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 <http://www.amazon.com/Marcovaldo/dp/0156572044> 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 <http://www.amazon.com/Leopard/dp/0679731210> 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 consequences. 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.