I'd already written this post when I saw Kirsty's post on Reading Dangerously over at Other Stories so many thanks to her for helping me join up the thinking, make the connection and realise this doesn't just happen to me. I think the object is to read books that may have scared you off for years and I had just read this one.
Many years ago and now I see to my regret, someone told me they had struggled to read the first chapter of The Leopard so I had never read it until recently.
Isn't it strange how something like that can put you off reading a book for so long? It's one of the reasons I rarely do negative book reviewing here.
No space to waste flagging up books I haven't enjoyed when there are so many I have, plus how easy it would then be to deprive everyone else of a good read which had just missed the mark with me.
Finding myself down Sicily way there was nothing for it but to finally pluck up the courage and read it, The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.
I read The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani several years ago and I seem to remember he was instrumental in bringing Lampedusa into print and now I'm thanking him profusely. If perchance you've missed Bassani plenty of time to catch up and read his hauntingly great novel which captures that mood of the Jewish family in Ferrara in the early 1930's with what feels like astonishing accuracy. When you know more than the people in the book, as Bassani did and as we all do, this type of reading takes on a new emotional energy.
Lampedusa writes about an earlier time as Sicily is invaded by Garibaldi and the Bourbon nobility must fall on its sword.
So The Leopard written in 1956, has sat there looking complicated and difficult for years, my copy yellowed and ageing.Even after I'd reached the end of the first chapter I kept thinking, I won't be able to read this.
Why not for heaven's sake?
What followed was a finely tuned exposition of a the decline of the nobility in a country shaped by atmosphere, climate and landscape,
'six feverish months at a temperature of 104 ...when fire could be said to snow down on us'
and Palermo-born Lampedusa had his finger on the pulse of his native country with a uniquely precise and sensitive touch
'In Sicily it doesn't matter about doing things well or badly; the sin which we Sicilians never forgive is simply that of 'doing' at all...novelties attract us only when they are dead, incapable of arousing vital currents.'
Set in the 1860's Italy is about to become one state for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire and Don Fabrizio of Salina, the Prince, ruling over his wealthy and privileged family with a reasonably benevolent eye, observes from a distance the demise of his kingdom. Disillusioned and sceptical, apathetic about steering change it isn't difficult to second guess the significance as the Prince hears,
' the lament of the cicadas...the death rattle from parched Sicily at the end of August vainly awaiting rain.'
The invasion by Garibaldi, 'that bearded Vulcan', presumably displacing the chocolate bourbons to dunk in the coffee with,
'the biscuits blackened by fly droppings.'
Lives and loves are told with a wry sense of humour and Lampedusa entertains as he recounts this strange and rather detached-from-reality life that the Family Salina lead.
Just as the soughing winds strip the almond trees of their blossom so the Prince is slowly divested of his power and as he reflects on the life he has lived and the conclusions he reaches you feel an all-pervading sadness at how little he feels he has really achieved. There is a tangible moment when you suddenly experience a huge wave of empathy and really understand what he meant when he said,
' I belong to an unlucky generation swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both.'
and perhaps the Sicilian outlook on the harbingers (my word of the moment) of change not that different from the rest of us if we are truly honest,
'We were the Leopards and Lions; those who'll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas; and the whole lot of us, Leopards, jackals and sheep, we'll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.'