Review: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis [1962/2005] – ★★★★

Nothing I know matters more / than what never happened.” John Burnside

This Italian classic tells the story of the prominent and aristocratic Finzi-Contini family in the Italian city of Ferrara in the 1920-30s through the eyes of a boy and then a man hopelessly in love with this family’s beautiful daughter Micòl. Our narrator’s family and that of Micòl could not be more apart on a societal standing, but they are both Jewish, and our narrator is soon admitted to Micòl’s entourage, making friends not only with Micòl, but also with her brother Alberto. A well-kept tennis court in the garden of the Finzi-Contini becomes the central point of the young people’s existence, and also, as it turns out, a sort of a safe haven, as anti-Semitic forces are tightening their grip on Italy on the eve of the World War II. Unbeknown to all, the ground is already set for the ultimate tragedy. This sensitive novel does not have the clearest of narratives, but it is still a touching coming-of-age story of lost love and opportunities, where emotions of first-love and tender friendship learn to co-exist with such feelings as pride and shame.

The novel’s opening sets the tone for the rest of the story, mingling beauty and death, opulence and destruction, zeal and neglect. There is a description of a family tomb of the Finzi-Contini, a magnificent, larger-than-life structure, which feels out of place in an abandoned field of a cemetery, but which one prominent architect once built so lovingly, having so many expensive materials at his disposal. Once cared for, it is now in a sorrowful state, overgrown by vegetation. This “subterranean” theme, hinting at buried and unvocalised feelings and thoughts of the main character, is then repeated in the novel when he tries to hide his bicycle in a dark underground passage before, unsuccessfully, climbing the wall to reach Micòl’s window.

Years pass. Passionate about Italian literature, our narrator is then finishing his thesis on Enrico Panzacchi, and Professor Ermanno, the father of Micòl and Alberto, even lets him use his private, voluminous library, but the young man still keeps in close contact with Micòl, and the Finzi-Contini’s tennis court becomes a kind of a neutral ground, with tennis being a sporting excuse for the young people of the opposite sex to interact freely with each other without suspicions, having fun and enjoying light-hearted camaraderie. Still prone to day-dreaming and fantasies, our narrator is actually not unlike Micòl and her family, who, essentially, “live in an ivory tower”, insensitive to the changes going on around them: “for me, as for her, the past counted more than the present, possession counted less than memory of it. Compared with memory, all possession, in itself, can only seem disappointing, banal, inadequate…” [Bassani/Weaver, Everyman’s Library, 1962/2005: 150]. This literary prototype of a highly imaginative boy, positioned on the outside, hopelessly longing for his unreachable female ideal, an unattainable muse, is present in many other novels, from Dickens’s Great Expectations and Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes to Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Tartt’s The Goldfinch, but is it not one of the most winning combinations in fiction and was it not George Orwell who said that “the best books…are those that tell you what you know already”? Then, warnings and ill-timed advice come to our protagonist, such as the one from his father: “…if one wants seriously to understand how the world works, he must die at least once” [1962/2005: 190]. And die our narrator did, inside and many times over, even before any real and concrete tragedy materialises, because the impossibility of one’s all-consuming and tormented love slashes daily like few things do.

Translated from the Italian by William Weaver, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is probably one of those novels whose main idea, theme or aim is clearer and more beautiful than its ultimate execution, which is somewhat frustrating in this case. However, what still elevates this book is the voice of the narrator that is filled with uncanny authenticity, showing curiosity, enchantment, and, finally, obsession, bewilderment and sorrow. Every line seems to be injected with one melancholy pain for that one Castle in the sky, once so mysterious and beautiful, but now so cruelly cast aside and ultimately doomed, making this novel a moving tribute to the times forever gone.

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