For the European novel in general and for the Milan publisher Feltrinelli in particular, 1957 and 1958 were two anni mirabiles in a row. First he brought out Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, then Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo. One came from Russia, the other from Sicily—neither of them points on the literary horizon where the next comet was particularly expected at the time. And they were certainly comets: one of a kind, unforeseen, instantly recognizable as amazing—and instantly translated into every conceivable literary language. They have two other things in common: neither is experimental in form, or avant-garde, and both have lasted.
Still, Lampedusa is the stranger prodigy, if only because he was not a writer. He was a reader: he read all the time, compulsively consuming Italian, French, German, Russian, and especially English literature the way he consumed pastry, i.e., with fastidious attention. He was particularly fond of Shakespeare, Keats, Emily Brontë, Leopardi, Stendhal, Proust, and Graham Greene. Except for Russian, he read everything in the original, and he invented two useful categories of writers: fat and thin. The fat “explained all their nuances and left nothing for the reader to deduce”; the thin wrote more concisely and allusively. Racine, Calvin, Laclos, Madame de Lafayette, and Stendhal were thin; La Rochefoucauld and Mallarmé were superthin; Dante, Rabelais, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Balzac, Thomas Mann, and Proust were fat. It makes a good after-dinner game.
As a young man Lampedusa published a few small pieces of literary criticism; but that was a long time before he began work on his novel in 1955. He was nearly sixty then, and he died in 1957 just after it had been turned down by the first publisher he tried. His profession had been being a prince—of Lampedusa, “a largely barren and usually deserted island nearer Africa than Sicily” which his ancestors had sold to the Neapolitan Bourbons in 1840 because they needed the money. Being this particular prince, the last of a ruined line on the brink of extinction, was his predicament, his preoccupation, and his occupation too insofar as he had one besides reading; and he transferred his concerns, with appropriate variations, to the hero of his novel.
The novel is set in 1860, roughly a hundred years before it was written. It begins with the occupation of Sicily by the Piemontese and its incorporation into the new Italy under their rule. There is no plot, but a series of tableaux from the life of Lampedusa’s hero, whom he calls the Prince of Salina, or else the Leopard, because the Salina family crest (and the Tomasi family crest too) has a leopard on it. The first episode falls on the day of Garibaldi’s landing; the penultimate presents the prince’s death; the last is a vignette of his aged unmarried daughters in 1910.
Each chapter is set in a replica of one of the Lampedusa properties which the writer had known as a child. They had …