Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa Critical Essays


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Lampedusa’s literary reputation rests upon a very small number of works: a full-length novel, the opening chapter of a second novel, two stories, a fragment of autobiography, and a number of lectures on literature. None was published during his lifetime, and if it were not for the posthumous acclaim given the completed novel The Leopard, the other pieces would probably never have seen the light of day. However, all were written during the last two and a half years of his life, and as a result reflect the outlook of a mature, thoughtful, and widely read man.

The lucid quality of Lampedusa’s writing reflects his regard for nineteenth century French author Stendhal, whose style, Lampedusa wrote, is one “which in its dryness may seem easy but which is in fact the fruit of . . . a continuous labour of elimination.” Whether describing the dark ruminations of Prince Fabrizio in The Leopard or the amatory reveries of the characters in “La sirena” (“The Professor and the Mermaid”), Lampedusa strove to eliminate the inessential, creating a prose style that is clear and concise.

Although critics have identified particular works of art that Lampedusa employed as touchstones, his most successful symbols and metaphors operate at an immediate, sensory level. In an early scene in The Leopard, Lampedusa uses flowers as emblems of the state of Sicilian psychology. Observing roses whose cuttings he had secured in Paris years earlier, the prince realizes that they “had degenerated; first stimulated and then enfeebled by the strong if languid pull of Sicilian earth, . . . they had changed into things like flesh-colored cabbages.” Several scenes in “I gattini ciechi” (“The Blind Kittens”) turn upon the quantity and crudely intense flavor of food served in the home of the grasping, upstart Ibba family. In “The Professor and the Mermaid,” Lampedusa’s irritable scholar registers his disgust toward the vacuous newspapers he is reading by spitting continuously.

In many cases Lampedusa juxtaposed sharply differing images and themes to advance his story. The contrast between the roses that bloomed so gracefully in Paris but so unwholesomely in Sicily is one example of this method. Another involves the prince’s dog Bendicò, a great Dane whose wholehearted enthusiasm stands in sharp and repeated contrast to his master’s obsessive need to analyze his every action and emotion.

Aside from his lectures on literature and the slightest of his stories, Lampedusa’s works share not only a Sicilian setting but also several internal connections. The Leopard deals with the most illustrious of the Salinas, Don Fabrizio. “The Blind Kittens,” which takes up the chronicle of Sicily approximately where The Leopard ends, includes a Salina as a character, while the journalist narrator of “The Professor and the Mermaid” identifies himself as the last of the Salinas, the sole surviving heir of The Leopard. “Ricordi d’infanzia” (“Places of My Infancy”) deals factually with many of the settings and images that Lampedusa incorporated into his other works.

Lampedusa’s feelings for Sicily were complex, and he explored them through his characters’ attitudes and conversations. Prince Fabrizio speaks at length of Sicily’s long history of subjugation and the sense of lethargy and fatality that it has engendered: “’Sleep, sleep, . . . that is what Sicilians want.’” The professor of “The Professor and the Mermaid” speaks lyrically of the beauty of Sicily but adds that it is “inhabited by donkeys.”

Although Lampedusa was criticized after his death for what appeared to be his repeated attacks on his native land, his attitudes were not wholly consistent with Don Fabrizio’s. By dramatizing the prince’s fatalism so memorably in The Leopard, Lampedusa managed to reveal its shortcomings.

The Leopard

First published: Il gattopardo, 1958 (English translation, 1960)

Type of work: Novel

Realizing that his way of life is coming to an end, a Sicilian prince chooses to cooperate with the forces dooming the aristocracy.

The Leopard is set during the period of the Risorgimento, the popular nineteenth century movement to unite the various states of Italy into a single country. As the book opens, revolutionary leader Giuseppe Garibaldi is invading Sicily. After securing the island and the southern portion of the Italian peninsula (together the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) from the Bourbon regime, he will offer the territory to another monarch, King Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy, who will then rule a united Italy.

The Leopard is a leisurely, episodic novel divided into eight chapters, each identified by month and year as well as by title. The first four take place in 1860, and the next two in 1861 and 1862, respectively. The seventh chapter takes place in 1888, and it and the eighth chapter, set in 1910, function almost as codas to the first six.

The book’s first chapter,...

(The entire section is 2098 words.)