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Leisure • Literature

Giuseppe di Lampedusa — The Leopard

There’s something very appealing about the idea of being non-judgmental. It means taking the time and trouble to really understand someone without feeling required to flatter or condemn; we simply come face-to-face with the reality of being that person. And, more intimately, we long that another could both know us deeply and accept us as we are. 

Il Gattopardo — the Leopard — was published in 1958, shortly after the writer’s death. It was the only major thing Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa ever wrote. While he lived he only heard of its rejection by the various publishing houses to which he’d sent the manuscript — though it quickly became a huge, and very surprising, success. 

Essentially the book is a detailed character study of one person: a middle-aged astronomer and mathematician called Fabrizio Corberra, who is also (like the author) a Sicilian aristocrat. The novel is mainly set in the 1860s but its helpful message to us has nothing to do with Italian history. 

The outer surface of Fabrizio is polished, elegant and charming. He is easy going, immensely polite, handsome and generous; but as we see him in greater detail he emerges as far from appealing: he’s irritable, selfish, demanding, a little vain, withdrawn and proud — and he’s recklessly running through the family money. But the novel takes us deeper: he’s a human being facing the impossibly perplexing questions of existence. He knows he has wasted his life; he is overwhelmingly conscious that moment by moment he is approaching death; he loves his children but none of them, as adults, love him; he is devoted to his wife but is desperate for the erotic warmth she can’t offer. Even his scientific brilliance (he has played an important role in mapping the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter) is revealed as a kind of narcotic: he plunges into precise observation and complex calculation to escape from the pains of daily existence; but it also signals his longing for ‘the unreachable, the untouchable, the unknown.’ At times he is immensely self-aware, at other points he unwittingly deceives himself. 

The touching, helpful beauty of the book is that eventually Fabrizio is revealed as ‘magnificently ordinary’. He is seen and described with an immensely kindly, loving detachment. In a central episode, at a party, he is at first depressed and disgusted by everyone around him: they are ugly, banal. greedy, stupid, shrill — and then ‘his heart split open: he was them; he was made of the same material; nothing that is destined to die could deserve hatred.’ No-one would ever know he felt like this: they’ve never guess he could be so tender and so moved. 

No-one will ever know us fully. But here, in the pages of this book, we can imagine being known through and through and treated with the honour we deserve — for all our stupid mistakes and petty failings. It’s a book about one person, but it’s meant a book about everyone. If we could see the whole story our hearts would break with love and compassion. 

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