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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.

The father who advocates mixing and assimilation tries in vain to stop his son from mixing with the family who have chosen isolation. Meantime, while the narrator’s family is clearly divided within itself, the son rebelling against the father, the Finzi-Continis, for all their social isolation, seem united in casting a spell over the young man, an aesthetic spell, made up of class and caste, beautiful language, beautiful gestures, and a beautiful girl. It is a curious and disturbing characteristic of the Finzi-Continis that they never seem to disagree with one another and, with the exception of their attendance at the synagogue, are never to be seen outside the walls of their huge garden. An outsider can be invited into that garden, but for reasons that are never made clear, he can’t invite a Finzi-Contini to come out.

B’s first invitation into the garden comes on a hot summer day in his early teens. He has just heard that he has failed an exam and is cycling miserably and aimlessly about the town. Looking down from a high wall, the young Micòl calls to him, and suggests he climb over into the garden by a series of footholds. She has placed a ladder on the inside. What do we know about Micòl? That she is blond and bright-eyed, slim and tall, that her manner is always one of affectionate mockery, and that she speaks in a peculiar sing-song, a private language almost, Finzi-Continesque, that she shares with her brother. She is playful, attractive.

B is seduced, but scared. Of what? Of the high wall, he says. He would prefer to go into the garden through the main gate. But then the others would know, Micòl objects. At once the boy’s fear shifts to the girl’s sexuality. Segregated from the world, at one with her close-knit, exclusive family, any openness to others on Micòl’s part must be clandestine. What does she want from him? Is it that each member of the family needs occasional victims from outside to make their collective separateness possible? Nervous, the boy fusses over the problem of hiding his bicycle and the moment passes. Inside the garden, Perotti, the gatekeeper, the chauffeur, the butler almost, has spotted the girl on the wall. She must come down.

A word needs to be said here about the wonderfully comic and always sinister figure of Perotti. Employed, together with his wife and children, as a family retainer, this aging factotum of peasant stock has invested even more in the idea of the Finzi-Continis’ supposed nobility than they have themselves. Officially a servant, he thus begins to function as a prison warder. Manically assiduous, he polishes the family’s ancient horse carriage, their old American car, their old American elevator. If ever a Finzi-Contini shows any signs of backsliding from the role of perfect aristocrat, Perotti will be there to prevent him or her from going too far. A strange hint of the Gothic hangs over the garden of the Finzi-Continis. It is all the more sinister for being a parodied Gothic, a modern Gothic, where the cloud that hangs over the house has a terrible historical reality.

But what is there inside this huge, walled garden, and why did Bassani make it the title and focus of his book? Having missed his chance in his teens, B doesn’t get to see beyond the high surrounding wall until he is in his early twenties. It is the autumn of 1938. The recently passed Race Laws have led to all members of the Jewish community being expelled from Ferrara’s tennis club. Suddenly both Alberto and later Micòl Finzi-Contini are telephoning the narrator to suggest that he come to play tennis on their court in their garden. Arriving at the great gate to the property, B finds he is not alone. The family have invited half a dozen others. The story proper can begin.

But why this sudden generosity from the Finzi-Continis, demands B’s father. He senses a danger for his son. Why this sudden openness? Various members of the exclusive family offer inadequate explanations: because we have a tennis court and you have nowhere to play; because the Race Laws have now placed all Jews in the same boat; there can no longer be any distinction between us. But there is a distinction. It is always the narrator who visits the Finzi-Continis’ house, never vice versa. The attentive reader asks, what is the reason for this sudden change of attitude?

Bassani’s genius is never to be explicit. We can never separate out one strand of life from another. Did the Finzi-Continis really segregate their children because their first son died of meningitis, or was that just a convenient alibi? In 1938 both Alberto and Micòl, now in their early twenties, are at a critical moment in life. Both are officially studying at universities in other towns, while in fact living at home. Like the narrator, both are taking far longer than seems necessary to complete their undergraduate theses and hence complete their degrees. It is a situation that Italian readers will immediately recognize. The undergraduate thesis, something not required in most Anglo-Saxon universities, is a moment of initiation in Italy, a passport to the adult world. All three are hanging back. What is the point of graduating, is the chorus of explanation, if society then excludes Jews from the workplace? Your degree is worth nothing.

But there is more to it than that. The air is dense with repressed or hidden sexuality. The two young Finzi-Continis, Alberto and Micòl, seem blocked, stalled, marooned, and not only in their studies. Perhaps the political situation offers an excuse that covers up some deeper difficulty with encountering life outside their protected garden. By allowing others into the garden to play tennis they have found a way to alleviate a tension that would otherwise force them out into adulthood. Sport, after all, offers a splendid surrogate for life’s crueler battles.

In an Indian summer that shines on far into November, the fiercely fought tennis games become a daily ritual. In between them B finds himself being shown around the vast grounds by Micòl. He is hopelessly in love now and she has singled him out for friendship. Yet the reader’s attention is insistently diverted toward the garden. Immediately we are struck by this reflection: if the Finzi-Continis have refused to mix with the outside world, nevertheless, in the protected space they live in, they have mixed together, generously and heterogeneously, much that the world has to offer. Desiring separateness, they seek to possess the exotic, in the security of their own house. Their garden is full of trees from other climates. Micòl can name scores of species. Some have to be protected against the harsh Po Valley winters with piles of straw stacked against the trunks.

The house itself is a bizarre mixture of architectural styles. The food they serve at table is extravagant in its variety and quantity. It includes kosher food and pork. There is a remarkable library that precludes any need to consult a library in town. Books on literature and science, Italian history and ancient Judaism, are mixed promiscuously together. Micòl’s brother Alberto has transformed his American-made gramophone by separating out treble and bass on four different speakers carefully distributed around the antique paneling of his room. Micòl has transformed a recipe she brought back from Austria for Skiwasser, a hot drink for winter weather, by adding grapes and consuming the stuff ice-cold. She keeps a flask of Skiwasser beside her bed, along with a collection of tiny glass ornaments from Venice.

Manipulated in this way, the pleasures other people indulge in are rarefied and aestheticized. But that, after all, is what gardens do to nature. The garden is a hybrid space, at once real and unreal, as sport is at once a real engagement, but nothing like the battle that is going to be joined outside the garden only a year hence. In so many ways, Bassani implies that the Finzi-Continis foreshadow the modern consumer’s obsession with control and security, with possessing the whole world in a safe domestic space, shutting out reality, living in a state of denial. The Race Laws give the family a further excuse for establishing a separate world. After all, they have the money that makes such a thing possible. Again and again the narrator is surprised to see how the Finzi-Continis, all of them, seem quietly pleased rather than scandalized by the increasingly harsh treatment of the Jews. He also notices that, isolated together, each has—something unheard of at the time in Italy—a telephone extension in his or her bedroom. “To protect your freedom,” Micòl tells the narrator, “there’s nothing better than having a good telephone extension in your room.”

Through the autumn of 1938 the late adolescence of these three Italian Jews is wonderfully and frustratingly protracted in game after game of tennis, walk after walk around the vast grounds of the house. To make matters more complicated and more ambiguous, a fourth character and tennis player becomes important. Giampiero Malnate already has his degree. He is a few years older than the others. From the big city of Milan, not the provincial backwater of Ferrara, he is a gentile, not a Jew. He does not hide a frank and obviously experienced sexuality. He has a job as a chemist with a government project to develop synthetic rubber, in the hope of making Fascist Italy independent from the wider world. And, ironically, he is a Communist. He is optimistic. He believes the world can be improved. He deplores the capitalist basis of the Finzi-Continis’ wealth. In short, Malnate is everything the other three are not. He is much involved in life, initiated in the wider world.

What is this man doing in the dreamy garden of the Finzi-Continis, a place of eternal suspension, of life delayed? Malnate was originally invited to the house by Alberto, with whom he studied at university. Is it possible that Alberto is homosexual? He shows no interest in women. Bassani does not give us more than the vaguest hints. Or is Giampiero there to pursue Micòl? Are both brother and sister jealous of the relationship Giampiero has with the other? I would no more have sex with you than with my brother, Micòl tells the narrator at one point. But perhaps there is a sexual attraction between her and her brother. The narrator’s frustration mounts. So much of what is going on around him makes no sense. He has fierce political arguments with Giampiero that turn out not to be about politics at all but, obscurely, about the roles the two men have come to occupy within the Finzi-Contini household. While they battle it out together, Alberto obsessively adjusts the treble and bass on his record player, and Perotti and his family serve lavish teas. Soon enough the tension reaches the point where some clarifying melodrama must be at hand. One way or another, these young people must grow up.

2.

Three of the finest Italian novels that, in one way or another, have to do with World War II seem obsessed by the choice between action and inaction, which in turn becomes a question of how far and in what way one should or should not become involved in society. Despite this similarity of theme, all three of these novels are marvelously different. In Dino Buzzati’s surreal work The Tartar Steppe a young army officer is called to serve in a remote fort at the furthest extreme of his country’s borders. High in the mountains, the fort overlooks a vast desert from which the Tartars are expected to attack. Immediately on arrival in the fort, the officer senses that his posting there is a disaster. He has been utterly removed from all social life. He is desperate to leave. But very soon he finds himself strangely enchanted by the military rituals of the fort, by a life rendered dramatic by the alpine scenery, and above all by the promise of an eventual Tartar attack. In the end, he rejects an offer to return to his distant home town, to his pretty girlfriend. His whole life passes by. The Tartars fail to appear. Military conflict becomes a dream that would give meaning to all he has renounced. He yearns for it, but is doomed to frustration. Old and sick, he is about to leave the fort for the last time when the Tartar army finally appears en masse. As if conjured up by the officer’s disappointment, the catastrophe has finally come.

Delivered to the publishers in 1939, The Tartar Steppe (or The Fort as Buzzati had wanted it to be called) is an astonishingly timely warning of the dangers of substituting the enchantment of heroic action and military glory for ordinary involvement in society.

Cesare Pavese’s The House on the Hill was written immediately after World War II. Again, like Buzzati’s fort and Bassani’s garden, Pavese’s house on the hill is a place of suspension, of action denied. It is 1944 and, night after night, a schoolteacher leaves Turin for a house in the surrounding hills to escape the Allied bombardment. Although he spends his evenings with a group of anti-Fascist activists, admiring their idealism and attracted to their warmth and vitality, he finds himself unable to join them. In Pavese’s book, then, unlike Buzzati’s, there are plenty of chances to take action, the Tartars are everywhere, but the intellectual, pacifist narrator cannot bring himself to participate. He feels guilty for not doing so, unmanned and excluded from life. In one memorable scene, he witnesses a partisan ambush of a Fascist military truck. After the fighting is over, he finds it impossible to step over the corpses of the dead Fascist soldiers on the road. He feels sick, paralyzed, and has to turn back. When his friends are rounded up and imprisoned by the Fascists, the schoolteacher flees.

That a period of social violence and political extremism, such as Italy experienced in the Twenties and Thirties, should oblige the country’s writers and artists to reflect on their obligation or otherwise to get involved would seem obvious enough. It was civil war, after all, that inspired Andrew Marvell’s great meditation on the merits of the active and contemplative life in An Horatian Ode. But it is surprising that the three Italian novels, each so different in its approach, should all bring together the themes of public action and sexual fulfillment, as if rejection of one necessarily implied renunciation of the other. Home on leave from his remote posting, Buzzati’s officer could still propose marriage to his old girlfriend and escape his arid fate in the fort. But it is so difficult to speak to her, he feels so inept.

Among the community of Communist activists he visits, Pavese’s schoolteacher comes across a former girlfriend. She has a child that may even be his child. But the young mother emphatically excludes him from her life. She will not renew the relationship and will not let him play father to the boy.

In The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, the Communist playboy Giampiero Malnate brings both a political and sexual urgency into the otherwise decadent and languid atmosphere of the garden. Micòl, who has decided never to marry, mocks him, saying, I don’t give a damn about your social-democratic future. Speaking to the narrator about his unhappiness, she freely mixes the vocabulary of love and war. Love is for bloodthirsty people, she declares, people ready to struggle to get the better of each other day in, day out, a cruel sport. Fully aware that the political situation is precipitating toward war, she concentrates her energies on getting her father to resurface their deteriorating clay court.

Beneath every other theme and concern, and whether or not prompted by the political situation, the question all these three novels explicitly ask is, What does it mean to have lived? These, after all, were the years of the existentialists. Bassani, or his narrator, begins his novel with a visit with some friends to an Etruscan cemetery. We don’t feel sad for the dead of antiquity, someone says, because it is as if they had never lived. A child in the company, however, reminds everybody that, of course, that is not true; however long ago, the Etruscans did really live, like everybody else. The tombs bear out that simple reflection with their bas-reliefs showing all the objects the Etruscans used in their daily lives: hoes, ropes, axes, scissors, spades, knives, bows and arrows. Such are the objects with which one engages in action, whether domestic or military. They are none of them things the Finzi-Continis ever hold in their hands.

From beginning to end, cemeteries are present throughout the novel. B’s father is responsible for the upkeep of the Jewish cemetery in Ferrara. Ermanno Finzi-Contini has published a collection of all the inscriptions in the famous Jewish cemetery of Venice, where, we discover, he also proposed to his wife. Cemeteries are places of memory and affection, uniting the living and the dead, not places to be shunned or feared. The horror, in this novel, is not death. Or even dying young. The one truly terrifying thing is to pass from youth to cemetery without having lived, without initiation. And that is the fate one risks in the garden of the Finzi-Continis, a Gothic world where death and immaturity are magically superimposed and time suspended. Ultimately it will be the fate of Alberto Finzi-Contini, who renounces every form of engagement, political, moral, and sexual, and dies of cancer before he can be taken, like his sister and the rest of his family, to the Nazi death camps.

We are told nothing of the fate of Bassani’s narrator during and after the war; all we know is that he lived to tell the tale. Bassani himself, however, chose the way of engagement. Having finished his thesis and, like the narrator of the novel, taken his degree in literature in 1939, he joined one of the liberal political groupings that was forming to fight fascism. It was called Il partito d’azione. Arrested in May 1943, Bassani was released in July when Mussolini fled Rome. Days later he married.

In The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, his narrator remarks that art, when it is pure, is always abnormal, antisocial, it can’t be used for anything. In that sense, of course, art and writing have much in common with Micòl’s enchanted garden. But however much the Finzi-Continis might wish to do so, no one lives in a work of art.

Letters

Bassani’s Father October 20, 2005

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