The Leopard at Large

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa was the last prince of his long and languid line, but soon after his death he became one of the first names in 20th-century Italian letters.  The Leopard, his 1958 novel about the last days of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and the first days of a (theoretically) united Kingdom of Italy, is a postwar classic, justly admired for its ironic, melancholic spirit, its mélange of sumptuousness and sadness, its evocation of an old, tired island at the outset of a (supposedly) dynamic, democratic age.  As the hapless Bourbons quit the Sicilian stage forever, the novel’s aristocratic protagonist Don Fabrizio raises a quizzical eyebrow at the redshirted reformers whose motivations he distrusts and whose aspirations he holds in contempt.  He admires men of action in the abstract, but has a cynical superstition that the very atmosphere of the island is freighted with dust and debilitation—and that this will soon abrade the strident Garibaldians, as everyone else before.  He has long sight and admires timeless immensity, symbolized by his hobby of astronomy, and he believes firmly that the Sicily that has “always” been will always be—weighted down by parched soil, Palladian porticoes, rococo gilt, marble-paved churches, ancient accommodations, and ennui.  All initiatives are doomed to failure, and only death is in the...

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