[(essay date 1996) In the following essay, Della Coletta references a letter Lampedusa wrote to a friend in which he denied that The Leopard was a historical novel. Della Coletta interprets this to mean that the work’s ideology is not expressed merely by its thematic content but relies also on its structural order.]
Quand par les soirs d’été le ciel harmonieux gronde comme une bête fauve et que chacun boude l’orage, c’est au côté de Méséglise que je dois de rester seul en extase à respirer, à travers le bruit de la pluie qui tombe, l’odeur d’invisibles et persistants lilas.Marcel Proust Du côté de chez Swann See appendix 18
In a letter dated 2 January 1957 to his friend Guido Lajolo, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa denied that Il Gattopardo was a historical novel. Although the novel refers to Garibaldi’s landing in Sicily and depicts an episode from the Unification of Italy, Lampedusa suggested that Il Gattopardo provided more of a semiautobiographical narrative than a truthful depiction of nineteenth-century characters and situations (Vitello 229-30).1 Rather than negating the novel’s historical setting, Lampedusa’s claim that Il Gattopardo is a kind of autobiografia romanzata demonstrates that historical fiction inevitably reveals its author’s choices—both aesthetic and ideological—in the shaping of past reality and stresses the continual interrelationship between past stories and present discourses. Lampedusa does not offer a chronicle-like, naturalistic reproduction of the past; rather, he discloses the subjective filters and processes of construction and selection that organize current renditions of historical events. Il Gattopardo is not an antiquarian novel, capturing the exotic lore of bygone times and the uncanny remoteness of the past. Unlike antiquarian fiction, Il Gattopardo does not solve the problem of the relationship between past and present by abolishing the present and presenting the textualized past as the neutral and unproblematic translation of lived history.
Il Gattopardo is a truly historical novel engaged in a dialectical exchange between historical events and present interpretations. The novel self-consciously addresses the nature of present ideologies in the shaping of past realities while pointing to the role of subjectivity in the reconfiguration of the past. Historical knowledge, Lampedusa argues through Il Gattopardo, does not exist within the historical object, but is constructed and continuously transformed by present interpreters: the historical text constitutes a testimonial about the historian as well as a tribute to the past. Far from being inscribed once and for all in the materiality of the historical document, the truth of the historical past is not an absolute notion but, rather, is embedded in the historicity of its multiple interpreters, subject to the changes of institutions and individuals, and disseminated among a variety of hermeneutical practices and conscious and even unconscious responses to the historical scene.
Il Gattopardo explores the combination of fiction and history, particularly in relation to the ways in which history is emplotted and fictionalized. The novel’s complex structural order, with its use of analogical schemes and patterns of repetition, can be read as a writerly response,...