This book has been on my to-read list for some time and I'm glad I finally got round to it. It's a novel written by a Sicilian prince in the 1950s abo...moreThis book has been on my to-read list for some time and I'm glad I finally got round to it. It's a novel written by a Sicilian prince in the 1950s about the declining aristocracy in Sicily in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The leopard of the title is the Prince of Salina, whose heraldic emblem is a leopard. The novel is centred around him, but he is a curiously passive figure. The world he grew up in crumbles around him and he gloomily but pragmatically goes with the flow.
The book is sort of nostalgic and melancholy in tone—in so far as a writer can be nostalgic for something that happened before he was born—and it exhibits a kind of regret for a lost world; but, crucially, it doesn't read, to me, as wishing to turn the clock back. The aristocratic world represents a special kind of elegance and sophistication in the book and the shift of power to a nouveau riche class of merchants is a coarsening of society, but the book doesn't attempt to claim the aristocrats as especially virtuous or deserving of their position. It reminds me a bit of Proust: not immune to snobbery and the glamour of the aristocracy, but just a bit too clear-sighted to fully buy into it.
It's low-key and atmospheric and rather wonderful.(less)
I thought I ought to reread some of those Great Novels which are sitting on my shelves and I haven't read for years. I'm not sure why I picked up this...moreI thought I ought to reread some of those Great Novels which are sitting on my shelves and I haven't read for years. I'm not sure why I picked up this one in particular, but after a few pages I was thinking oh, man, I'd forgotten how funny this book is, and so brilliantly written. But after a couple of hundred pages I remembered why it has a reputation for being unreadable, or at least unfinishable.
The opening scenes, where he meets Queequeg, and goes to the whaling chapel, and joins the Pequod, and the crew are all introduced, are truly superb: grotesque and funny. But then after they get to sea, the book loses forward momentum. Partially because there's not much plot going on, and it's very episodic, but especially because of Melville's (or, I suppose, Ishmael's) long discourses on whales and whaling. Even those are interesting, and frequently well-written and entertaining. But there's an awful lot of it, and it's just rather pale and conventional compared to the weirdness of the narrative stuff. It's as though Bram Stoker had decided that Dracula would be greatly improved by a few chapters about folk customs in Romania and the best techniques for garlic cultivation.
So the book is rather becalmed. But towards the end it picks up again and builds to a suitably grotesque crescendo when they finally track down Moby Dick.
In all seriousness, although I do think this is a great novel, I think you could greatly improve it by judicious editing. You could cut it down to about the half and length and change it from a sprawling, discursive tome into something short, dark, strange and intense. Like Heart of Darkness with whales.
Since it's out of copyright, I suppose I could do it myself. As a public service.(less)
This is my mother’s favourite book. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I was certainly impressed by it. It’s set in Canada, I think in about the 1910s....moreThis is my mother’s favourite book. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I was certainly impressed by it. It’s set in Canada, I think in about the 1910s. It’s full of very striking episodes: unusual events, unusual settings. It’s often very visual; I’m tempted to say it’s the product of a filmic imagination, but I’d have to think more carefully about what I mean by that. Poetry would be another obvious comparison; it’s densely written and full of sensory detail.
It has an intentionally disjointed narrative that jumps backwards and forwards in time and from character to character without giving clear cues about where it’s going, so the reader is repeatedly disoriented, uncertain who they’re reading about and how it fits into the bigger picture. Each episode is given enough space that it becomes clear—you’re not left at the end of the book uncertain who is who, although I might need to read it again to get it completely clear in my head—but it’s non-linear and builds up as a kind of patchwork. (less)
This is one of the great novelistic portraits of London: a London full of smoke and fog, seedy backstreet pubs, horse-drawn cabs, and gaslights. That'...moreThis is one of the great novelistic portraits of London: a London full of smoke and fog, seedy backstreet pubs, horse-drawn cabs, and gaslights. That's what I like best about it, really, the London it creates and the grotesque characters that inhabit it: Verloc himself, the secret agent and seller of pornography, his coterie of seedy, ageing and probably ineffectual foreign anarchists and revolutionaries, the police chief on his trail, the idiot brother. All of that is done brilliantly. One vaguely assumes that as a European immigrant to London himself, Conrad was drawing on personal experience in his portrayal of the anarchists, but it's just as possible that he made it all up. In fact, reading my own description of it, it makes it sound like he set out to write a parody of a Sherlock Holmes novel.
On the whole, I think that when it gets into the psychodrama at the end — his wife's reaction to what has happened — it becomes a bit less interesting. But it's still a great book.(less)