Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Safety Exit

I just read The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957).  Originally published in Italian in 1958, it was promptly made into a prestigious epic motion picture by Luchino Visconti, with Burt Lancaster as the lead.  I decided to read the book before I watched the film, but now I wonder if I should follow through on the latter.  For one thing, I generally dislike dubbing, and the original version had Lancaster dubbed into Italian; a shorter version made for US release apparently has Lancaster's own voice speaking English, but I presume everyone else is dubbed.  For another thing, I suspect Lancaster was miscast physically: his character, Prince Fabrizio Corbero di Salina, has a "vast expanse of" belly under "his waistcoat" (7),* which doesn't sound like Burt.
Not that he was fat; just very large and very strong; in houses inhabited by common mortals his head would touch the lowest rosette on the chandeliers; his fingers could twist a ducat coin as if it were mere paper; and there was constant coming and going between Villa Salina and a silversmith's for the mending of forks and spoons which, in some fit of controlled rage at table, he had coiled into a hoop. But those fingers could also stroke and handle with the most exquisite delicacy, as his wife Maria Stella knew only too well; and up in his private observatory at the top of the house the gleaming screws, caps, and studs of the telescopes, lenses, and "comet finders" would answer to his slightest touch [7-8].
I find myself picturing someone more like John Goodman, if the actor must be American.  I don't quite believe any Hollywood actor, especially of that era, could play such a character convincingly, especially amid a mostly Italian cast.

But the main reason I'm now reluctant to watch the movie is that Lampedusa's prose (as translated, quite beautifully, by Archibald Colquhoun) carries the book.  It hasn't much of a plot, though I can understand why the vivid descriptions of people (aside from the Prince, his future daughter-in-law is described so sensuously that even I wanted to caress her), food, buildings, and Sicilian landscapes would have tempted Visconti.  Everyone who writes about the film mentions the forty-minute-long ball scene, based on the one in the book, which I'm sure will be visually gorgeous, but I doubt it can convey Lampedusa's voice and tone.  That's always a problem with omniscient narrators, which is why every film or TV adaptation of Jane Austen I've seen falls flat.

Austen's on my mind right now because, inspired by a book group discussing Pride and Prejudice on the bicentennial of her death, I'm rereading all her work.  Film and video can give you the costumes, the landscapes, the architecture and the decor, which, along with Colin Firth in a wet shirt, are what most people take to be what these stories are about; it's much harder for them to convey the author's attitude to his or her story.

Like Austen, Lampedusa was an observer, often acidly satirical, of his social world.  (Lampedusa was himself a prince, and The Leopard is based on his grandfather.  It's said that he began writing the novel -- the only one he wrote -- after the family palace was destroyed by bombing during World War II. He died of cancer shortly before it was published.)  So, for example, we are told of a Sicilian peasant:
In fact with his low forehead, ornamental tufts of hair on the temples, lurching walk, and perpetual swelling of the right trouser pocket where he kept a knife, it was obvious at once that Vincenzino was a "man of honor," one of those violent cretins capable of any havoc [202].
I think it was the word "ornamental," so carefully and meaningfully placed, that first made me think of Jane Austen in connection with The Leopard: it's the kind of touch she often employed.  Though she would never have written as Lampedusa did, of the young ladies at the ball:
The more of them he saw the more he felt put out; his mind, conditioned by long periods of solitude and abstract thought, eventually, as he was passing through a long gallery where a populous colony of these creatures had gathered on the central pouf, produced a kind of hallucination; he felt like a keeper in a zoo set to looking after a hundred female monkeys; he expected at any minute to see them clamber up the chandeliers and hang there by their tails, swinging to and fro, showing off their behinds and loosing a stream of nuts, shrieks, and grins at pacific visitors below.

Curiously enough, it was religion that drew him from this zoologic vision, far from the group of crinolined monkeys there rose a monotonous, continuous sacred invocation.  "Maria! Maria!" the poor girls were perpetually exclaiming.  "Maria, what a lovely house!"  "Maria, what a handsome man Colonel Pallavicino is!"  "Maria, how my feet are hurting."  "Maria, I'm so hungry, when does the supper room open?"  The name of the Virgin, invoked by that virginal choir, filled the gallery and changed the monkeys back into women, since the wistiti of the Brazilian forests had not yet, so far as he knew, been converted to Catholicism.

Slightly nauseated, the Prince passed into the next room, where were encamped the rival and hostile tribe of men ... Among these men Don Fabrizio was considered an "eccentric"; his interest in mathematics was judged almost a sinful perversion, and had he not been actually Prince of Salina and known as an excellent horseman, indefatiguable shot, and tireless skirt chaser, his parallaxes and telescopes might have exposed him to the risk of being outlawed.  But he was not talked to much, for his cold blue eyes, glimpsed under their heavy lids, put questioners off, and he often found himself isolated, not, as he thought, from respect, but from fear [222-3].
Lampedusa wrote about his era in retrospect rather than from within it, as Austen wrote about hers.  The social worlds of balls, crinolines, hunting, palaces, are very similar, though fifty years after Austen, the Prince knows that the order he represents is in decline. If she had lived a century later, and felt free to write about sexuality and politics (most of The Leopard is set in the mid-1800s, during Italy's transition to a unified "modern" state, and several of its characters play significant roles in that transition), and if she had lived long enough to write about old age from experience, Austen might have produced something like The Leopard.  But Lampedusa did produce it, and I'm very glad to have gotten around to reading it at last.

*Quoted from the 2007 edition published by Pantheon Books.