On ‘The Garden of the Finzi-Continis’

Georgio Bassani
Georgio Bassani; drawing by David Levine

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…

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