Ken Krimstein: The Last Book I Loved, The Leopard


Loved? Big word.

I’ve liked a lot of books. But loved? And then, what was the last one I loved? I’m not sure I’ve ‘loved’ more than three books in my life, and one of them was the first one I ever finished in first grade, From the Earth to the Moon.

Nevertheless, The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa — which I read this summer — I loved. I had always heard how great the Burt Lancaster movie was (but never saw it) and had also heard about how great the book was, but somehow avoided. 19th century Sicily somehow didn’t appeal.

But I saw The Leopard at a used book fair, picked up a copy for a buck, and, figuring, what the heck, it’s vacation, I can chuck it if it sucks, I cracked the cover.

Its spell started immediately. Page one, sentence one — so mystically, so tonally and historically and visually skewed, I couldn’t tell if I wanted to keep reading to see when the strangeness would let up, or if I was seduced by the parallel worlds in the 19th century Sicilian palace. A Count from a distant country a century and half away, his petty triumphs and travails, this all felt as immediate and important to me as my next meal.

It wasn’t like reading. It was like living, like being somebody else. I felt the total otherness, and it infected me, like a beautiful virus — moldy, tattering at the edges, accompanied by the plaintive sounds of a gut string viola pulling a melody that combined Italian street songs and Bach. The book had music and taste and light and touch. But more than that, it had flesh and blood. And on top of that, it had spirit, life, wisdom. Feelings tumbled out of it. I’ve never read anything where comedy and tragedy and mystery and joy and sadness are mixed on every page, in almost every sentence. Reading The Leopard put me into a trance. I looked forward to my journeys, and dreaded the passing of each chapter. At first, I rejected the antiquated and, I thought, scene-stealing summaries at the heading of each chapter. After a few, however, I realized that even this was part of the grand structure, the structure of time — and timing — that made the book so, so… hallucinatory?

How would it end? I don’t want to give anything away, but, suffice it to say, that, if anything, the book was about time. Time. Whether it’s real or some kind of grand illusion as Einstein seems to say, The Leopard is like a fingerprint of time. A death mask of time. And the ending, well, in a visual, sonic, symbolic fashion, it caps the illusion perfectly.

Loved? Yes, I think so. I think so very much.

P.S. – The Italian title is way cooler than the translation, Il Gattopardo.

P.P.S. – The story of its publication is strange and amazing in itself…

Ken Krimstein is a writer and cartoonist. His work has appeared at McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Konundrum Engine Literary Review, Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, and in print, in The New York Observer. His cartoons have appeared in The New Yorker, Punch, The National Lampoon and next year, a collection of his cartoons will be published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Crown which is a Division of Random House which is a division of...well, you get it. He lives in NYC. Writing -- Cartooning -- More from this author →