There's something about Sicilian writers - they have a wonderful sense of place, and describe Sicily if not exactly lovingly, it's hard to be loving about such an unforgiving land, but with a true passion that bursts through their writing. This is certainly true of Lampedusa in The leopard, and of Andrea Camilleri in his detective stories, also of the Sicilian film director, Giuseppe Tornatore in classics such as Cinema Paradiso.
The leopard is the story of a family and a place that appear to be on the verge of huge changes, and yet, in the end, very little is changed for most of Sicilian society. The leopard of the title is Prince Fabrizio di Salina, the head of a noble Sicilian family, whose fortunes are in decline, and whose place as leaders of their people is soon to be threatened by the unification of Italy and the centralization of politics.
Although their characters are placed in very different stratas of society it reminded me a great deal of Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago. Both had an intense sense of a certain caste of society dancing on the edge of a precipice. In fact the novels are quite closely related, they were first published within a year of each other in Italy by Feltrinelli Editore, who pulled off quite a coup with these back-to-back publications. Any similarities however must be completely coincidental, as Lampedusa died in 1957, and his novel was published posthumously the following year, while Zhivago was smuggled out of Russia the year of Lampedusa's death.
Lampedusa himself was of a noble Sicilian family, the Duke of Palma (there is a sly reference to the beauty of the Duchess of Palma, presumably Lampedusa's great-grandmother, in the novel), and Prince of Lampedusa, so there is an unusual amount of insider knowledge in the writing of this reflection on changing times. Although Prince Fabrizio may appear to be conservative, he is actually pro-change, but recognises early on that change and corruption have moved hand-in-hand. The move away from the power of the landed gentry hands power to corrupt politicians and Mafiosi in Sicily, while far away from Rome it remains a largely forgotten land - a theme to a certain extent echoed in films such as Cinema Paradiso and The Godfather : Part II, and, of course, in other Southern Italian literary classics such as Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli (the title is ironic, it has nothing to do with redemption, but is all about abandonment)
The leopard is beautifully written, compulsive reading, reminiscent of Stendhal, but with a style all its own. It's got a cinematic quality about it, which is probably why it translated so beautifully into a memorable film by Luchino Visconti. It's a wonderful, lyrical, sad book. Well worth reading. I can't recommend it highly enough - for much more information on the novel, and suggestions of how to follow in the Leopard's footsteps in Sicily, read the New York Times review by clicking on the pic above.