The one thing generally known by those who intend to read this novel, prior to picking it up, is that one is told in the prologue that most of the family of the title perished at the hands of the Nazis during WW2. That prologue is wonderful; it could stand, quite comfortably, as a short story in its own right. Our narrator, who for ease I am going to call Giorgio [the work is largely autobiographical, apparently], visits, with a group of friends and a young girl, the ancient tombs of the Etruscans and this, like a sour-tasting madeleine, first reminds him of the family mausoleum of the Finzi-Continis which in turn transports him back to his childhood. From Chapter One onwards what we are presented with is an intensely nostalgic, often painfully beautiful, pre-war tale of childhood crushes, an eccentric aristocratic family, and young adult heartbreak; yet it is the spectre of death, the sense of death looking over the shoulder of each Finzi-Contini during every scene that imbues the novel with extreme pathos; every petty argument, every mundane incident is given significance by the understanding one has that this family is doomed.
“In life, if a man wants seriously to understand how the world works, he must die at least once.”
Of course, everyone is, ultimately, doomed, all of us will one day die and in this way the novel is universal; it has something significant to say to all of us about the passing of time, the irrevocable nature of the past, and most importantly about seizing the day and making the most of life because the end may come sooner than you think. The Finzi-Continis, who obviously have no knowledge of what is going to happen to them under the Nazis, live almost as though they are trying to stave off danger, to isolate themselves, protect themselves, from the outside world and death. Their imposing house is surrounded by a huge wall which can only be scaled by ladder or a daunting and impressive feat of climbing, they open their own synagogue, the children are educated at home, even medication is prohibited as it is seen as unnatural or something that is from outside, etc.
Micol, their daughter, and the enigmatic heroine of the novel, is the only one who rebels against this attitude. In one of the finest scenes in the novel she climbs a ladder from inside the grounds of the house and attempts to persuade Giorgio to scale the wall and enter. He doesn’t, in the end, and this sets a precedent for his character for the rest of the book; Giorgio, unlike the fearless Micol, is too reticent and as a consequence his chances of being with her, on this occasion literally but later in the book in a more romantic sense, are compromised; this reticence on his part, this shying away from direct action, defines not only his personality but their relationship. It is almost as though Giorgio feels as though he has an endless amount of time in which to reach his goal, but that Micol intuits that she has very little.
[A scene from Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini, directed by Vittorio de Sica]
Beyond this melancholy Proustian approach there are a number of other engaging aspects of the novel. There is the Jewish issue, not just that the Finzi-Continis perish for being such, but Bassani’s documenting of the treatment of Jews by the Fascists, the rising tide of resentment in Italy, which results in exclusions from the party, from the tennis club etc. Giorgio’s father, a Jew and a Fascist, is one of the most moving characters in the book, despite not featuring heavily; he could easily be criticised for his political beliefs, for not standing up for himself or his race, but Bassani makes a very interesting point. He says that Jews are always lambasted for not fitting in, for not behaving like the average man, and yet are also lambasted when they do follow the herd, when they are nothing more than a simple ordinary soul doing what everyone else does.
There is also a suggestion, to my mind anyway, of homosexuality; Alberto, Micol’s brother, is, I would claim, quite clearly in love with his friend Malnate, a lusty manly communist with an imposing intellect and imposing physicality. Alberto hates his friend to be contradicted or argued with, enjoys merely being in his presence rather than engaging with him intellectually, and reacts jealously when he senses Micol and Malnate may be getting closer. Bassani was himself, if I remember correctly, gay, so although the issue of Alberto’s sexuality is never made explicit, that he would want to represent this aspect of himself in his work [and it certainly plays a major role in another of his novel’s The Gold-Rimmed Glasses] isn’t such a wild claim.
Before concluding I would like to discuss Bassani’s style. I have referenced Proust twice in this review, and the eminent Frenchman was quite obviously a major influence on the Italian. His sentences are long, very long, involving seemingly endless clauses, in a way that is associated with Marcel but is also reminiscent of Henry James and, more recently, W.G. Sebald or Javier Marias. In fact, Sebald is whom this novel, prose-wise, reminded me of the most. However, Bassani isn’t, for all his qualities, on the level of Sebald, or Proust or James; his sentences are not as consistently beautiful [could be a translation issue, but I doubt it as William Weaver is always excellent], nor is his imagery as startling or satisfying, but he is unquestionably capable of a beautiful and satisfying sentence or idea. But too often, for my liking, he resorts to a cliche when describing something [a woman dressed in black as ‘like a nun’ for example] and for such an understated novel the prose needs to be perfect for it to be a masterpiece, not merely very very good.