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Although you won’t find it on many lists, The Leopard by Giuseppi Tomasi di Lampedusa has been described not only as one of the most important Italian novels and in the top ten of historical novels, but also as “the best novel of the 20th Century”.  Set in Sicily at the time of the Risorgimento — the unification of Italy in 1860 — it explores in exquisite detail one man’s confrontation with change and mortality.

The man in question is Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, head of one of the great landed families in Sicily, the personification of the Gattopardo (actually a serval rather than a leopard) which adorns the Salina coat of arms. Despite the blond hair, blue eyes and height that bespeak Norman heritage, the Prince is a typical Sicilian: taciturn, observant, pragmatic. In between hunting, astronomy and occasional visits to a mistress he rules his family and his estates as any feudal lord might have done. Yet he recognises that change is not only inevitable, but necessary if the family’s influence is to survive. ‘Everything needs to change so everything can stay the same’, as his much-loved, but penniless nephew Tancredi Falconeri tells him.

As Tancredi fights for the new order, the Prince breaks with tradition and invites Don Calogero, a self-made man on the rise, to dinner. Calogero brings his beautiful daughter, Angelica. This provides almost the entire action of the novel: Tancredi, hitherto destined for the Prince’s own daughter, Concetta, falls in love with Angelica. The Prince, however distastefully and to Concetta’s lasting sorrow, promotes the match both for Angelica’s wealth and her father’s standing in the new regime.

The novel was controversial on publication (and note, fellow writers, that it struggled to find a publisher). It was attacked from both right and left for its portrayal of upper class decadence and the lives of the Sicilian working class. And yet, it prevailed to win the Strega Prize and to be revered among many famous writers. Its success lies perhaps in its precise and evocative portrayal of a man in search of spiritual anchors as his world changes as well as of the timeless depiction of Sicily itself. Indeed, ‘depiction’ is perhaps too small a word. The island’s character is revealed in ‘…the deep gloom of Sicilian summer’, and Palermo’s ‘…sense of death which not even the vibrant Sicilian light could ever manage to disperse.’. Even the style and pace of the writing conveys the ‘voluptuous torpor’ of Sicilian life.

And yet, the novel comes to a rather rushed and unsatisfactory conclusion. There is a jump from 1862 to the Prince’s death in 1885 and another to 1910 when we find the Prince’s daughters, all spinsters in their seventies, living in somewhat reduced circumstances. They are visited by the widowed Angelica, but we never find out what happened to Tancredi. And they tussle with the Church over the standing of their chapel. Although I’ve said little about it, Catholicism also pervades the novel, but it’s not until the end that the Salinas appear subject to the Church, their last shred of influence having been torn away.

At only 200 pages, The Leopard is a gem, almost a miracle of a novel. I would include it in my list of great novels of all time, but would be hard pressed to name any one novel ‘The Best”. Nominations, anyone?