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THE BEST BOOKS OF 1996 | FICTION

December 29, 1996|LEONARD MICHAELS | Leonard Michaels is the author of, among other works, "Sylvia" (Mercury House), "To Feel These Things" (Mercury House) and "A Cat" (Riverhead Books). He lives in Berkeley

"The Leopard" (Pantheon) by Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa is a novel I'd heard about for years but never got around to reading, maybe because I knew it had been made into a movie. The movie was said to be excellent, but that made the novel less rather than more attractive to me. In my mind the movie and novel canceled each other. A good novel would be spoiled for me by the movie, just as a good movie is spoiled for me by what's good in the novel it comes from.

So I didn't particularly care to see the movie or read the novel, but last year I found myself in Italy, in a house in Umbria, with "The Leopard" on the bookshelf. I read it twice. Sometime, I'm sure, I'll read it again. I could talk about it endlessly--the wonderful story, marvelous witty prose, and the profound understanding of recent revolutionary history in which ancient aristocratic power succumbs not so much to new social forces as to the revolutionary force that is life. I'll quote one line that makes this point: "Where there's death there's hope." You can read this line many different ways, all of them comprehended by Lampedusa's brilliant spirit, which speaks for the sorrow of his aristocratic hero, the destructive joys of his revolutionary era, and indeed for the visionary genius of Italy, as witty and beautiful as it is tragic.

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