The Leopard – a curious book for Nick Clegg to read

The Deputy Prime Minister once started to write a novel and would, he hints, one day like to return to novel writing. It is nice to know, too, that he never ends the day without a few pages of fiction. I have the same habit, and I can commend it to others. You can read about Mr Clegg’s ruminations on literature here. 

Politicians quite often tell us about their reading habits, largely because such things are fairly uncontroversial, and it is a good way of trying to establish that they are human. There is a famous anecdote that Anthony Eden, at the height of the Suez Crisis, retired to his bedroom with a copy of Mansfield Park. I wonder if this is true: but even if it is not, it is certainly a good story. A Conservative Prime Minister of the 1950’s ought to find a calm oasis in the cool prose of Miss Austen just when everything around him is hotting up. Never mind that the Suez Crisis signified the death of Britain as a world power: we can all console ourselves that the greatest writer who ever lived was a vicar’s daughter from Hampshire.

One thing that Mr Clegg does give away is the preponderance of foreign authors on his list of favourite books. This would not have gone down well back in Eden’s day, but nowadays can be taken as a discreet claim to breadth of culture. Mr Clegg is, after all, a man of international links. He worked in Brussels where he met his wife, Dr Miriam Gonzalez; he has Dutch and Russian blood and speaks several foreign languages fluently.

I have only read one of the books on the list of Mr Clegg’s favourites, and that is The Leopard by the Prince of Lampedusa. It is, in my humble opinion, among the greatest books ever written. It is a series of unforgettable vignettes about the life of a Sicilian Prince just as Sicily is being changed forever, in the 1860s, with its absorption into the liberal Italian state.

It is rather odd that Mr Clegg should like The Leopard so much, because it is a book about the absolute fatuity of liberalism. The whole point of the book is that despite the myth of progress, despite the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy, led of course by the impeccably Liberal Cavour, nothing will change in Sicily, and nothing can change in Sicily, which is of its nature an intensely conservative society. In fact things will change, the book’s conclusion has it, only so that everything can remain the same.

Cavour was a great liberal politician, but Sicily defeated him, though he did not live long enough to see it. It is said that the only person in recent times who has ever made a fair fist at changing Sicily is il prefetto Mori, a man who, though appointed by Mussolini, was never a fascist, but whose methods were certainly authoritarian. But the reign of Cesare Mori only lasted five years in Sicily, and his successes were ephemeral.

It may be that in the future Mr Clegg will have the time to write, and a novel like The Leopard, one which points to the smallness of humanity against our historic backdrop, may come from his pen. And if you have not read The Leopard yet, please do: it is astonishing in its profundity. Incidentally it also illustrates another truth – that there are landscapes saturated with the spirit of Catholicism, of which Sicily is one.