The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

by JDP

Finzi-Continis reads like a huge airliner struggling to get up off the runway; in the end, its cruising altitude is nothing to write home about, but Bassani leads the passengers in such a comfortable, insightful meditation that I was grateful to be counted among their midst.

Giorgio Bassani / Italian / 1962 / 246 pages
Translated from the Italian by William Weaver

Ah, memory, you fickle thing, you feckless thug. Whether it be confronting our contemporary times with visions of a better yesterday (as with Ishiguro’s anachronistic butler, Stevens) or shrouding in mists the people and the places we once knew (as was the trouble for Austerlitz in Sebald’s great novel) or, even more dramatically, reneging on our cognitive psychological pact altogether (as were the circumstances surrounding Rebecca West’s war veteran, Christopher), memory is rarely the nostalgic drinking buddy we’d like it to be. Memory is also, in effect, the great destroyer of dramatic tension. Virtually by definition, when we recall a past event, we’re already privy to the denouement; the recollection is deterministic rather than probabilistic. I know that I didn’t get the girl, I know that I didn’t whiff on the big presentation, I know that that particular container of cottage cheese had expired two weeks prior, and, um, so forth.

This is why high school reunions are (at least theoretically) so entertaining. It’s a whole lot easier to swallow the indecencies meted out to you by (insert Monosyllabic Jock Name Here) during your freshman year if you’re now a successful professional and he (let’s call him “Chase” for the sake of argument) is flipping the proverbial burger for 40 hours every week. It isn’t poetic justice per se, but at least it frames the unfortunate memories in a pleasanter light.

Giorgio Bassani draws on this truism rather starkly when his narrator blurts out an unfortunate memory in the first handful of pages of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis: virtually all of the members of the Jewish Finzi-Contini family perished in a concentration camp in Germany during WWII. After this quick prologue, the rest of the book is one long childhood memory that is populated mainly by the narrator (unnamed), two members of the family (Micól and Alberto), and their good friend (Malnate). Part of the intrigue of the novel is that we’re not quite sure about the parameters of the storytelling. If it turns out that these characters had in some way injured the narrator, we at least know that, in the end and, put a bit crassly, he holds all the cards. If, conversely, we find out that the narrator got along rather well with these characters, then the nature of the story is tragic rather than vindictive. Part of the enjoyment of reading Finzi-Continis is trying to make sense of the (seemingly blasé) story in light of its foreshadowed end.

The novel’s actions are set in Italy, almost entirely in the handful of years leading up to WWII, when Mussolini’s fascist regime was just beginning to institute the so-called “race laws” that severely limited the ability of Jewish families to operate in the public sphere. The narrator and his friends, Alberto, Micól, and Malnate, are college-aged youngsters who find themselves gradually hemmed in by the increasingly restrictive forces at work in their society. The “garden” of the title is a huge, private expanse of forests, trails, and tennis courts that belongs to the Finzi-Contini family. The students meet there routinely to engage in academic discussions about politics and literature, play tennis matches well into the evening, and eat luxurious dinners with the Finzi-Contini parents. The setting is idyllic, but hopelessly temporary.

In truth, though, Bassani has written a very restrained novel and he is much more comfortable exploring the complicated relationship that develops between the narrator and Micól than he is in discussing the dreaded geopolitical developments that serve as their backdrop. Indeed, denial is a central theme here, where parents encourage their children to dream big (despite the evident catastrophe that lurks in the wings), where the treatment of illness is deferred for want of medicine, and where love-struck youth refuse to acknowledge the point at which their courtship is doomed. This is not a novel about romance, but rather one about coming of age in an environment where it’s difficult to harbor hope for the future. And, somehow, because the story is so beautifully nostalgic we, as readers, find ourselves engaged in our own bout of denial: it’s admittedly difficult to square the deeply personal and expertly rendered narrative with what we know of the fate of the Finzi-Continis.

All that being said, the book flounders at certain points, especially in the beginning, where Bassani choose to start off the novel with dense descriptions of the garden’s walls, the city’s geography, and the family lineages that dominate the social scene. The author also has a penchant for indulging in labyrinthine sentence structures (especially in the opening chapters of the novel) that made for fairly difficult reading. I actually very much enjoyed these prose stylings, but I could understand how they might draw into question the nature of the translation. While I am unqualified to speak to the quality of the translation, I do know that William Weaver is a highly regarded translator of Italian novels and, much like Pevear and Volokhonsky with the Russian canon, he seems to be working his way through many of the canonical Italian authors. At a bare minimum, we might say that Bassani clearly wrote complicated sentences and Weaver has done little to streamline them.

But Bassani also writes with a light, kind pen. I feel for his characters and their dramas are compelling. I wish that I were a part of their garden refuge, a member of a cadre that takes more seriously the elegance of tennis than the mindlessness of football, that engages in political and philosophical discourse, that reads and reads and reads! And although dialogue is scarce in the novel, Bassani drives it home when it counts. I recall now (and may well always recall) a hushed conversation that takes place between the narrator and his aging father late one night after the narrator has returned from another visit with the Finzi-Contini clan. By candlelight, with the dark train tunnel of the future bearing down on them, the narrator’s father bridges a gap that has existed between the two men for years in an effort to offer his son some advice for the future: marriage, profession, self fulfillment, etc. To even have such a forward-looking conversation in the first place is to suspend all rational expectations about the horrors that would be visited upon them in the months ahead. But I had to admire the resilience of Bassani’s characters. In a very loud world, the quietest voices are the most dignified.

Rating: 8 / 10

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