Monday, July 28, 2008

The Leopard

I don't have much to say about Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s classic novel The Leopard except that it left me a little disappointed. I will just point to this essay in bookforum, though I hardly agree with its ecstatic praise. At places Lampedusa reminded me of Stendhal (in The Red and the Black) specially in the way he is able to see-through the insincerities and self-delusions of his characters, specially when it comes to their religious beliefs and their obsessions with social rank, and the elaborate self-justifications they invent to explain their behavior and action to themselves. Unfortunately most of the rest of the book feels like a dull plod through a conventional historical-realist fiction. I have also been losing interest recently in the conventional realist fiction with its linear, cause and effect narrative so that may be another reason why I was somewhat bored with the book.

Lampedusa doesn't have anything revolutionary or even really perceptive to say about the nature of historical progress or politics in the modern world either. He seemed to me somewhat of a conventional aristocratic cynic and worse, even somewhat of a snob and elitist. He believed that aristocracy was anyway doomed, primarily because a longing for doom and oblivion was present in the aristocratic class itself, perhaps at a subconscious level. (As Burt Lancaster in one of the key lines in Visconti's film says, "our sensuality is nothing but a desire for oblivion"). As for the question of justice and equality and the idea of historical progress, he (through his central character) is extremely pessimistic. In some ways the prince thinks that democracy will be worse for the people because the ruling class will anyway continue to exploit them, only now they will have the justification that they are acting in the name of the will of the people.

Visconti's film is very sensuous and beautiful (at a surface level) but ultimately quite disappointing as well, specially because Visconti was an ardent Marxist himself and one expected some real political discussions and insights from the film. He was also, like Lampedusa, a member of the aristocracy, in fact one of the richest families in Europe. Still the famous ballroom scene really justifies everything. I don't think there is anything quite like it in the movies. In the book it is barely noticeable. I also don't understand why Visconti chose to prune the entire last section of the book because that is unarguably the most powerful section of the book. In the film Lancaster's death is implied but in the book we not only see him really dying but Lampedusa fast forwards us many years to see some more destruction and ruin that passage of time has wrought. We see both Concetta and Angelica as now old and dying, with Lampedusa hinting that they both lived a life full of unhappiness and suffering, thus proving that the pessimistic forebodings of the prince were justified and things only get worse with time. The novel ends with a panache too, informing the sad and bitter fate of the dog who was beloved of prince.

For a much better and much more powerful and stirring treatment of a similar subject, I will recommed Joseph Roth's The Radetzky March. It is far darker and much more pessimistic take on historical progress but it avoids this aphoristic and unearned pessimism that Lampedusa shows. (The difference is quite clear in the author's backgrounds as well - a homeless jew from central Europe on one hand and an aristocratic dandy on the other hand.) Incidentally this year is 50th anniversary of its publication. A journalistic article in new york times explores some interesting background history behind the publication of the book. Another article takes you on a tour of Sicily with the book serving as a guide.

6 comments:

puccinio said...

I think you were looking for the wrong things in the case of both novel and film. Lampedusa and Visconti are two very different individuals.

Lampedusa's novel was written in the late 50's of Italy after the war when there was much confusion regarding the direction of Italy. So he wrote a novel about a Sicilian Prince based on his own grandfather to bring some perspective on the dark side of the Risorgimento. The Risorgimento was to bring about the re-unification of Italy freeing it from Austrian and bourgeois dominance but what it led to was the rise of the middle-class.

Visconti's film is about that. The rise of the middle-class. Which is why he removes the obviously tragic aspects of the novel which work in the text but are not necessary for the film. His idea was to show how events works, how politics functioned which is what the ball sequence is about. It's also about recreating how a person thinks by externalizing internal thoughts.

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In some ways the prince thinks that democracy will be worse for the people because the ruling class will anyway continue to exploit them, only now they will have the justification that they are acting in the name of the will of the people.
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That's not what Prince Fabrizio meant. The film says that better. Fabrizio was talking about Sicily. He is a Sicilian before and above any other identity. He has great respect and admiration for the guy who asks him to take his place in the senate and he is all sincerity when he says, "It was an honor to have met you."

What Fabrizio meant was that it didn't matter if the aristocracts had fallen, that their names lost all meaning but there would still be people trying to gather power, influence, cultivate lineage by hundreds of "jackals" only for them it would be for money.

This is what the ball sequence was about. On the surface it is beautiful and pleasing to the eye but the languid pace and the puppet-like movements of dancers towards the end shows that it's really funereal. Not unlike the party scenes in ''La Regle du Jeu'' made by Luchino's ex-boss. The fact is that Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon love each other but that love is corrupted by the water they swim in, similarly a ball which was meant for entertainment and leisure for the older aristocracts is nothing more now than an arena for cultivating favour, essentially for prostituting onseself. And in the end, Fabrizio realizes that his nephew has knowingly and unknowingly become complicit in that new world.

Watch the film again, it's full of great subtle details. It's really a film that can't be absorbed in one viewing. The comparison to Stendhal is apt by the way. Only Visconti is more Stendhalesque than Lampedusa. And yes the film is better than the book(which is still pretty good and worth reading).

Kubla Khan said...

I agree with Puccinio about the movie being better than the book( btw puccinio should start his/her blog....just kidding) i read the book after watching the movie and was slightly disapponted. i wrote a post on this movie and below is an excerpt of what Said thought of it.....


"The crowd scenes in the film, especially the Palermo street battles and the gigantic ball scene, testify to the prodigious powers of cinematic super-spectacles. The film's surface is lavish, large, expensive and overpowering. Visconti has said of this film that it is meant to be a realization of Gramsci's theory of transformismo, and this lesson is seen from the point of view of a prominent left intellectual and aristocrat, Visconti himself. This movie is in effect a wonderful costume drama whose mastery of cinematic technique obliterates not only the privacy of the past but also its very pastness, its irrecoverability, which is at the heart of Lampedusa's novel. What Visconti uses film to do to the Lampedusa novel is to add to it a sort of cinematically Proustian descant, the fin-de-siecle concern with overabundance, the leisure and excessive pleasure of the privileged class who do not give much thought to how much things cost".............

i am not sure whether the ball scene can be described as funereal.....it is spectacular, it is larger than everything, even the characters with all their dreams and politics and desires.

you write.....

"Visconti was an ardent Marxist himself and one expected some real political discussions and insights from the film".

i agree with you entirely on this. the story, book or otherwise is a lament for the loss of an old order and the prince stands for the restoration, even if faded of the vestiges of that order. in other words, he stands for no change, for the failure of movement and the establishment of the status quo.

perhaps the ball scene is more of a tribute to an idea of aristocracy rather than a critique of its atrocity.....for everything lavish is ultimately so atrocious, so garish.

the prince is not a democrat, he would fear democracy or let us say change......his essence is for the establishment to persist.

Visconti's movie is a tribute, an ode to an old ethos, a lament or an elegy for what was lost. in such cases, new means terrible dreams, selfishness pervades over other things, art masquerades as new ideals but in the end, nothing must change. that is what the count wanted.

puccinio said...

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...but in the end, nothing must change. that is what the count wanted.
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That's not true. Prince Fabrizio is not a flaming reactionary. He is an aristocract who represents the best aspects of his class which have already decayed and decaded and are pretty much the walking dead. He is a man out of his time. He is a character who at best can only observe and feels that the best he can hope for is the survival of his class through the marriage of his beloved nephew Tancredi and Anjelica, who he himself is very much in love with(and which she herself knows too).

But the point of the ball is that the world he knows is as good as dead. He is the last of his kind even if people will bear his name into the future. The film is not about the death of a leopard(as the book is) but about the leopard being caged in a colourful zoo run by the jackals. And the irony of the film is that it isn't Anjelica who is the daughter of a vulgar bourgeois merchant who causes the corruption but Tancredi himself who has become his father-in-law's stooge at the end of the film who brings it about. This is another change Visconti made on the book which sees her with disdain.

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i am not sure whether the ball scene can be described as funereal.....it is spectacular, it is larger than everything, even the characters with all their dreams and politics and desires.
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I saw ''Il Gattopardo'' twice on the big screen and while at first the ball scene seems spectacular. On second viewing you can see as the phrase goes, "the skull beneath the skin". That conversation about the price of the ballroom candles is really where you can sense Visconti's anger. That so many ceremonies and traditions had been vulgarized by the middle-class and most importantly the fact that politics had now been brought by them into the private sphere. It's a private gathering but all everyone care and all their sons and daughters are dancing for is for business and political interests. That is why Prince Fabrizio feels so out of place there. The bit where he looks at that cheap painting is highly ironic.

Of course his dance with Anjelica is his final triumph of course. And it's clear that he's in love with her at the end but knows that it's too late and so he's gone.

The aphoristic idea(and I agree with Alok the book is too entirely in love with the sound of it's own words) of "in order for everything to remain the same, everything must change" is twisted in the film by pointing out that what's gone is the substance, the soul or the spirit or whatever and all that's left is empty shells or ghosts.

Another irony is the fact that Fabrizio is the only Sicilian in the film who's entirely connected to his roots, his soil. He is a real Sicilian and he is completely a part of his landscape. In that respects the people he had most in common with are the poor Sicilians. In the last shot of the film, where you seem him walk into the night has that idea of course. Not that he'll become a Marxist all of a sudden but that he's in the same boat as the proletariat(to a limited extent of course). That's of course Visconti's own view and apologia of course.

Alok said...

thanks both of you for the erudite comments! :)

kubla, I actually had in mind what you had written about Said's essay on "late style" which discussed this book. It was very clear in Lampedusa's diagnosis of what was ailing the nobility. He was probably projecting his own feelings and thoughts about mortality to the institution of aristrocracy but he felt that they had lost the will to survive and all the pomp and grandeur and decadence was just a facade which truly and actually was a longing for doom. In that sense the ballroom scene does feel "funereal" as Puccinino says. In that sense it is also in tune with a lot of fin de siecle literature and culture which similarly found correspondence and a direct link between decadence, opulence and death of that same culture. It is there in proust too.

I obviously have very little symapthy for this kind of fashionable, elitist political pessimism, which is more often than not merely a cover for reactionary ideologies (not surprisingly Germany was full of such intellectuals before the rise of Nazi Germany) but if you see it from the perspective of one man finally facing death it makes everything more sympathetic. I don't think Lampedusa is entirely successful in giving the prince a voice, which is truly subjective and his own. Often he is just a mouthpiece for Lampedusa's own ideas and that was what my main problem with the book was and what makes the book so politically muddled and even incoherent.

similarly a ball which was meant for entertainment and leisure for the older aristocracts is nothing more now than an arena for cultivating favour, essentially for prostituting onseself.

This is true. I think Kubla is also saying the same thing...politics, which has turned into a pursuit of personal favours, enters and corrupts the private sphere of people and their relationships. Ultimately the political message of the book is simple and something all of us already know... democracy is as good as people who run it and what interests the bourgeoisie (the powerful class in modern democracies) foremost is narrow and material self-interest. One can be pessimistic about it that is ok... but mourning about the old order doesnt make any sense and to be fair he doesn't mourn... he (and the prince) is just looking at everything through the prism of his own impending death. He actually died before the book was published.

Alok said...

The film is not about the death of a leopard(as the book is) but about the leopard being caged in a colourful zoo run by the jackals.

puccinio, I really liked this description, very insightful. Makes me want to see the film again right now...

Ben said...

The Leopard is one of my favourite books. Unlike you, I find Lampedusa's style effortless and witty and his worldly insights breathtaking. He writes about a very small circle of aristocratic people at a given time -- as Proust did, for example -- but his greater themes transcend class. The pace is slow, but that echoes the tedium of aristocratic Sicilian life. Meanwhile the characterisations are so alive that, for me at least, reading the novel is not a plodding experience, rather a deeply moving one. I can recommend Peter Robb's book Midnight in Sicily, which devotes some pages to Lampedusa and the novel, and to Sicilian life from then to the present day. He rightly observes how loosely Visconti adapts the tone of the novel.