“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
What? A novel about socio-political upheaval which does not take ideological sides? Or rather, implies that political ideology is not the most important factor in determining a country’s historical development. Nothing less than the origin story of modern Italy, encapsulated in the declining fortunes of one aristocratic family, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard is built around a central paradox. It is also one of the most beautiful, profound and important novels of the 20th century.
As Jonathan Jones has written:
Perhaps it is not surprising, given its concentration on class as a social and cultural force, that some of The Leopard's most dedicated fans have been Marxists. Gramsci had seen the problem of the backward, non-industrialised south as fundamental to modern Italian history. The Marxist (and aristocratic) film director Luchino Visconti was already fascinated by the themes of The Leopard before he came to film it in 1963, and indeed, even before it was published in 1958. But it has also attracted much opprobrium from leftists, for questioning the class system only to more powerfully reinstate it.
Just as Machiavelli's Prince is a rich concoction that does not resolve itself into a “theory”, still less ideologies, of left or right, Lampedusa's myth is not rational. Or Marxist. In his most forthright speech, Lampedusa's Prince says what he really thinks; and it is stranger than anyone could have expected.
In trying to explain to a Piedmontese envoy why he will not join their Senate, the Prince specifically rejects the idea that feudal class structures and a backward mode of production explain what is wrong with Sicily; people have told him this is the theory of “some German Jew whose name I can't remember.”
Because there has been feudalism everywhere, Sicily is more peculiar and perturbing than that. It is the centuries of invasions, the landscape and climate that have crushed ambition and hope.
“This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything, and even these monuments to the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us... All these things have formed our character, which is thus conditioned by events outside our control as well as by a terrifying insularity of mind.” The Prince claims that Sicilian sensuality is a love affair with death; that a desire for the grave obsesses the island's culture and will seep out of Sicily to poison the new Italy.
“Our sensuality is a hankering for oblivion, our shooting and knifing a hankering for death; our languor, our exotic vices, a hankering for voluptuous immobility, that is for death again.”
Lampedusa's Sicily is a place where the optimistic, progressive, rational forces of history as viewed in the 19th century - the march of liberal democracy and of socialism alike - get lost in baroque back streets at midnight. As a myth, as a fiction of history, The Leopard will continue to ensnare minds, and not only in Italy. Lampedusa’s despair is not so different from that of today's world, with its shrunken political expectations. We are all Sicilians now.