Sunday, August 10, 2008

Book Review: Summer Reading

by Eric Green

The Leopard,

By Giuseppe di Lampedusa


1957; Re-release, 2007

Uniting Italy in 1860s; Any Lessons for Today?

I don't remember the Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale film, "The Leopard" that was released in 1963. Most of my contemporaries do. I am looking forward to asking my daughter to order it on Netflix; or, maybe the New York City the Film Form might have an occasion to show it. Clearly by the New York Times Book Review essay by Rachel Donadio, July 13, 2008, a reading of the historical novel, the film is a natural for a Film Forum retrospective.

At the time of its publication, in left circles, the book seems to have also caused considerable waves, at least when it was published in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The response to the book was a classical reaction from those who take a dim view of historical novels which don't clearly state the backward, reactionary world that is being written about. To others, who accept and cheer these novels for they accurately describe the times being written about, and by doing that describe the backwardness that they, in fact, at.

In the case of The Leopard, Italian Marxists were displeased with the book; and, at least one French Marxist was pleased. [In a rather honest description, to some extent of the reactions, Donadio uses these descriptive political terms. The NY Times Book Review too often prints only pejorative references to Marxists.] Alberto Moravio, the Italian Marxist, did not like the novel, saying, according to Donadio, that the book glorified the feudalism of the day. While, Louis Aragon, a member of the French Communist Party, disagreed, again according to Donadio who only referred to him as a Marxist, and found the book an attack on feudalism and its decaying families.

The derivation of the book is not disputed. The writer, Giuseppe di Lampedusa was born, in 1896, into aristocratic family that was from Sicily for many centuries. So, in effect, he was writing a sort of self-biography. He started to write the book, a book that had been on his mind for decades, when he was about 60 years old. And, alas, by the time he finished the book, in 1957, he was on his death bed. And, in fact, the first manuscript that he sent to a published was rejected. They asked for changes, but that message was never carried. So, Lampedusa died not knowing that when the book was resubmitted for publication it was accepted it went on to become a best selling Italian novel. In fact, The Leopard became one of the best selling Italian novels of all time. It sold more than 3.2 million copies. This was his only book.

Italian film director, Luchino Visconti read the book and made the film, "The Leopard" into a very successful film. He attracted Lancaster and Cardinale which assured its success.

The story is a classic family epic that goes from the time of the unification of Italy, 1860 to 1910. For those interested in Italian history, especially, Sicilian history, this novel is a must. I would imagine that Italian's who have that interest are probably familiar with that history and maybe even the Sicilian branch of the country. With the general interest in Tuscany, Venice, Rome, Southern Italy and the great island of Sicily remaining at a high level, these kinds of book are very helpful to travelers.

Lampedusa describes a feudal landlord's life, Don Fabrizio, the Prince of Salina, and his immediate and extended family. [Lancaster's role.] His nephew's life is central to the story, for he is the love interest of Angelica, played in the film by Cardinale. While there are overtones of strong feelings between the Prince and his nephew's lover/wife, Angelica, the book does not directly state so. But, in some "outtakes" of the book, released by the family of Lampedusa, one version of the book has Don Fabrizio stating that strong affection to himself.

The book takes us through the ascendancy of Garibaldi's landing in Palermo, in the early 1860s, and the mostly opportunistic military and then political role of the Prince's nephew, Trancredi. Opportunistic or not, the nephew gains considerable by his support of Garibaldi and the unification of Italy. He also describes the transition from the feudal money power to the newly developing power landlords who, while not having feudal powers, nonetheless, through their money power are in the ascendancy.

The Prince's daughters and cousins take on importance with the passing of the Prince. The finality of the novel, and probably the point where Aragon would have made his point, was with the daughters trying to gain some financial benefit from the last vestiges of the Prince's wealth. This took place in 1910.

Placing these historical novels into their proper place is not unusual. It is good that Donadio used Marxist to make that debate, others would have been side tracked by other issues. For us, the correct placing of the revolutionary war, the Civil War, and other milestones of the United States is crucial to understanding our country's development. This book helps in that universal process that describes the struggles against racism, anti-woman activities, anti-immigration trends and the like.

While the historical aspects of the book are very interesting and useful, the litmus test for my novel reading is the ability of the writer to engage readers with engrossing character developments. On that score, he does an excellent job. You find yourself living life in a decaying society with people who you learn a lot about. You don't necessarily become their partisans, but you certainly are interested on what happens to them. In fact, you wish for more. But, alas, that wasn't the purpose of the novel to begin with.

Good reading.