THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS BY GIORGIO BASSANI

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.

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[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.

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12 comments

  1. I am very happy to find your blog and your interesting book reviews.

    I was born in Ferrara, Italy, and have been living here most of my life. I thus know Giorgio Bassani’s work and often take a stroll near that famous wall you can see in the movie. I read the book when I was very young – all the students here obviously must read it sooner or later – but after reading your review I want to open the book again…

    You must know this, the Jewish cemetery mentioned in the book is really wonderful. I visited it last year and was stunned by the giant trees. There was Bassani’s grave as well. However, Ferrara itself is a town with a strong Jewish history. In the town square you can still see the hinge’s that during the racial laws supported the ghetto’s gate. Thus in some ways, even if so many years have passed, Ferrara still is immersed in a timeless light and atmosphere… that light you can perceive in the movie.

    1. Thank you so much for this. I only created the blog this month but already i was starting to think that the only interaction I would get would be from people attempting to network. It’s really nice to know some are reading the stuff and maybe enjoying some of it. To have been born in Ferrara must give Basani’s work a special kind of poignancy for you. I envy you that. I’ve read a few of his novels but this one is special; the spoiler-ish prologue is a wonderful touch. If i ever visit Ferrara I would certainly go to the cemetery.

      1. I must tell you this: I would like to read more of your reviews but cannot find them under the “books” tags. I find them by chance on the “reader page”… 😦

      2. That’s strange. I don’t know why that is. Maybe I’m doing or not doing something. I haven’t really worked out how to use this properly yet.

      3. I am not a good blogger, I have an Italian blog with blogger but this is my first time on WordPress. In order to search for your reviews (I appreciate your choices!), I browse the categories you put on the right. I select “books” but only a few reviews appear. I can’t see Lolita, for example. Probably some categories/tags are missing. You could put a review index on a static page, with the links to the reviews (I did it for my blog, it is quite useful).

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