Sunday, January 13, 2008

Marcovaldo + Il Gattopardo (The Leopard)

Over the Christmas/New Year break I read a couple of novels whose title
characters share some things in common, but who are also very different.

Both are the heads of families (or pater familias) living in turbulent
times in Italian history: one during "il Risorgimento" (or Italian
unification), and the other during the reconstruction period following
World War II.  They must both find ways to adapt to change.  However,
the two men are from opposite ends of the social spectrum.

1. "Marcovaldo" by Italo Calvino

Marcovaldo is a factory worker in an unnamed industrial city in northern
Italy.  He lives in a basement flat with his wife and four children.
He's a modest man, who enjoys finding little pleasures amid the
struggles of daily life.  He's saddened by the pollution and smog caused
by the factories in the city where he lives.  But the novel is far from
a lament.  In fact, it's a very humorous book with some slightly surreal
elements thrown in.

The novel is subtitled "The Seasons in the City", and consists of twenty
short chapters.  Each chapter represents a particular season, describing
an episode in the life of Marcovaldo and his family.

Marcovaldo is a dreamer, and also a bit of a mischievous schemer.  For
example, one day during his lunch break he follows a cat on the rooftops
near his work and they stop at a dome on top of a fancy restaurant.  He
notices that directly beneath the skylight there is a large tank full of
live fish.  He gets his fishing rod, gently lowers it into the tank, and
manages to snag a trout.  He carefully reels it in, up and out of the
restaurant without anyone noticing.  But just as he's unhooked the fish,
the cat pounces on it and runs off with it.  Marcovaldo chases the cat
through the streets of the city to a block surrounded by skyscrapers.
The block is a common refuge for many of the cats in the city.  There's
a house on the block, owned by an old lady.  Marcovaldo sees that she
has managed to snatch the trout from the cat, so he knocks on the door
and asks for the fish back.  It turns out that the old lady actually
wants to sell her land, but the cats are keeping her a prisoner and are
scaring off potential buyers.

Later in the novel we find Marcovaldo and his family have moved up in
the world, literally.  Improving economic conditions have helped the
family move from a dreary, mouldy basement flat to a rooftop apartment,
but it's more of an attic really.  Prosperity has brought many benefits
to the wider population, but at a price: for example, the "visual"
pollution of roadside billboards and flashing neon signs on rooftops.
Marcovaldo and his kids manage to turn these to their advantage too, by
using parts of billboards as firewood, and by accepting money from
rival firms to fire slingshot pellets at the neon lights.

Another impressive collection of stories from Italo Calvino.

2. "Il gattopardo", or "The Leopard" by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

The "leopard" in the title is the nickname of Don Fabrizio Salina, a
member of the Sicilian nobility from the 19th Century.  The Salina's
coat of arms features a rampant leopard.  Don Fabrizio in fact has the
title of "Prince", and is a powerful man in the region.  His family owns
several properties throughout Sicily, and the novel follows key moments
in the Prince's life.  Don Fabrizio is not a overtly political man, but
he is well aware of the mood of the times.

A pivotal moment in his life surrounds the unification of Italy.  Up
until the middle of the 1800s, Italy as a single country did not exist.
The peninsula and islands were divided among surrounding kingdoms: for
example Sicily and southern Italy belonged to the Spain, and some
northern regions were part of the Austrian empire.  In 1860, the
unification movement came to a head when Garibaldi was about to lead
an army of Italian patriots to conquer Sicily.  Don Fabrizio remains
neutral, but he does not prevent his nephew (Tancredi Falconeri) from
fighting with the revolutionaries.  Tancredi's rationale for joining
the revolution is: "If we want things to stay as they are, things will
have to change."  Privately, the Prince also knows that change is
inevitable, and it is better to embrace it or else suffer the

When Tancredi returns, Don Fabrizio seeks to secure the young man's
future in the new Italy.  Tancredi is the only child of the Prince's
late sister.  Tancredi's father was also a member of the aristocracy,
but managed to squander most of his wealth before his own early death.
The Prince took his orphaned nephew under his wing and raised him
like a son (much to the annoyance of his own younger sons).  Tancredi
is far more spirited than the Prince's own children.  With the right
support, the Prince believes Tancredi could have a bright future.  The
changing political situation had given rise to a "new rich" out of the
lower classes.  One such member of the new elite, Don Calogero Sedara,
is the mayor of a town near one of the Prince's estates.  Despite his
vast wealth, Sedara lacks the refinement of the old aristocracy.  But
his daughter, Angelica, has just returned from studies in Florence and
has blossomed into a stunning beauty.  The Prince swallows his pride
and sanctions the courtship of Angelica by his nephew, Tancredi.

But the Prince is not completely satisfied with the changing of the
guard.  He laments: "We were the Leopards, the Lions; those who'll take
our place will be little jackals, hyenas; and the whole lot of us,
Leopards, jackals, and sheep, we'll all go on thinking ourselves the
salt of the earth."  This comment comes at the end of a larger and
interesting passage where the Prince explains why he thinks the
Sicilian people (himself included) are the way they are.

The novel has been made into a sumptuous and award-winning feature film
by Luchino Visconti.  Obviously the book provides greater detail about
the characters, the environment and the period.  For example, we find
out that the Prince is a renowned amateur astronomer and part-time
philosopher.  A very interesting read.