The other day I found a grey hair, by which I mean on my own head, of course, not on the floor. If I was in my forties, or upwards, I may have anticipated such a thing, but, in my naivety, I didn’t think it possible at my age. Yet there it was, gesturing to me in an offensive manner; it was like staring at a crowd of people and suddenly spotting, deep in their midst, a child looking my way and insouciantly giving me the finger. I’ve been, it is fair to say, somewhat perturbed ever since; I keep checking the backs of my hands, and around my eyes, for signs of wrinkles, and any slight twinge or ache strikes me as the inevitable, irrevocable, breaking down of my mechanism.
This is, and always has been, my worst fear. Decline, old age, and their tyrannical father: death. How on earth do you face up to that? You haven’t got much of a choice, I guess. How awful! Some people are blasé about it; ‘it’s fine,’ they say, ‘ageing is a positive thing’; ‘I’m not afraid of death,’ they say, ‘I’m more concerned about how I will go.’ I’ve never understood all that. I’m don’t care one bit about the manner of my death, it’s the fact that it is going to happen at all that bothers me; it’s the not-being that terrifies me. ‘But wouldn’t it be terrible to be immortal, to remain young, while all your loved ones, your family and friends, age and pass away?’ No, it’d be glorious! Make no mistake, I’d gaily skip down the street as the last man on earth.
There have been many fine novels about all of this – Samuel Beckett, for example, wrote reams of them – but I think my favourite is Il Gattopardo, or The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. In the opening pages, we are introduced to Don Fabrizio, the Sicilian aristocrat who dominates the book. The imposing, heavy-set, Prince of Salina is an old-fashioned sort, conservative in values where his family are concerned, but more than willing to give himself major leeway. For example, he demands the utmost respect and propriety from his children, and yet brazenly cheats on his wife and, on one occasion, drags Father Pirrone along on one of his amorous escapades, almost as a display of his power. The children are, of course, petrified of him; it is noted that the household cutlery has had to be straightened numerous times, for their father, in moments of anger or irritation, has a tendency to grasp knifes and forks and spoons in his heavy paws and bend them.
“Love. Of course, love. Flames for a year, ashes for thirty.”
In contrast to his outward displays of strength, the domineering Fabrizio is, privately, prone to melancholy and self-pity. He may rule his children and wife with the proverbial iron fist, but this does not stop them from disappointing him; in fact, almost everything disappoints him. His son, Paolo, is referred to as a ‘booby,’ and is less than favourably compared with the Prince’s nephew, Tancredi. Fabrizio appears to have more affection for his daughter, Concetta, but even she frequently irritates him, and is, sadly, no match, in terms of looks, for Angelica Sedara, the daughter of a nouveau riche Mayor, whom Tancredi wishes to marry. His wife, on the other hand, is a woman of strained nerves, who is no longer sexually alluring to him; indeed, her pious reserve [Fabrizio claims to have never seen her navel] is used as justification for infidelity. This disappointment also extends to himself, or at least his own mortality, and to the state of the country.
The Leopard is set in the years 1860-1862, 1883 and 1910, during a period in history known as the Risorgimento, the aim of which was the unification of Italy. It was, then, a time of revolution, change, and unrest. On this basis, one could legitimately call The Leopard a political novel, but the politics feed into the broader and, for me, more important and engaging themes of decline and death. In the most literal way, war or revolution drag death and destruction in their wake, of course, and this is brought into sharp focus when the mutilated body of a soldier is found in the Prince’s garden. But what the Risorgimento really represents, what it brings home to Don Fabrizio, is that the old ways, his ways, are numbered. Indeed, one of the aims of the Risorgimento was a levelling of the classes, so while the rich and powerful Don Fabrizio is not directly involved in the conflict his kind are, in a way, a target, and therefore they are, culturally-socially, on borrowed time.
[A still from the 1963 film of the same name]
Unfortunately, the Prince, like all of us, is also on borrowed time physically. One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is how the decline of the old ways of Italy are actually mirrored in Fabrizio’s own personal decline; the two reflect each other. Despite being only in his forties, from the very beginning there is a sense that the Prince is no longer at his peak, that he is not staring proudly from the heights of physical perfection, but is steadily making his way back down the mountain. For example, Don Fabrizio’s sensual-sexual nature is frequently alluded to; as noted, he cheats on his wife, and he is struck by, and excited by, Angelica’s attractions [her beauty, her body, etc]. However, he is also fully aware that he is no longer in the running, so to speak, that the vibrant young woman will prefer the charming, and also young, Tancredi. This is not the same, alas, as saying that he is happy about it. Far from it; he feels, rather, a twinge of jealousy, a sexual jealousy that is not particularly admirable, of course, but is understandable.
“To kneel before Angelica would be a pleasure, but what if he found it difficult to get up afterwards?”
To say that the Prince is not as vital as he once was, and that Italy is at war and going through important social-political changes, does not do justice to how deeply ingrained the book’s preoccupations and themes are. I said before that it is perhaps the greatest novel about death and decline, and to understand this one must read it, because these things are present in the text on almost every page. Indeed, Lampedusa’s work is so rich in allusions and references to them that the atmosphere is of a unrelenting gloominess, almost regardless of the main narrated action. For example, it is at one point noted that the Prince’s initials on a wine glass have begun to fade; Bendico, his dog, noses his way through the garden smelling of ‘dead lizards and manure’; Fabrizio goes hunting at Donnafugata, but hardly ever shoots anything, because there are scant targets; as payment for rent he is given slaughtered lambs; stories are shared about poisoned holy water and people cut up into little pieces, and so on.
“As always the thought of his own death calmed him as much as that of others disturbed him: was it perhaps because, when all was said and done, his own death would in the first place mean that of the whole world?”
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, himself a Sicilian aristocrat, only ever wrote one novel; and even this was rejected numerous times and was published only after his own death. If I had to guess as to why it wasn’t instantly appreciated I would perhaps point to the intricate, detailed prose as being something of an acquired taste. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love it; in fact, I consider Lampedusa to be one of the very finest prose stylists; his extended metaphors alone make reading the book worthwhile. But it is decidedly Proustian, perhaps more so than any other that gets lumbered with that tag, and his prose, by which I mean Marcel’s, is also an acquired taste [it seems]. Moreover, Lampedusa’s novel lacks the emotional sturm and drang of certain parts of In Search of Lost Time, is just not as viscerally exciting as, say, Sodom and Gomorrah. The Leopard is a slow book, a deeply ruminative book, with very little action. It is, the author himself claimed, not very good. He was wrong, of course; it’s a masterpiece. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to listen to Frank Sinatra’s It Was a Very Good Year, and then go quietly weep in a corner.