This summer I have been experiencing what a lot of my friends who teach have known of and enjoyed for some time: the stress and pleasure of living and working on a semester-by-semester basis. I’ve been looking over my list of the books I’ve read this year, and see that since the middle of May I’ve nearly doubled the number of books read up to that point.
That’s not the only pleasure of being “off” for the summer, of course. (And I’ll just say briefly that I have kept plenty busy with a number of different writing projects.) But it’s the one I want to focus on now and again over the rest of the summer, beginning with a book I’d heard a lot about for a while, and finally tackled this summer: The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, first published in 1958, and first published in the United States in 1960.
Although I’d heard lots about The Leopard, I had no idea, really, what it was actually about. Is there a real living leopard in this thing, or what? I never knew before beginning. All I heard was that it was excellent.
Well, guess what. It is excellent. And there are no genuine, living, clawing leopards in the book. But Lampedusa’s slow, steady, consistently beautiful prose more than atones for the lack of wild animals. (Although a dog, Bendico, features prominently in the novel; Lampedusa called him the secret key to the whole novel, and he is a central player in the novel’s truly weird and beautiful ending image.)
In a nutshell, The Leopard traces the decline in influence of Don Fabrizio, his family, and his class of Sicilian gentry around 1860, when Garibaldi took over the island with aims to unite it with the rest of Italy. Fabrizio is the eponymous leopard, a giant, blond-haired man of delicacy and temper who’s both likeable and somewhat satisfying to see reduced by historical forces. After reading it, I can understand why I’d never heard too much detail about its plot, because the larger political intrigues and the familial ones—a nephew calculating whom to marry; a provincial neighbor wearing the wrong style of tails to dinner—don’t come across very powerfully when taken from their context.
What I’d like to do instead is offer this passage, which floored me. My wife and I were driving from Portland, Maine, back to Pittsburgh, and I asked her to read it aloud for me. (More on this trip in a subsequent post. Also, she was in the passenger seat during this reading.)
The ballroom was all golden: smooth on the cornices, uneven on the door frames, in a pale, almost silvery design against a darker background on the door panels and on the shutters annulling the windows, thus conferring on the room the look of some superb jewel case shut off from an unworthy world. It was not the flashy gilding which decorators slap on nowadays, but a faded gold, pale as the hair of Nordic children, determinedly hiding its value under a muted use of precious material intended to let beauty be seen and cost forgotten. Here and there on the panels were knots of rococo flowers in a color so faint as to seem just an ephemeral pink reflected from the chandeliers.
That solar hue, that variegation of gleam and shade, made Don Fabrizio’s heart ache as he stood black and stiff in a doorway: this eminently patrician room reminded him of country things; the chromatic scale was the same as that of the vast wheat fields around Donnafugata, rapt, begging pity from the tyrannous sun; in this room too, as on his estates in mid-August, the harvest had been gathered long before, stacked elsewhere, leaving, as here, a sole reminder in the color of stubble burned and useless now. The notes of the waltz in the warm air seemed to him but a stylization of the incessant winds harping their own sorrows on the parched surfaces, today, yesterday, tomorrow, forever and forever. The crowd of dancers, among whom he could count so many near to him in blood if not in heart, began to seem unreal, made up of that material from which are woven lapsed memories, more elusive even than the stuff of disturbing dreams. From the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling and inexorable as a summer sky. They thought themselves eternal; but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was to prove the contrary in 1943.