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The Last of His Kind : THE LAST LEOPARD: A Life of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, By David Gilmour (Pantheon Books: $22; 223 pp.)

August 18, 1991|Daniel Harris | Harris is a columnist for the Quarterly. His essays and reviews have appeared in Harper's, the Washington Post, and the Nation

The Sicilian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's posthumously published novel "The Leopard" has all of the ingredients of an archetypal publishing myth. In the final frantic years of his life, an anonymous author, toiling away in disenchanted isolation, produced like a swan song a single book, totally unaware of the value of what was in fact a masterpiece. But the entire world would recognize it only a few months after his death in 1957, when millions of readers polished off no fewer than 52 editions of the novel in its first year of publication alone. Add to this untimely and bitterly ironic celebrity the fact that he was the last, childless scion of an illustrious aristocratic family whose decline into the seedy squalor of bourgeois modernity he so poignantly evoked in his book, and you have a sensational story, the stuff that legends are made of, and the ideal subject for a biography.

What one quickly discovers, however, while reading David Gilmour's competent account of a man who redeemed what he himself viewed as a largely wasted existence in his final headlong plunge into authorship, is the difficulty of chronicling a life whose major events were essentially the solitary diversions of a world-weary aesthete.

The descendant of Patriarchs of Constantinople and papal legates whose vast fiefdoms stretched over the entire island of Sicily, Lampedusa himself was an extremely cultured man marooned in the shabby gentility of a drafty palazzo whose dilapidated hulk he was finally forced to abandon after it was nearly razed in World War II. Eking out a meager income from the property that remained after generations of litigious heirs had thoroughly pillaged the family's estate, he lived a sheltered and ineffectual life, migrating from coffeehouse to coffeehouse, devouring literature in several languages and nursing his own oppressive sense of frustrated vocation.

Pasty-faced, pudgy and shy, this introverted and undemonstrative man who treated strangers with monosyllabic reserve frittered away his life in an armchair, jotting down in his diary such trivialities as the purchase of a pair of shoes or a waterproof beret, and posting impassioned bulletins to his traveling wife about the diet (pasta, broccoli) of their precious darlings, their beloved dogs, each of which was addressed with infantile endearments from a different language.

Gilmour's informative biography of this self-effacing writer, who squandered what could have been a magnificent career in a never-ending series of procrastinations and bashful qualms, inevitably suffers from the inertia and eventlessness of a life that was deeply internal in nature. It is therefore ironic that the habits of timorousness and introspection that make Lampedusa such an unpromising subject for a biography are precisely the things that make Don Fabrizio, the imperious sovereign of his novel, the enduringly fascinating, doomed patriarch that he is.

Set in the late 19th Century when the power of the Sicilian aristocracy was passing into the hands of the modern Italian state, "The Leopard" is narrated from the jaundiced point of view of Lampedusa's great-grandfather, an aging patrician who is projected throughout the novel in stark silhouette against a gorgeous historical backdrop blazing with nostalgia and regret for a culture poised on the brink of change.

Time and again as one reads Gilmour's biography, one recognizes a kind of community of consciousness between Don Fabrizio and his creator, both of whom shared a resigned complicity with the very changes eroding the foundations of their lives--changes so vast that the only protest they could register against them with any dignity was profound disillusionment tempered with stoic detachment. For both Lampedusa, in the small irritations of the unremittingly prosaic life that Gilmour so carefully documents, and Don Fabrizio, in his frustration at the loss of his own fortunes compounded by the meteoric rise of the contemptible parvenus to whom he was forced to ingratiate himself, resignation became a form of heroism, an internal liberation that offered both men an illusory sense of superiority to the social upheavals occurring around them.

Never before, not even when Lampedusa's family was at the height of its power, have the lives of the feudal aristocracy seemed more magnificent than in the fabulous obsequies with which they are laid to rest in "The Leopard." The novel makes the sunset of this culture so brilliant, so achingly resonant with a sense of loss, that one suspects its author was ultimately more in love with the sunset than with the culture, with the pathos of a system whose injustices and social inequities never have looked more beautiful than in their decline.

It was this pessimism, this feeling of being stranded like an anachronism long past his prime in an era in which he could never feel fully at ease, that permeates the life of the recalcitrant subject of "The Last Leopard," a man who poses insuperable challenges for even a biographer as skilled and meticulous as Gilmour.

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