notes / kortina.nyc

di Lampedusa // The Leopard

The Leopard

My neighbor recently recommended Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (same neighbor who recommended The Things They Carried btw).

I just finished it and found it very timely — it’s a sort of elegy about the end of a generation of aristocracy, caught between revolution and bureaucracy.


Here are a few of my favorite bits…


Idleness was the purpose of power:

The road was now beginning to slope gently downhill, and Palermo could be seen very close, plunged in complete darkness, its low shuttered houses weighted down by the huge edifices of convents and monasteries. There were dozens of these, all vast, often grouped in twos or threes, for women and for men, for rich and poor, nobles and plebeians, for Jesuits, Benedictines, Franciscans, Capuchins, Carmelites, Redemptorists, Augustinians. . . . Above them rose squat domes in flabby curves like breasts emptied of milk; but it was the religious houses which gave the city its grimness and its character, its sedateness and also the sense of death which not even the vibrant Sicilian light could ever manage to disperse. And at that hour, at night, they were despots of the scene. It was against them really that the bonfires were lit on the hills, stoked by men who were themselves very like those living in the monasteries below, as fanatical, as self-absorbed, as avid for power or rather for the idleness which was, for them, the purpose of power.


“all would be play-acting; a noisy, romantic play with a few spots of blood on the comic costumes….”

“There will be a day or two of shooting and trouble, but Villa Salina will be safe as a rock; Your Excellency is our father, I have many friends here. The Piedmontese will come cap in hand to pay Your Excellencies their respects. And then, you are also the uncle, the guardian of Don Tancredi!”

The Prince felt humiliated, reduced to the rank of one protected by Russo’s friends; his only merit, as far as he could see, was being uncle to that urchin Tancredi. “In a week’s time I’ll find my life’s safe only because I keep Bendico.” He squeezed one of the dog’s ears so hard that the poor creature whined, honored doubtless, but in pain.

Shortly afterward a remark of Russo’s relieved the Prince. “Everything will be better, believe me, Excellency. Honest and able men will have a chance to get ahead, that’s all. The rest will be as it was before.” All that these people, these petty little local “liberals,” wanted was to find ways of making more money themselves. No more. The swallows would take wing a little sooner, that was all. Anyway, there were still plenty in the nest.

“You may be right. Who knows?” Now he had penetrated all the hidden meanings: the enigmatic words of Tancredi, the rhetorical ones of Ferrara, the false but revealing ones of Russo, had yielded their reassuring secret. Much would happen, but all would be play-acting; a noisy, romantic play with a few spots of blood on the comic costumes. This was a country of arrangements, with none of that frenzy of the French; and anyway, had anything really serious happened in France, except for that June of ‘48? He felt like saying to Russo, but his innate courtesy held him back, “I understand now; you don’t want to destroy us, who are your ‘fathers.’ You just want to take our places. Gently, nicely, putting a few thousand ducats in your pockets meanwhile. And what then? Your nephew, my dear Russo, will sincerely believe himself a baroni maybe you will become, because of your name, descendant of a grand duke of Muscovy instead of some red-skinned peasant, which is what that name of yours means. And long before that your daughter will have married one of us, perhaps Tancredi himself, with his blue eyes and his willowy hands. She’s good-looking, anyway, and once she’s learned to wash . . . For all will be the same. just as it is now: except for an imperceptible shifting about of classes. My Court Chamberlain’s gilt keys, my cherry-colored ribbon of St. Januarius will stay in a drawer and end up in some glass case of Paolo’s. But the Salinas will remain the Salinas; they may even get some compensation or other: a seat in the Sardinian Senate, that pink ribbon of the Order of St. Maurice. Both have tassels, after all.” He got up. “Pietro, talk to your friends, will you? There are a lot of girls here. They mustn’t be alarmed.”


Amid all the dirt Tancredi’s elegant spruceness stood out. He had travelled on horseback and, reaching the farm half an hour before the carriages, had had time to shake off dust, brush up, and change his white cravat. While drawing some water from that well of many uses he had glanced for a second into the mirror of the bucket and found himself in good order, with the black patch over his right eye now more reminiscent than protective of a wound received three months before in the fighting at Palermo; with that other dark blue eye which seemed to have assumed the task of expressing enough shy gaiety for its mate in temporary eclipse; and with, above his cravat, a scarlet thread alluding discreetly to the red shirt he had once worn. He helped the Princess to alight, dusted the Prince’s top hat with his sleeve, distributed sweets to his girl cousins and quips to the boys, nearly genuflected to the Jesuit, returned the passionate caress of Bendico, consoled Mademoiselle Dombreuil, laughed at all, enchanted all. The coachmen were walking the horses slowly around to freshen them up before watering, the lackeys laying tablecloths out on straw left over from the threshing in the oblong of shade from the building. Luncheon began near the accommodating well. All around quivered the funereal countryside, yellow with stubble, black with burned patches; the lament of cicadas filled the sky. It was like a death rattle of parched Sicily at the end of August vainly awaiting rain. An hour later they were all on the road again, refreshed. Although the horses were tired and going more slowly than ever, the last part of the journey seemed short; the landscape, no longer unknown, had lost its more sinister aspects. They began recognizing places they knew well, and goals of past excursions and picnics in other years -the Dragonara ravine, the Misilbesi crossroads; soon they would reach the Shrine of Our Ladv of All Graces, end of their longest walks from Donnafugata. The Princess had dozed off; the Prince, alone with her in the wide carriage, was beaming.


“You, Don Pietrino,”,if you weren’t asleep at this moment, would be jumping up to tell me that the ‘nobles’ are wrong to have this contempt for others, and that all of us, equally subject to the double slavery of love and death, are equal before the Creator; and I would have to agree with you. But I’d add that not only the ‘nobles’ are to be blamed for despising others, since that is quite a general vice. A university professor despises a parish schoolmaster even if he doesn’t show it, and since you’re asleep I can tell you without reticence that we clergy consider ourselves superior to the laity, we Jesuits superior to the other clergy, just as you herbalists despise tooth-pullers who in their turn deride you. Doctors, on the other hand, jeer at both tooth-pullers and herbalists, and are themselves treated as fools by their patients who expect to be kept alive with hearts or livers in a hopeless state; lawyers, to magistrates, are just bores who try to deflect the course of the law, and on the other hand literature is full of satires against the pomposity, ignorance, and often worse of those very judges. The only people who also despise themselves are laborers; when they’ve learned to jeer at others the circle will be closed and we’ll have to start all over again.

“Have you ever thought, Don Pietrino, how many names of jobs have become insults? From carter and fishwife to reitre or pompier in French? People don’t think of the merits of carters and fishwives; they just look at their marginal defects and call them all rough and vulgar; and as you can’t hear me, I may tell you that I’m perfectly aware of the exact current meaning of the word ‘Jesuit.’

“Then these nobles put a good face on their own disasters: I’ve seen one who’d decided to kill himself next day, poor man, looking beaming and happy as a boy on the eve of his first Communion; while if you, Don Pietrino, had to drink one of your own herb drinks you’d make the village ring with your laments. Rage is gentlemanly; complaints are not. I could give you a recipe, in fact: if you meet a ‘gentleman’ who’s querulous, look up his family tree; you’ll soon find a dead branch.

“It’s a class difficult to suppress because it’s in continual renewal-and because if needs be it can die well, that is it can throw out a seed at the moment of death. Look at France; they let themselves be massacred with elegance there and now they’re back as before. I say as before, because it’s differences of attitude, not estates and feudal rights, which make a noble.

“They tell me that in Paris nowadays there are Polish counts who’ve been forced into exile and poverty by revolts and despotism; they drive cabs, but frown so at their middle-class customers that the poor things get into the cab, without knowing why, as humbly as dogs in church.

“And I can tell you too, Don Pietrino, that if, as has often happened before, this class were to vanish, an equivalent one would be formed straight away with the same qualities and the same defects j it might not be based on blood any more, but possibly on . . . on, say, the length of time lived in a place, or on greater knowledge of some text considered sacred.” At this point his mother’s steps were heard on the wooden stairs; she laughed as she came in. “Whom d’you think you’re talking to, son? Can’t you see your friend’s fast asleep? “


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