. The prince often displays a “controlled rage at table” to attempt to maintain this system.  The Prince is “watching the ruin of his own class”.  It becomes clear later that the Prince, unlike other members of his family, recognizes the need to change.
-          The unchanging ritual of the aristocratic life – the rosary recited every afternoon; the glassware with the family initials FD engraved on each piece.
-          The contrast of the ceiling frescoes, from classical (secular) mythology, with the religious ritual taking place anachronistically in that very room.
-          The unsuitability of the Sicilian aristocracy for any kind of effective management of things: “In a family which for centuries had been incapable of adding up their own expenditure and subtracting their own debts he [The Prince] was the first (and last) to have a genuine bent for mathematics”
-          The sense of ending, the impending disappearance of the aristocratic order, as witnessed by those words “the last” in the sentence above.
-          The overwhelming physicality and sensuality of the Sicilian environment: the garden that was “exhaling scents that were cloying, fleshy and slightly putrid”.
-          The very real conflict taking place between the revolutionaries of the Risorgimento and the Bourbon troops struggling to maintain the irrelevant and superannuated ruling monarchy, as conveyed in the horrific image of a soldier of the royal forces found dead and rotting under the lemon tree.  “He died for the King, of course … but there was something that didn’t ring true.”
-          The Prince’s response to the impending crisis of aristocracy against the impending liberal forces of Garibaldi – his immediate response is to run away to visit a prostitute in Palermo.

Of course, stated in this way, the book sounds like an artfully constructed recipe of clever themes– just mix the ingredients to create a masterpiece. But the achievement of the book is for these components to be blended together to form a magnificent whole, both an elegy and a recognition of the vast forces of change concentrated on the hitherto sleepy backwater of Sicily. By the end of the chapter, by the end of the book, we feel that the affairs of Sicily, the viewpoint of the Sicilians is anything but trivial.

Finally, what makes this an impressive work of fiction is that the main characters are not one-dimensional. The Prince struggles to maintain the existing aristocratic order, and yet he sees only too clearly he is struggling to save an order that is not worth preserving. He knows that most of his staff are cheating him, yet he preserves a feudal-style relationship with his villagers who bring him produce as a tax. Compared with the Dickens of A Tale of Two Cities is like stereoscopic vision after you have looked at things with one eye shut.