The Garden of the Finzi-Contini (Il Giardino Dei Finzi-Contini)

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THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINI (Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini)

Novel by Giorgio Bassani, 1962

The Garden of the Finzi-Contini, published in Italian in 1962 and in English translation in 1965, is Giorgio Bassani's best-known book. The setting, as usual, is his hometown of Ferrara, a walled city in the Po Valley between Bologna and Venice. It is above all a love story. The obstacles to true love are not only wealth and aristocracy but also the Fascist racial laws heralding the Holocaust.

The Finzi-Contini family is a wealthy Jewish family that owns a house and park dating back to the renaissance rulers of Ferrara. The period covered begins in 1929 and ends in the all-important year of 1943, when 183 Jews were deported to Germany. Among them was the Finzi-Contini family, except the eldest son, Alberto, who died the year before. Bassani announces this stark fact in the prologue so that it is lodged in our imagination from the start. The event provides an unusual end-stop for a novel. The story is set against Bassani's main theme of anti-Semitism, fueled since 1937 by the Fascist press. (There was no other.)

The narrator is the sensitive Jewish boy who appears in Bassani's other fiction and bears some resemblance to him. He meets Micol, the daughter, in 1929 in a childish escapade played out under the high wall of the garden. She is something of a tomboy and, recognizing him on his bike, invites him to climb up the wall, showing him the footholds. On the garden side there is ladder. He misses his chance while hiding his bike, and Micol is called home. She is thirteen at this time, the age of Anne Frank when she got her diary for her birthday in 1942. That diary was first published in 1947. Micol is by far the most electrifying and memorable of Bassani's characters.

When the racial laws have been promulgated in 1938 and Jews are not allowed to play tennis on public courts, among other more serious discriminations, the Finzi-Contini family throws open its tennis court to the young people. The narrator and Micol are now both students, she at Venice working on a thesis on Emily Dickinson, he at Bologna reading Italian. An industrial chemist, Giampiero Malnate, Alberto's friend from Milan, is also invited. Micol is the name of King David's wife, who had mocked him for dancing before the Ark of the Covenant and therefore bore no children. Showing him around the garden Micol tells the narrator that she had fallen for him on that first meeting and had called him Celestino because of his pale blue eyes. He replies with a reference to Celestine V, who was condemned by Dante for abdicating the papacy. By their names we can tell their relationship has little future. The sense of nostalgia and death emanating from the Finzi-Contini garden is illustrated by Micol's complaint half way through the book that the family is obsessed with refurbishing rather than letting things decay with elegance and humility.

Their relationship unravels during the second half of the novel, partly through Celestino's diffidence. Micol leaves for Venice and asks him to keep her brother company. There is tea and conversation with Alberto and Malnate, who turns out to be a communist, critical of too many possessions and of the number of Jews who had joined the Fascist Party in its first years. Bassani is dealing with the plight of the Jews but he has not forgotten his antifascism, for which he was imprisoned in 1943. Celestino describes how he was asked to leave the town library because of the racial laws and is given the run of the Finzi-Contini family's library to finish his thesis. When Micol comes back for Passover in 1939 it is celebrated with a dinner party reminiscent of James Joyce's The Dead. The addition of a Ouija board pronouncing grotesque and garbled prophecies adds a cruel touch. Celestino manages to visit her in her bedroom when she has flu but gives a disastrous impression of immaturity. The relationship resembles Petrarch's failed courtship of Laura with the addition of the telephone and, of course, anti-Semitism and the knowledge of its appalling consequences. Micol rebuffs him and he turns to Malnate for friendship.

Celestino renounces Micol after his father, an insomniac since the racial laws, points out that there are class and financial differences between them. She is above him, and he is too sensitive; he has no job, though he may become a critic, a novelist, and a poet. He last visits the garden the next night, finally scaling the wall and finding Micol's ladder on the other side. He suspects Malnate is his rival and thinks of looking for them in the Hütte, the chalet by the tennis court. The clock reminds him that he is too late again. The opening and closing play on the ladder recalls the Romeo and Juliet story, from the Italian novella tradition. Shakespeare's Juliet was also thirteen at the beginning of the story. The epilogue confirms the expected closure. Celestino breaks with all the Finzi-Contini family. After Alberto's death the whole family is taken by Mussolini's Republican troops in September 1943 and deported to Germany in November. Malnate leaves for Milan, eventually to be posted to the Russian front without trace. Celestino is imprisoned in 1944. His mature verdict is that if he had been able to stop Micol's deceiving and desperate words with a "real" kiss things would have been different. As it is the words of the novel must reflect what his heart can remember.

Italian critics had difficulty fitting Bassani's fiction and its unparallelled theme into earlier literary traditions. They highlighted memory and melancholy, the themes of the decadents. The political situation was also ambiguous for some time after the civil war in the north. Perhaps Celestino's type of diffidence prevented him from taking the stance of witness against Fascism as Silone had for the peasants or Primo Levi would for the Jews. But his sensitive record of the evils of anti-Semitism from the position of the victims, particularly in this masterpiece, with one of the most striking heroines in recent Italian writing, leaves a lasting mark on any reader.

—Judy Rawson