We’re all being urged to read ‘more diverse voices’ these days, although you may have noticed that almost all of the writers you’re being told to read write in English, live in the United States or England and have been to top-tier universities. Curiously, they’re also nearly of the same currently fashionable ethnicity, and the majority of them are of the same sex, or gender if you prefer. Odder still, the stories resemble each other: nearly all are victim narratives, ‘heartbreaking’ stories of loss, oppression, repression, cruelty, violence and slavery. And there’s a bogeyman (I choose the gender deliberately here) common to all these novels too. You know who that is.
Let me state categorically, for anyone who doesn’t know my views, that I am not defending the hegemony of the white male, and welcome diverse voices, provided they are talented, and provided they are—well, diverse. But what we’ve done, or rather what the publishing industry has done, is exchange one kind of predictable, homogeneous type of fiction for another. We used to have endless novels about dysfunctional families and affairs among the bored, listless educated white middle classes of the western world. (Boring! Yes, of course.) Now we have—I needn’t tell you. If you follow literary prizes at all, you know.
So here’s a suggestion for a really different voice: that of an Old World aristocrat, and actual prince. Giuseppe Lampedusa was prince of the island that bears his family’s name—now overrun with immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa. For over twenty-five years he intended to write a novel about one of his ancestors, but only began it at the age of fifty-seven or eight, in the mid-1950s. He finished writing it days or weeks before his death in 1957, when he was sixty, and it was still unpublished. One publisher had told him it was unpublishable, while the other he had sent it to (Mondadori) regarded it as a quality work, but unmarketable. By some miracle, a scout from another house heard about it, published it after his death, and it went on to become the most successful literary novel of the second half of the twentieth century in Italy. It’s a masterpiece—and probably unlike anything you’ve read, particularly if your usual diet is American fiction.
You may know the story; even if you haven’t read the book, you may have seen the brilliant film version by Luchino Visconti. The novel starts in 1860, a critical year for Italy, with Garibaldi landing in Sicily with his thousand Redshirts, who fight against the forces of the Bourbon King of Naples. That’s the ‘inciting incident’ on the public stage. On the private one, Don Fabrizio Salina, the prince (known as ‘The Leopard’ because of his armorial bearings and his immense size) has a beloved nephew, Tancredi, also a prince, but penniless. This boy joins Garibaldi’s rebels—which the Leopard finds distasteful, as he mistrusts revolution and democracy—and falls for Angelica, the beautiful and rich daughter of a plebeian businessman. (When I say ‘falls for’, he’s equally attracted by her genuine charms and her wealth: these aristocrats have an eye for the main chance.) In one sense, it’s a conventional novel, in that there’s conflict: the Leopard’s aristocratic way of life is under challenge, both politically, and from the new men like Angelica’s father, who are rapaciously buying up all the old noble properties. On the other, whereas any agent or editor will tell you that the protagonist has to have a clear desire, and fight for it like Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti western, this doesn’t happen in this novel. The Leopard’s aim is simply to hang on to whatever he can, for as long as he can, and adapt as he has to—and one way he can do that is to give his consent to his nephew’s betrothal to the daughter of a man he despises, even though he had hoped he would marry his own daughter. (No blood tests in nineteenth century Italy.)
This thumbnail summary may not sound gripping—and I doubt any satisfactory ‘elevator pitch’ of it could succeed with a contemporary agent—but in fact, for the thoughtful and sensitive reader (ah, my dear readers, of course they still exist!) the novel is a treasure, not only of psychological penetration, but of spiritual insight, and the evocation of a period that may seem to have in little in common with ours, but does.
You may have little interest in the decline of the feudal aristocracy in Europe—although the popularity of Meghan Markle suggests that even ‘progressives’ retain an atavistic snobbery and love of titles—but what unfolds, against a baroque background of palaces and balls, is an utterly unromantic story of one kind of ruthless predator taking the place of another, and clothing their exploitation and rapaciousness in a rhetoric of freedom, democracy, and justice. Sound familiar yet? The first free plebiscite is held in Sicily to determine whether the island should adhere to new Kingdom of Italy (under Vittorio Emanuele, King of Sardinia): and the results are unanimous in favour. A bit suspicious, no? But of course Garibaldi, who styles himself ‘dictator’ of Sicily, in spite (or because of?) his leftist credentials, and all the ‘democratic’ new men, really want only one thing: power. The Leopard understands that everything will change, and everything will stay the same. The aristocrats will be replaced by the industrialists and capitalists, and the poor will remain oppressed. And in the end, will it be worth it, even for the victors? The final two chapters, which show the Leopard on his deathbed, pondering his life in a manner reminiscent of Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s novella, and his unmarried, elderly daughters, clinging to the remains of their prestige and the comfort of their Catholic faith, are a masterful summing up of the melancholy lives of not just a family, but a class, a culture, which is vanishing.
And even though the novel is not about the immigrant experience, or intersectionality, or racism or sexual oppression, my guess is that most readers will find it more relevant and more universal, and better written, than almost all the novels winning the prizes these days.