The Leopard is set in Sicily in 1860, as Italian unification is coming violently into being, but it transcends the historical-novel classification. E.M. Forster called it, instead, "a novel which happens to take place in history." Lampedusa's Sicily is a land where each social gesture is freighted with nuance, threat, and nostalgia, and his skeptical protagonist, Don Fabrizio, is uniquely placed to witness all and alter absolutely nothing. Like his creator, the prince is an aristocrat and an astronomer, a man "watching the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance without ever making, still less wanting to make, any move toward saving it." Far better to take refuge in the night skies.
What renders The Leopard so beautiful, and so despairing, is Lampedusa's grasp of human frailty and his vision of Sicily's arid terrain--"comfortless and irrational, with no lines that the mind could grasp, conceived apparently in a delirious moment of creation; a sea suddenly petrified at the instant when a change of wind had flung waves into frenzy." Though the author had long had the book in mind, he didn't begin writing it until he was in his late 50s. He died at 60, soon after it was rejected as unpublishable.
Archibald Colquhoun's lyrical translation also contains 70 more precious pages of Lampedusa--a memoir, a short story, and the first chapter of a novel. In "Places of My Infancy" the author warns that "the reader (who won't exist) must expect to be led meandering through a lost Earthly Paradise. If it bores him. I don't mind." Luckily, the reader does exist; even more luckily, boredom is not an option. [via]