by Mina French
Issue 16, July, 2009: I don’t mean to be harsh, but it seems like there are some books which are like flavors of the month, like ones you will find on The New York Times bestseller list.
They might be popular but not necessarily considered fine literature; lacking depth of content, nothing but skin and bones. Then there are some books in which after reading you feel conviction, have such richness and intelligence of mind, and they will change your life forever. These type of books help you grow in character, are an asset to our culture, our times.
One such book is The Leopard, by Prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Written in the 1950s, it is the story of revolution, political and personal, of the fascinating powers of character, of a dying aristocracy, of tradition. It is a novel that will knock your socks off. Prince Lampedusa never found a publisher while he was alive. He died in July 1957 after spending one year looking for a publisher. However, The Leopard did finally get published in 1958 and was translated in virtually every language.
In The Leopard, Prince Lampedusa tells the story of Prince Fabrizio of Salinas who experiences change during the ‘Risorgimento,’ the revolution in which Garibaldi unified Italy. The Prince experiences a decline of prestige; the embarrassing situation in which a merchant, who represents the new ruling class, rises in life to equal him in wealth and status. The revolution has made the merchant Don Calogero Sedara wealthy and powerful. As a result, Prince Fabrizio’s handsome nephew Tancredi, who is penniless but ambitious, pursues Don Calogero’s beautiful daughter Angelica. Tancredi, proposes and Angelica accepts, but it will not be a marriage based on love but what each person wants; Tancredi, money and Angelica entry into the world of nobility.
For me the most chilling and dramatic part of the novel is when a government official named Chevalley di Monterzuolo arrives at Prince Fabrizio’s palace to tell the Prince, because of his aristocratic status, he was chosen to sit as a member of the Senate, a post in which the Prince is not elected to. The response that the Prince gives is stirring to the soul as he goes on to refuse the request. The pride of Prince Fabrizio and of the Sicilians is summed up best in his most eloquent and mesmerizing speech. As the Prince talks about all the foreign rulers that have ruled Sicily he concludes in saying, “‘They are coming to teach us good manners, . . . But they won’t succeed because we think we are gods,’ . . . Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery.”
This speech sends chills up my spine. It expresses the need to survive against all odds. They are the fundamental feelings of a culture steeped in chaos. It is the end result of centuries of abuse by foreigners.
I found The Leopard to be a sad heartbreaking tale of a great and dwindling aristocracy. It has moved me in ways too deep to express. It has consoled me, created a world for me, given me strength. It has made me feel the need to understand Sicily and her people.
- Mina French