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Talking about Revolution

A dear multilingual friend wrote to me

I finally read The Leopard earlier this spring. I can't say it's a favorite, but it's certainly a masterful novel. Di Lampedusa makes keen psychological observations. It did leave me with the question of what was the source of the Prince's deep-seated discontent, and why his daughters never married.

To which I replied:

Ha, you put your finger on the central issue of The Leopard: the sadness of life. Some cultures elevate this to an aesthetic principle. When the French asked Chopin what it was in his music that they found so strangely and otherworldly moving, which they felt but couldn't name, he said (this is a real quote): "oh, that is a uniquely Polish feeling, we have a word for it, żal, there is no word for it in French." (Chopin grew up perfectly bilingual, so he would know about the absence of "żal" in French).

But he was wrong about this: certain other cultures do celebrate this feeling, too, not just Poles. The Japanese. The Turks. (Is it accidental that the nations that do are former great powers who have fallen?) It is a kind of sadness for something beautiful that passed away unfulfilled. It isn't "regret" (which is mainly for things that went wrong, or you wish hadn't happened). Rather, it describes a situation when you meet a gorgeous person in passing but life prevents anything from happening and years later you think about it, wishing it had happened.

And this is Fabrizio's position: his life is coming to a close and he reflects on all the things that could have been and weren't and never will come again. He is aging and now that he is old, beautiful women only pretend they find him attractive. They say this because he is cute, and they like him, but, truth be told, they would not bed him now. Likewise, his class is coming to an end and will become politically irrelevant and all the culture it has created will die and will be replaced by Andy Warhols and Banksys.

The novel is personal but also sociological and political. It describes events that usher in a dramatic change in Sicily, The world turning topsy-turvy. For generations, Don Fabrizio and his kind dominated the state. This was unjust and unfair to 90% of the population, but (a lame excuse, I know) it created all the classical art and architecture and poetry and music which we, the grunt successors cannot reproduce (for lack of time and resources), but can enjoy. And while he has obviously thought his class was stupid (he looks at them during the ball and calls them "monkeys", he recalls his King being a profound mediocrity) he loved the beauty of that life.

He recognizes that things must change. (Tancredi's remark that "for things to stay the same, everything must change" is way over-hyped in critical literature: for one thing, it is wrong; things did not stay the same; new men came to power; the culture has changed as a result; things are different now. Not the first time I am brought to think that literary critics are stupid). Don Fabrizio recognizes this, and is sad about it, but he accepts it because he knows that for most human beings in Sicily (and the world) the new order will be an improvement. So he does nothing to oppose it. He just reserves for himself the right to feel sad about it and not to be part of the revolution. His inactivity is the tithe of loyalty he pays to the old system.

As to your specific question about why his daughters never married, the answer should be blindingly obvious: stemming as they do from the ancient aristocracy, they refuse to marry beneath their rank; the problem is that men who "rank" with them (in birth, manners, culture) have become poor and irrelevant; and the relevant men are beneath them because they are a) low born b) uneducated c) uncultured. You see, Bunny, men marry down, women marry up. There was no "up" these girls could marry. So they didn't.

But now that you have read The Leopard, may I insist you should listen to the audiobook of Steven Price's "Lampedusa?" I never thought anyone could beat Lampedusa (or Death in Venice). But Steven Price did. Listen:

"Mirella Radice was slender, with small shoulders, and a long soft neck with a fuzz of brown hair at the nape. He had found her quiet and submissive when Giò had first brought her to meet them two years ago but soon he had come to recognize the quick arched eyebrow, the slight lift of her lip when Giò spoke outrageously, and he had liked both the discretion and the dryness of her company. She had a habit of taking in a room as if from the side of her vision, and of turning her face slightly as one spoke so she might seem to be listening more intently. Her voice was low, her laugh deep and rich as a laugh heard from underwater. When she smiled, he felt old but did not mind it, for there was such purity of emotion in her. He could not recall a time when his own pleasure had been untainted by loss, by sadness. Mirella was educated, but uncultured, and it was this he and Licy had set to correct in her. No life can be lived deeply, Licy told her upon their first meeting, if it is lived outside of art."

Like a laugh from underwater? This book is more gorgeous and more touching than the original. The audiobook version is also read absolutely gorgeously. (I listen to audiobooks while I fall asleep). May I send you a link to listen to it for free?

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