The Twentieth Century Novel

If any of you are at the end of your holiday reading list or need a new book to usher in the new year, there is no better time than now to pick up and read the greatest novel of the twentieth century, Giuseppe di Lampedusa The Leopardwho turns 65 this year.

For every reader of The Leopard who have I ever talked to about the novel has become a permanent mental piece of furniture. The great critic George Steiner once wrote of those works of art that “pass through us like storm winds, throwing open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transformative powers.” There are few books that can be said to leave this kind of impression on the majority of people who write or talk about them, but The Leopard it definitely ranks between them. EM Forster stated that “reading it and re-reading it” made him “realize how many ways there are to be alive, how many doors there are, close to one, that someone else’s touch can open.”

The Leopard it is a political novel without being polemical. One of his virtues is that his treatment of politics, history and economics remains detached from the spirit of the partisan without ever succumbing to soullessness, cynicism or frivolity. The real glory of the book, however, is the lush plot and exacting sharpness of its prose (originally written in Italian, it has been translated into English by Archibald Colquhoun).

Set on the island of Sicily between 1860 and 1910, the novel moves with surprising ease of touch between the richly ornamented rococo salons of the aristocracy and the shapeless, recalcitrant vistas that make up the island’s landscape. The story begins with the noble House of Salina finishing the daily recitation of the rosary. The “swinging skirts” of the women of the family withdraw from the living room “little by little discovering the naked figures of mythology painted all over the milky background of the tiles. Only one Andromeda,” we are told, “remained covered by Father Pyrrone’s cassock, still immersed in extra prayer, and it was some time before she could see silvery Perseus rushing to her aid and kiss” This civilized excess of decorative form is juxtaposed against a landscape “aridly undulating towards the horizon in knoll after knoll, awkward and irrational, with no lines that the mind can grasp, seemingly conceived in a delirious moment of creation; a sea suddenly petrified in instant when a change of wind had thrown the waves into a frenzy.

Read on with a free account

Create a free Dispatch account to continue reading

To start


Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *