Did The Leopard really change his spots?

Would they have?

You may be one of those people, like me, who always tries to sneak a look at someone’s library, record or DVD collection when you visit their home. Perhaps the shelves are a window on the soul?

In October last year Nick Clegg told Desert Island Discs that his book choice would be The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. By then Clegg’s popularity had plunged from the heady heights of the pre election TV debates in April to somewhere lower than a snakes waistcoat. What does Clegg’s choice of The Leopard tell us about the man who is one of the most controversial figures in Britain? And how useful is this sort of analysis?

The Leopard is a book both written and set in changing times. Tomasi di Lampedusa, the last in a long line of minor Sicilian princes, wrote the book in the wake of World War II during which his estate had been badly bombed. The novel’s setting is the culmination of the ‘Risorgimento’, or resurgence, the name given to the period of Italian nationalism which brought about the unification of Italy, led by Giuseppe Garibaldi, in 1861.

The book tells the story of how the Salina’s, a minor aristocratic family like Tomasi’s own, navigate the turbulent social and economic waters of the Risorgimento. The challenge for the head of the family, Prince Fabrizio, is to adapt the family to the new Italy being created by Garibaldi’s nationalists.

The book is full of portents of the apparent impossibility of the task. It opens with Fabrizio’s daily routine being interrupted by a grisly flashback of a dying soldier. Later on a cake in the shape of the family castle is devoured before Fabrizio’s son gets to have any. Fabrizio himself seems unsure whether the aristocracy can survive. In conversation with his staff he believes that the old order can be maintained but when he encounters Father Pirrone, who warns that the new order will bring the destruction of the nobility and church, Fabrizio says that change and adaptation to it are the natural order of things.

This dilemma is resolved in the character of Tancredi, Fabrizio’s nephew. He throws his lot in with the nationalists, explaining to Fabrizio, in the books most famous epigrammatic moment, “They will foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”

But if Tomasi sees the end of the old aristocracy as inevitable he seems to see as equally inevitable its replacement with something remarkably similar. One of Garibaldi’s men, Don Calogero, has risen from poverty to become wealthier than the Salina’s. He is nouveau riche and, early on, arrives at one of Fabrizio’s parties tastelessly dressed, to Fabrizio’s quiet satisfaction. But despite having the money he still craves the respect which the old nobility brings. A marriage is arranged between Dan Calogero’s daughter, Angelica, and Tancredi. Don Calogero gets the Salina’s nobility and the Salina’s get Don Calogero’s cash. Fabrizio and Don Calogero soon begin to assume more and more of each others characteristics. The prediction of Don Ciccio that the union of Tancredi and Angelica will simply cause the negative characteristics of the two families to thrive at the expense of the positive characteristics comes true.

In this sense The Leopard is a fundamentally conservative book. The very nature of conservatism is the conservation of an existing order. It is based on a conception of human nature as a constant from which it follows that methods and norms of behaviour in the past are equally worthy of respect as those originating today and that a good case must be made for change. If the duty of the conservative is not quite, as William Buckley put it, to stand astride history shouting “Stop!”, it is certainly to say “Hang on a minute” in a rather stern voice.

And in The Leopard Tomasi questions whether the changes wrought by the Risorgimento were beneficial. At one point Father Pirrone, the novels conscience, returns to his home village and sees the changes since the arrival of Garibaldi’s troops. The land, which used to belong to the church, has been seized and handed over to a moneylender much like a young Don Calogero. Whereas the monks, embedded in the community for several centuries, allowed the peasants to collect herbs on the land for free the new owner charges them. That this echoes the Marxist critique of capitalism for ditching “feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations” in favour of the alienating ‘cash nexus’ only goes to highlight that we are discussing conservatism with a small rather than capital ‘C’.

What does this tell us about Nick Clegg? After all that it’s hard to say. Someone looking at my bookshelves might see The Downing Street Years by Margaret Thatcher and Capital by Karl Marx and conclude that I’m a total schizophrenic. If you saw American Psycho on a bookshelf would you panic and reach for the mace?

Does Clegg empathise with any of these characters? It is difficult to see the son of a wealthy banker and descendant of Russian nobility seeing much of himself in the counter jumping Don Calogero. It is difficult, if you believe Clegg is at all sincere, to see him picturing himself as either Fabrizio or Tancredi, one doubtful of the possibility or worth of change the other resigned to it but determined to use it for his own ends. If you doubt his sincerity then Tancredi would seem to fit the bill perfectly. More likely, given his recent tear stained interview with the New Statesman, he may identify with Concetta, Fabrizio’s put upon daughter who retains the family’s noble traits only to be appreciated too late.

Perhaps he may identify with Tomasi himself? The Leopard was turned down by publishers fearing a scandal in Tomasi’s lifetime. When the book was published in 1958, the year after Tomasi’s death, it lived up to the publishers fears. From the left the book was accused of smearing the progressive achievements of the Risorgimento. From the right it was attacked for its depiction of desiccated nobility. Clegg would certainly recognise that situation.

Or perhaps he may value the novels deeper points about change. The many people who voted for Nick Clegg based on his promises of change may, perhaps, have thought twice if they had known that the one book he would read if he could read no other, questioned both the possibility and desirability of radical change.

This article originally appeared at Middlebrow Magazine

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