Friday, 11 November 2011

1001 Books Review - The Leopard

Housekeeping again:

If you are assuming I have not been posting very much lately because I have been hard at work on my MA, you are very sweet and I admire your belief in human nature. Obviously, you are right. Yesterday, for example, I went to the British Library, where in the course of some very serious essay research I read the following sentence:
In February 1847, two elephants performing at Astley's Amphitheatre were presented with lots of bouquets. The elephants, we are told, had rather hoped for carrots and turnips.
(This is, in case you are interested, taken from The London Stage in the Nineteenth Century by Robert Tanitch, and I HIGHLY recommend it to you if you're interested in theatre history. It is not only factually fascinating but also delightfully snide). And if you are interested in what else I found out about the weird and wonderful on the London stage, you can read all about it over here.

During my time off from all this strenuous academic activity, though, I have been doing NaNoWriMo. If you don't know what this is, I have handily written a Litro blog about it. As of today I am 18540 words up and someone just died, so things are Going Well in that respect.

In the interests of linked-in completeness, I have also recently blogged about your furniture coming to life and eating you and written a (scathing) review of Richard Ellmann's biography of Oscar Wilde. Enjoy! Oh, and I also read a book! Look at that. I haven't been totally wasting my time.

I have to admit, though, that I had a very major case of Not Getting Along with The Leopard. I could probably have finished it in a few days, but I'd read a few pages of it and then realise that BY GOD the bathroom could do with a clean and I needed to bake bread for lunch and how about that essay due in next week. I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading this for fun.

I think this is a prime example of the huge difference that exists between knowing that something is written well and actually liking it on a personal level. With the English MA student side of my brain I can see that The Leopard is meant to be a haunting evocation of the beauty of a vanished system and the transience of an individual life, but what I actually thought when I finished the novel was that Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa is kind of tiresomely self-indulgent, and that keeping a badly stuffed dog beside your bed for fifty years is gross.

Part of this has to be that The Leopard's atmosphere - and the novel is practically all atmosphere - really annoyed me. The whole thing takes place in an overwhelming state of rococo decay. Whenever characters appear they have to fight their way past profuse mountains of rotting roses and moulting silk sofas and five thousand Blessed Virgins with their paint coming off; and doing battle with all this scenery means that the poor things are exhausted and morose before they even begin to talk. Add to this the fact that they're in Sicily, where it's exhausingly hot all the time, and it's not entirely surprising that most of the scenes are variations on the theme of one character turning to another and saying, "Dude, I can't. Let's go lie down."

The plot of the novel is basically Prince Fabrizio (the Leopard of the title) not doing things, and then feeling sort of morose about it, but not morose enough to do anything except lie down. Occasionally he lies down with whores, and then he feels vaguely bad about it, which makes him have to lie down, which makes him realise that he is OLD and THE LAST OF HIS KIND and DOOMED TO DEATH, which is coincidentally a lot like LYING DOWN FOR EVER. Woe.

It's possible that I'm not that sympathetic to the Sicilian mindset (it was very heavily stressed that this attitude to life is Very Sicilian). It's also possible that I suffered from not understanding what on earth is going on historically - I just about know that Garibaldi was a man as well as a biscuit, a state of ignorance in a reader that obviously never occurred to Lampedusa. There are very few handy hints about historical background, and to make it worse Lampedusa has sort of half-assed an attempt to make the novel a knowing piece of post-modernity. What this means in practice is that the text will be totally immersed in the idioms and references of the 1860s and then all of a sudden a character's state of mind will be explained by reference to a MOTORWAY or an AIRPLANE or something equally weird and out of place. I think Lampedusa was going for a 'clever and humorous' angle, but to me it just felt awkward and half-way-to-nothing, like a fish with a human face stuck on it.

I'll admit, there were some moments that did work - there's a chapter about a weird erotic game of hide-and-seek through an enormous house that I thought was gorgeously written - but overall The Leopard just didn't do it for me. People are, of course, perfectly entitled to say that it's the greatest Italian novel ever, but I am likewise entitled not to agree with them at all.

Anyway, thank goodness, it's over now. One more 1001 Books book down! Only hundreds and hundreds to go! And for my next trick, I'm going to read something fun.

2.5 stars.

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