The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

Though Giorgio Bassani lived until the respectably old age of eighty-four, dying in the year 2000, his fiction – five novels and two collections of short stories – were all published within fourteen years, between 1958 and 1972. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, his most famous work, appeared in 1962 (I think I read the earliest translation into English, by Isabel Quigly in 1965), almost contemporaneous with the novel’s Foreword in which the narrator talks of his long-held desire to “write about the Finzi-Conitis.” One wonders how distant this time felt from what he refers to as “the last war,” during which the events of the novel will reach their end.

In a novel in which the haunting, elegiac atmosphere can, at times, border on the oppressive, it’s only fitting that the narrator’s recollections are stimulated by a visit to an Etruscan tomb which in turn reminds him of the family mausoleum of the Finzi-Continis:

“And my heart was wrenched as never before by the thought that in that tomb…only one of the Finzi-Continis I had known and loved in fact achieved that everlasting repose. The only one actually buried there was Alberto, the elder child, who died in 1942 of lymphogranuloma. But where Micol, the second child, and professor Ermanno, the father, and signora Olga, the mother, and signora Regina, signora Olga’s very old, paralysed mother, all deported to Germany in the autumn of ’43, found there burial place is anyone’s guess.”

Place will continue to be important throughout the novel as the title suggests. The large garden (more of a park) which surrounds the Finzi-Continis’ house emphasises the way they attempt to separate themselves from the rest of the world. They even have their own language:

“…their own, special, inimitable, wholly private deformation of Italian. They gave it a name: Finzi-Continian.”

When Jews are allowed to join the Fascist party in 1933 (“the number of Fascist Party members had risen suddenly to 90% even in our Jewish community”), Ermanno refuses. Shortly after they restore a small family synagogue to worship in, further distancing themselves. This is more political pacifism than political activism, a disinterested desire to step outside history.

The narrator befriends Alberto and Micol because the Finzi-Continis attempt to separate their world from that of the Italy outside their door: when Jews are forbidden from playing tennis at the local club, Alberto offers their own court for use instead. The narrator decides to go along when Micol echoes the invitation. Already it is clear that the narrator has stronger feelings for Micol than friendship. The opening sentence of Chapter Two in the second part, “I was not the only one invited,” hints at disappointment, especially when he then considers turning back.

Micol’s relationship with the narrator is mapped out in an early childhood encounter, ten years before. She appears, the garden wall between them, his over-dramatization of failure in a school test contrasted with her common sense. Her invitation to come in is greeted with apprehension:

“’I…I’m not sure…’ I started to say, pointing to the wall. ‘It seems terribly high to me.’”

When they go to hide his bike in a tunnel together, however, his imagination soon turns childishly to romance:

“I could count on Micol: she’d see to bringing me food and everything else I needed… And every day we’d kiss in the dark: because I was her man, and she was my woman.”

This childish infatuation remains in adulthood, and, having convinced himself he missed an opportunity through cowardice (a theme he returns to as an adult) he will later force his kisses on Micol. The narrative is subject to a surfeit of longing: the narrator in the present thinking nostalgically of his youth, the young narrator longing for Micol to return his love, and the garden itself representing a lost time. Most of all it is about remembering. Discussing the Etruscan tombs of the opening, a father explains to his daughter why older tombs are not as gloomy as newer ones:

“Well, people who’ve just died are nearer to us, so we love them more. You see the Etruscans have been dead for such ages…that it’s as if they’d never lived, as I they’d always been dead.”

The novel seems to be an exercise in preventing the Finzi-Continis, and all those murdered during those years, becoming Etruscans in our memory.


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20 Responses to “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    It’s a wonderfully evocative book, isn’t it? Very elegiac, as you say.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Great review as ever, Grant. Yes, I agree with your closing comments around the importance of remembering the Finzi-Continis and the many thousands of other Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis during WW2. The prologue sets it up nicely, I think.

    Can you recall how you felt about this novel when you read some years ago? Do you feel differently about it this time around? I’m interested to know if your response has changed over time. While I liked this book, I didn’t love it, and I’m still trying to work out why! It’s beautifully written, deeply elegiac and poignant – and yet, it didn’t move me quite as much as I had expected…

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m afraid I can’t really remember with much precision – I know it left a positive impression, but it wasn’t in my top ten. (That still leaves quite a range in between!)
      Perhaps it’s difficult to love because it’s quite an uncomfortable book – it’s difficult to be entirely on either side of the unrequited love story. Even the unexplained survival of the narrator as opposed to the Finzi-Continis is slightly unsettling.

  3. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani (tr. William Weaver) | JacquiWine's Journal Says:

    […] bloggers participating in the readalong include Dorian, Scott, Grant, Max, Bellezza, Frances and Anthony – I’ll add links to their reviews as and when they become […]

  4. MarinaSofia Says:

    I’m loving all of your reviews of this novel, which I remember with great fondness – perhaps because I read it at an impressionable age.

  5. Melissa Beck Says:

    I love the connection with the Etruscans! Great review, Grant.

    • 1streading Says:

      Ha – I’m glad I picked that out then! I must admit – and I’d be interested how others feel – I sometimes neglect to connect Italy with the ancient world.

  6. “Mysterious, Statuary Fatality”: A Conversation on The Garden of the Finzi-Continis | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau Says:

    […] Grant at 1streading’s Blog […]

  7. banff1972 Says:

    Terrific review, Grant. I especially like that last sentence: “The novel seems to be an exercise in preventing the Finzi-Continis, and all those murdered during those years, becoming Etruscans in our memory.”

    Nicely put.

    And I really like what you say in response to Jacqui–it *is* an uncomfortable book, exactly because we’re not easily allowed to sympathize with anyone, in my opinion.

    Do you remember anything about the Quigly translation? It doesn’t get discussed much.

    • 1streading Says:

      I’ve nothing to compare it with but I thought it read well. It does produce the local dialect in the original with footnotes (as well as footnoting when the original is in English)- I don’t know what the other translations do.

  8. Kat Says:

    I must get my copy off the shelf. The gloomy subject matter has made me reluctant but I’m all for style elegiac atmosphere, and your review inspires me.

  9. Scott W Says:

    “A surfeit of longing” – that’s such an apt way to put it. I’d forgotten the narrator’s fantasy about Micòl administering to him if he elected to stay hidden in the darkness of the old munitions cache – a very telling snapshot of his psychology (next time through I should pay more attention to his fantasies and dreams). I also like your comment about “political pacifism…a disinterested desire to step outside history.” Part of my struggle to understand the Finzi-Contini family is that they seem to serve symbolic roles in addition to their flesh and blood ones – a feat that Bassani pulls off beautifully. They exist a bit outside of time and place, at various points encompassing nearly all of the branches of Judaism we understand to be present in Ferrara (except for one poor and even more isolated small community), and possessing a strangely international quality, part Italian, part German, part Spanish, all “Finzi-Continian.” And then the tomb is also described with the “incredible pastiche” of global historical elements. The dream-like quality of the “garden” also conveys their slight irreality.

    One more thing to say with regard to Dorian’s comment that this is an “uncomfortable” book. I was taken by a comment the narrator makes mere pages away from the novel’s end, where he recalls a conversation he had with Malnate about homosexuality and about love in general, concluding: “…love, when it is pure, completely without material interest, is always abnormal, antisocial, et cetera, just like art…which, when it is pure, hence useless, annoys all priests of all religions.” Lest we take this too seriously, the narrator adds that the conversation grew heated until, the realizing that they were drunk, they “burst out together in a big laugh.”

    • banff1972 Says:

      Apropos that last thought, it seems telling that the scenes with the most reciprocated intimacy are the ones between the narrator and Malnate in the last part of the book. Scott, somewhere (in an email to me? in your responses to my post? I forget!) you said something about a reference in the book to a homosexual scene in another work by Bassani. I’m curious to hear more (whether from you or anyone else) about how queerness fits into Garden.

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks for the comment – and the excellent read-along choice. I hadn’t really considered the Finzi-Continis internationalism, simply associating it with their wealth, but its connection to the description of the tomb makes it seem important. In a time of nationalism, internationalism was also under siege I suppose.

  10. Scott W Says:

    Dorian – I haven’t quite figured out how queerness fits into Garden, but the inclusion (p. 222 in the Everyman’s Library edition) of an allusion to Bassani’s 1960 novel The Gold Rimmed Spectacles, a novel the details the destruction of a homosexual doctor through a similar depiction of the incremental indignities of the Racial Laws, is puzzling here. It reveals the narrator taking a stance that “love justifies and sanctifies everything, even homosexuality,”, which he contrasts to Malnate’s “very simple ideas: like a true goy,” that homosexuals are pitiable “creatures.” This may simply be a way for the narrator to justify his obnoxiously fawning behavior towards Micòl, but I thought it might also be a suggestion of the narrator’s own latent homosexuality, particularly since when we see him in 1957 he is alone, and in fact once again cut off from a family – this time by the front seat of a car rather than a wall.

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