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On ‘The Garden of the Finzi-Continis’

In the autumn of 1943, 183 members of the Jewish community of Ferrara, a small town in the northeast of Italy, were rounded up, imprisoned, and deported to concentration camps in Germany. Only one returned. This atrocity is the grim premise behind almost all of Giorgio Bassani’s narrative fiction. He was twenty-seven at the time and had grown up in that community. His father was among those deported.

Yet the Holocaust as such is never the subject of Bassani’s writing, nor is he interested in simply denouncing anti-Semitism or fascism. There appears to be no political purpose driving his work and no sensationalism. Rather, his aim is to have life, as he sees it, emerge within the frame of the special circumstances that prevailed in Italy, and in particular in his home town of Ferrara, in the years of his adolescence and early adulthood.

And life, as Bassani sees it, is complex, rich, comic, and very dangerous. Above all, individual motives and the actual behavior of groups never coincide neatly with the great ideological divides of the time. This is the source of the all-pervasive irony in his writing. In “A Plague in Via Mazzini,” a short story that appeared in 1956, Bassani writes about the one Jewish deportee who returned to Ferrara from Nazi Germany. All his close family killed by Fascists and Nazis, his own health destroyed, nevertheless Geo Josz has only contempt for the anti-Fascist partisans who have taken over his lavish palazzo in the town center; and he has very little respect for his optimistic Uncle Daniele with his hopes for world democracy and universal brotherhood. No, the only person whom the anguished Geo is eager to see on arriving home is his Uncle Geremia, a man whose business contacts and enthusiastic participation in the Fascist Party had allowed him to go on playing bridge with the local shopkeepers’ association right through the war. The fact is presented more as a mystery than as a criticism. Geo, eventually, goes mad with grief.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, however, is more than anything else a love story and quite different from anything else Bassani wrote. (He died in Rome in 2000.) The action of this largely autobiographical Bildungsroman is set in the years immediately before the war and since we are told in the opening pages what the later fate of many of the characters will be, and in particular of the tragic end that awaits the story’s beautiful and elusive heroine, Micòl Finzi-Contini, the tension of the novel takes the form of a deepening mystery. How far, the reader wonders, is the strange and troubled relationship between the narrator and his beloved Micòl determined by their particular historical situation and how far by the perversities of the characters themselves?

The question would be banal if the boy and girl were called Capulet and Montague, if their families were at war, if there was an unbridgeable ideological divide between them. But though Ferrara is only some fifty miles south of Verona, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is not another Romeo and Juliet. In an earlier story, “A Stroll before Dinner,” Bassani had written about lovers who must deal with both ethnic and class divisions when the celebrated Jewish doctor Elia Corcos (a historical figure of Ferrara, like so many of the characters in Bassani’s work) marries a nurse from a family of Catholic peasants. But that is a tale of prejudice successfully overcome, albeit at a price. Instead, in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, both hero and heroine come from old Jewish families of Ferrara. The Race Laws of 1938, which forbade Jews and Christians from intermarrying, might thus seem to make the eventual union of two Jews more, rather than less, “convenient.” Yet things are not that simple.

One of the curiosities of Bassani’s writing is his fascination with social division, the fizz of incomprehension that occurs when people of different cultures, backgrounds, and pretensions are obliged to live side by side. Without such divisions, after all, there would not be the frisson, for the younger generation, of mixing, the sexual lure across the social gap. So the first thing we learn about the Jewish community of Ferrara in the 1930s is that although it has only a few hundred members, it is far from compact. On the contrary, it thrives on schism. The main synagogue is divided into a first floor following a German style of worship and a second following an Italian style, while a smaller and very secretive Levantine synagogue remains entirely distinct from the other two. Precisely an awareness of the intricacies and irrationality of these divisions creates a complicity among the town’s Jews, whichever group they happen to belong to. They are privy to mysteries that the wider Italian community can never even begin to understand.

The psychology Bassani uncovers here is immediately relevant for anyone trying to understand multiethnic society today: “It was futile,” the novel’s narrator tells us,

to attempt to instruct the others [the gentiles, that is], any of them …even those playmates infinitely more loved (at least in my case) than Jewish acquaintances, in a matter so private. Poor souls! In this regard you couldn’t think of them as anything better than simple plebs, forever condemned to irreparable abysses of ignorance, or rather—as even my father used to say, grinning benignly—“goy niggers.”

In this sense it is the Jewish community that excludes the others, even those who are most loved, and not vice versa. Many of the Jewish characters in the novel feel rather superior to their goy compatriots, a feeling that is actually strengthened when in 1938 serious persecution begins, if only because that persecution is so evidently brutal and stupid.

The young hero and heroine of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, however, are not only both Jewish but both attend the same synagogue. They are not divided by any sectarian schism. There is no obvious barrier to their relationship. All the same, the positions their families occupy within the Jewish community and with regard to wider Italian society suggest profoundly different attitudes toward life, attitudes that would be immediately recognizable in any other era or social setting.

The narrator of the novel, and its main character, is never named, but so closely does his biography and family resemble Bassani’s that Italian critics have got into the habit of referring to him as B. B’s father in the novel, an optimist, an erstwhile doctor turned administrator of old family property, has always been eager to become accepted as part of modern Italy and wishes the same for all his family and the Jewish community generally. He thinks of himself simultaneously as a Jew and an Italian and trusts that he will not be obliged to choose between the two. This outlook seems admirable. B’s father is a man who gladly accepts social responsibility. He is president of the committee that looks after the local Jewish cemetery. Yet to participate fully in Italian public life in the 1930s means to become a member of the Fascist Party. In 1933, B’s father is delighted that 90 percent of Ferrara’s Jews are card-carrying Fascists. And he is furious that Micòl’s father, Ermanno Finzi-Contini, refuses to join. When, to spare the rich reclusive man any possible bureaucratic tedium, a membership card is made up for him and taken to his house, the “Professor”—for Ermanno Finzi-Contini is a cultured man, although he holds no university position—tears it up.

The reader will be tempted to side with this refusal to compromise, especially because, on every other occasion, Ermanno is such a gentle, mild-mannered person. Yet his gesture is not the result of a committed anti-fascism, but part, rather, of a general instinct to isolate himself and his family, not only from wider Italian society, but from the Jewish community as well. So determinedly does he do this that B’s father will paradoxically accuse the Finzi-Continis of anti-Semitism, although when the two families sit one behind the other at the synagogue it is evident that Ermanno Finzi-Contini speaks Hebrew and can repeat all the prayers of the liturgy, while the narrator’s more Italianized father can barely mutter a word or two.

The description of the Finzi-Contini family, at once entirely convincing and marvelously enigmatic, is one of the triumphs of Bassani’s literary career. On putting his novel down you feel you could reflect endlessly on the relationships of each family member to the others, on their many contradictions, and above all on how they are to be understood. To be sure, you will reach no firm conclusions, but all the same the conviction grows that with the Finzi-Continis Bassani was probing questions of far wider significance than the structure of society in Ferrara, or even the question of Jewish persecution.

Nevertheless, these people have to be seen in their historical setting. On the annexation of the Papal States into a unified Italy in 1861, Ferrara’s Jews were no longer obliged to live in segregation in the town’s ghetto. To celebrate his newly won rights, the grandfather of the present Ermanno, Moise Finzi-Contini, a hugely rich man, bought out the property of an impoverished nobleman. The property was large: an area of fifty acres on the edge of town protected by a high wall and including a large villa in an advanced state of disrepair. Moise’s son Me-notti, Ermanno’s father, rebuilt and extended the house and took his sophisticated wife to live there. Rather than move out of the ghetto in order to get into Italian society, the Finzi-Continis moved out of society altogether and began to cultivate what B’s father sees as absurd pretensions to nobility (the name Finzi-Contini in Italian actually suggests “fake little counts”).

The family’s vocation for isolation is consolidated in the next generation when Ermanno and his wife, Olga, lose their first-born son, Guido, at six years old, to meningitis. (The doctor who diagnoses the incurable disease is none other than Doctor Corcos of “A Stroll Before Dinner,” the man who married down into the most humble strata of Italian society.) Convinced that the death was brought about through contact with others, father and mother decide to have the two children born after Guido, Alberto and Micòl, educated at home and almost entirely segregated from the world. As a result, B will only see Micòl when she and her brother come, as private students, to take their annual state exams at school, or, more regularly, at the synagogue.

Bassani is a master of the dramatic set piece that carries, without ever seeming contrived, deep significance. Week by week, in the synagogue, the young narrator is fascinated by the Finzi-Contini family sitting on the bench behind him. B’s father waits for the rabbi to deliver the closing blessing, a moment when each Jewish father drapes his prayer shawl over the heads of his whole family. He orders his son under the shawl to stop his constant gazing at the family behind. But the shawl is so threadbare that the boy is able to peep through the holes. Charmed by the sound of Ermanno Finzi-Contini chanting the prayers in Hebrew, but with an upper-class Tuscan accent, B exchanges excited glances with the Finzi-Contini children, who seem to be inviting him to come in under their own shawl.

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