Archive for the ‘Giorgio Bassani’ Category

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

May 23, 2017

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.

Behind the Door

September 2, 2013

behind the door

Is Giorgio Bassani undergoing something of a comeback? His most famous novel, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, has largely remained in print, but Penguin released The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles last year and plan to publish The Smell of Hay in January 2014. Meanwhile Quartet’s 1992 edition of Behind the Door, translated by William Weaver, is still in print.

Behind the Door is a classic story of lost innocence, its opening coinciding with the narrator’s move to senior school:

“I felt ill at ease from the very beginning, completely disorientated. I didn’t like the classroom to which we had been assigned, at the end of a grim corridor…I didn’t like the new teachers with their ironic, detached manner…”

Above all he finds himself friendless, a state of loneliness that is emphasised by his lack of a desk-mate. His closest friend from junior school has failed the entrance exam and left town to repeat the previous year elsewhere. He is relieved of the ‘desk of solitude’ when then teacher insists he sit next to Cattolica, an individual who would be described in today’s parlance as ‘popular’. The narrator is too shy to befriend him – friendship being a relationship that seems largely to consist of doing homework together in these more innocent times. His loneliness, however, is alleviated by the arrival of a new pupil, Luciano. Soon they are both desk-mates and homework buddies, Luciano becoming a daily visitor to the narrator’s house (but never vice versa – this unspoken arrangement suggesting an implied superiority).

The turning point in the novel comes when Cattolica reveals that Luciano is bad-mouthing the narrator behind his back and so they arrange a schoolboy Shakespearian sting with the narrator secreted behind a door to overhear his ‘friend’ at Cattolica’s house. Initially our sympathies naturally lie with the narrator, but on sober reflection Luciano’s critique is not without foundation. For example, he tells Cattolica:

“…he wanted not so much to come here as to be invited here. “

We might also suspect that the narrator’s initial approach to Luciano is motivated by sympathy, with its implied sense of superiority, rather than friendship:

“…finally I rose to the poor boy’s aid, since he was guilty of having come to school with only a fountain pen. “

In the background, as with all Bassani’s work (behind another door so to speak) lies the Jewish persecution under fascism. The novel is set in Italy in 1930 and, although Luciano denies any anti-Semitism, the narrator’s Jewish identity is foregrounded by scenes such as a chance meeting with Cattolica in a church, or Luciano’s insistence that they compare penises. This adds a new dimension to the narrator’s failure to immediately challenge Luciano as Cattilca expects him to do. What at first appears a slight, if delightful, novel about growing up has, on reflection, considerable depth.