The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani (tr. William Weaver)

First published in 1962, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is the probably the best-known novel in the Italian writer Giorgio Bassini’s series of works about life in his native Ferrara, a city in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romana. You can find out more in these introductory pieces by Dorian and Scott who are co-hosting a readalong of the book over the course of this week.

The story opens with a prologue set in 1957 in which the novel’s unnamed narrator is out for the day with friends. On their way back from the seaside, the group decides to stop at an Etruscan necropolis near Rome, and a young girl named Giannina asks her father why these ancient tombs do not seem quite as melancholy as more recent ones. Her father replies that it is because the Etruscans died so long ago, almost as though ‘they had never lived, as if they had always been dead’. By contrast, we can still remember the people who died fairly recently; hence we feel closer to them and miss them more acutely. Giannina then points out to her father that by virtue of their conversation, she has been reminded that the Etruscans were also alive once – and so their lives are given weight and recognition in her mind, just as much as those of the more recently deceased. It’s a poignant scene, one that triggers a series of memories for the narrator as he reflects on the time he spent in the company of his own lost loved ones, the Finzi-Continis, a wealthy Jewish family from Ferrara, who played an important part in his youth. There was the kindly Professor Ermanno and his wife, Signor Olga, their rather sensitive son, Alberto, and, most importantly of all, the beautiful, mercurial daughter, Micòl, with whom the narrator (also Jewish) was so tragically in love.

At the end of the prologue, Bassani reveals that all the remaining members of Finzi-Contini dynasty perished at the hands of the Nazis in 1943, deported to the concentration camps where they were unlikely to have received any kind of burial at all. Hence the stage is set for this deeply poignant and elegiac novel, a beautiful hymn to a lost and gilded world, one that was ultimately swept away by the dark forces at play during WW2.

Winding back in time to the late 1920s, the Finzi-Contini household seems to have set itself apart from the rest of the Jewish community living in Ferrara at the time. The family are wealthy, privileged and rather aloof – or at least, that’s how they are perceived by others, most notably the narrator’s father who, among other things, pours scorn on Alberto and Micòl’s playful behaviour during services at their local synagogue. While the narrator and his contemporaries attend the public school, the young Finzi-Continis are privately educated at home, to be glimpsed only occasionally at exam time and, during the early years, at their place of worship. The family estate is magnificent, a large house surrounded by acres of land – the famed garden of the book’s title – all enclosed within a vast protective wall. To the narrator, there is an air of separation and rejection about the Finzi-Contini estate; and yet there is something fascinating and intimate about it too. Oh to be admitted to the secluded garden of Eden, what a privilege that would surely turn out to be!

Well, the young narrator almost gets his chance one day in 1929, while seeking an escape after a poor result in his maths exam he encounters Micòl Finzi-Contini peering over the top of the garden wall. It’s a glorious moment, one that lives long in his memory for many years to come.

How many years have gone by since that far-off afternoon in June? More than thirty. Nevertheless, if I close my eyes, Micòl Finzi-Contini is still there, leaning over the wall of her garden, looking at me, and speaking to me. She was hardly more than a child, in 1929, a thirteen-year-old, thin and blond, with great, pale, magnetic eyes. I, a little boy in short pants, very bourgeois and very vain, whom a minor scholastic mishap was enough to plunge into the most childish desperation. We stared at each other. Above her, the sky was a uniform blue, a warm sky, already of summer, without the slightest cloud. Nothing could change it, and nothing has changed it, in fact, in my memory. (p. 33)

In spite of Micòl’s encouragement to join her in the garden, the narrator never manages to make it over the wall that day, a point that foreshadows the arc of his future relationship with the girl. Instead, the narrator has to wait almost another ten years before being invited into the grounds, this time by Alberto, largely on the assumption that he has been forced to resign from the local tennis club on account of his status as a Jew. The time is October 1938, around two months after the declaration of the racial laws which, among other punitive measures, prohibit Jews from frequenting recreational clubs of any kind. What follows for our narrator is a luminous Indian summer, a glorious sequence of days spent playing tennis, relaxing in the sunshine, and exploring the Finzi Contini’s garden largely in the company of the alluring Micòl.

We were really very lucky with the season. For ten or twelve days the perfect weather lasted, held in that kind of magic suspension, of sweetly glassy and luminous immobility peculiar to certain autumns of ours. It was hot in the garden; almost like summertime. Those who wanted could go on playing till five thirty and even later, with no fear that the evening dampness, already so heavy towards November, would damage the gut of the rackets. At that hour, naturally, you could hardly see on the court any longer. But the light, which in the distance still gilded the grassy slopes of the Mura degli Angeli, filled, especially on a Sunday, with a far-off crowd (boys chasing a football, wet nurses seated knitting besides baby carriages, soldiers on passes, pairs of lovers looking for places where they could embrace), that last light invited you to insist, to continue volleying no matter if the play was almost blind. The day was not ended, it was worth lingering a little longer. (p. 56)

Earlier I alluded to the tragic nature of the narrator’s love for Micòl: tragic because we know from the outset that Micòl dies at the hands of the Germans; and tragic because this love is never reciprocated (or so it appears in the novel). There are times when the narrator could make his feelings known to Micòl, most notably when the pair seek shelter from the rain in a secluded coach house in the estate’s grounds; and yet he fails to seize the opportunity until it is too late. Like her family and everything they seem to represent, the beautiful Micòl remains somewhat elusive and out of the narrator’s reach.

Countless times, in the course of the following winter, spring, and summer, I went back to what had happened (or rather, had not happened) between me and Micòl inside Perotti’s beloved carriage. If on that rainy afternoon, when the radiant Indian summer of ’38 suddenly ended, I had at least managed to speak to her—I told myself bitterly—perhaps things between us would have gone differently from the way they went. Speak to her, kiss her; it was then, when everything was still possible—I never ceased repeating to myself—that I should have done it! (p. 81)

I don’t want to say too much more about the narrative. After all, this is not a plot-driven novel. It’s much more about character, atmosphere and mood; the recreation of a rarefied and evocative world, made all the more poignant because we know that virtually everything we see is about to be destroyed. Bassani’s prose is wonderfully evocative, rich in detail and ambience. There are some long, looping passages here which at times reminded me a little of some of Javier Marías’ writing.

While the novel has at its heart an intensely personal love story – imbued as it is with a strong aura of fatality – it is also a reflection of life for the Jews of Ferrara during the rise of Fascism in the 1930s. We gain an insight into the political developments of the day, particularly through the character of Giampiero Malnate, a Communist friend of Alberto’s from Milan, who debates politics with the narrator during their visits to the Finzi-Contini household.

All in all, this haunting novel encapsulates the loss of many things: the loss of a love that was never meant to be fulfilled; the loss of a sheltered world of innocence and sanctuary; and perhaps most tragically of all, the loss of virtually a whole generation of humanity. While the overall mood and tone remain dreamlike and elegiac, Bassani never lets us forget the terrible impact of events to come. I’ll finish with a final passage, one that captures a sense of that feeling. In the following scene, the narrator is attending a Passover supper with his family – the racial laws have been in place for a number of months.

I looked at my father and mother, both aged considerably in the last few months; I looked at Fanny, who was now fifteen, but, as if an occult fear had arrested her development, she seemed no more than twelve; one by one, around me, I looked at uncles and cousins, most of whom, a few years later would be swallowed up by German crematory ovens: they didn’t imagine, no, surely not, that they would end in that way, but all the same, already, that evening, even if they seemed so insignificant to me, their poor faces surmounted by their little bourgeois hats or framed by their bourgeois permanents, even if I knew how dull-witted they were, how incapable of evaluating the real significance of the present or of reading into the future, they seemed to me already surrounded by the same aura of mysterious, statuary fatality that surrounds them now, in my memory; (pp. 124-125)

Other bloggers participating in the readalong include Dorian, Scott, NathanielGrant, Max, Bellezza, Frances and Anthony – I’ll add links to their reviews as and when they become available.

My copy of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis was published by Harcourt.

55 thoughts on “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani (tr. William Weaver)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’d like to watch the film now that I’ve read the book. It’s Vittoria de Sica, isn’t it? He always brings something interesting to the table.

      Reply
      1. Tredynas Days

        Yes it is de Sica, from 1970 (I was very young when I saw it!). My recollection is that it was sad and haunting, but maybe a little romanticised. But that might be a false memory. Must read the novel.

        Reply
  1. MarinaSofia

    I have to try and find the film, I never watched it. It’s a beautiful book, I always put it in the same pile as Le Grand Meaulnes pf books which have impressed me profoundly and which I almost dread to reread – one associated with the First World War, the other with the Second World War.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I just looked up Le Grand Meaulnes. Not a novel I’m familiar with – although based on the description of the Penguin Classics edition, I can see some similarities with the Bassani, both in terms of subject matter and tone. I probably need a break from this type of story for a while, but I will definitely add it to my list of things to investigate in the future. Many thanks for the recommendation, Marina – I know I can always rely on you to make insightful connections with other related books!

      I’m keen to track down a copy of the film too. Luckily it’s available on LoveFilm, so that’s another one for the DVD rental list.

      Reply
  2. Bellezza

    You do such a beautifully thorough job of discussing this book, Jacque, giving a much more complete picture than my post does. I love the things you point out, the foreshadowing and the quality of writing all pointing to loss. I keep thinking how (in my mind) the parallel of the narrator and Micol’s relationship lightly mimics the larger relationship of the political events and the Jews. How tragic that so much suffering occurs at the hand of another.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks so much, Bellezza. With a novel as rich and heartfelt as this, it’s almost inevitable that we’ll all approach it from slightly different angles, highlighting the various aspects that resonate or speak to us the most. I guess that’s a large part of the value of these group reads, the ability to compare and contrast responses with other interested readers to see what they have discovered in the book. I love the way you bring out the feeling of rejection in your post – and the sense that the narrator regrets not following Micol when she goes to Venice to resume her studies. How different things could have turned out for the narrator had he been bold enough to visit her there?

      The foreshadowing was a nice touch on Bassani’s part — that’s assuming it was a conscious move to hint at the nature of the central relationship at an early stage in the story.

      Reply
  3. Pingback: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani (“Who knows how, and why, a vocation for solitude is born?”) – Dolce Bellezza

  4. M. L. Kappa

    I really enjoyed this review, Jacqui, I watched the film years ago and loved it, but have never read the book. Perhaps I will now. The name Finzi-Contini has become synonymous of less unforeseen

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Marina. The novel is definitely worth reading, especially given the fact that you enjoyed the film. I’m really keen to see it and hope to do so in the next few weeks. I like to keep the two forms separate, just to maintain some kind of differentiation between them in my mind!

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review as always Jacqui, and much more in depth than my meagre effort a couple of years back.This is such a wonderfully evocative book, and I’m glad you read the Weaver translation – that’s the one that worked for me, too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes. I recall your enthusiasm for the Weaver translation as I specifically opted for this version as a result. Am I right in thinking that you had previously tried another translation without a great deal of success? Was it the Jamie McKendrick version?

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Isn’t it interesting how the ‘right’ translation can make such a difference to the reading experience. I really liked Weaver’s rendition, although I haven’t compared it with the McKendrick in any shape or form.

          Reply
  6. banff1972

    Lovely review, Jacqui. I thought this was a particularly nice line:

    In spite of Micòl’s encouragement to join her in the garden, the narrator never manages to make it over the wall that day, a point that foreshadows the arc of his future relationship with the girl.

    Scott & I are putting the finishing touches to our post(s)–we’re trying to do something together, and it’s trickier than I thought it would be!

    I was glad to see your final quote, as I discuss that passage at length–to me it is one of the most vexing moments in the book because I really don’t know how to take the tone. I guess what I’m working through in my post, as in some of my comments to Meredith yesterday, is how seduced I am by the novel, and by the narrator’s situation of being so drawn to the Finzi-Continis and yet always excluded and at the same time how put off I am by the narrator.

    Two more quick things for now: I was intrigued by the comparison to Marias. I’ve got several of his books here and maybe this will spur me to get to them. Also, I was very interested in Kaggsy’s strong preference for the Weaver translation. I loved it too, but haven’t read either of the others. And I can’t read Italian. I’m hoping one of your many readers does and can maybe weigh in on that.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks so much Dorian, both for your comments and for issuing an open invitation to join in with the readalong. I’m so glad I decided to take you up on it. It’s always a pleasure to exchange views with you, especially when we’ve both read the book in question, so I’m looking forward to your post immensely. How intriguing to hear that you are planning a joint effort with Scott – I’m sure it will be much more insightful than my rather sketchy response to the book!

      The foreshadowing is a nice touch, isn’t it? I’m assuming it was a deliberate move on Bassani’s part – but then again, maybe I’m reading too much into it. Funny you should mention the tone of that final passage I’ve quoted as it struck me as being somewhat different to (and rather at odds with) the rest of the book. There’s a bitterness in the narrator’s descriptions of his family, the references to ‘their little bourgeois hats’ and faces ‘framed by their bourgeois permanents’, a rather sour tone that doesn’t seem to feature elsewhere in the story. Also the use of the term dull-witted seems quite harsh. I’ll be fascinated to see what you say about it once your post goes up.

      While I liked this novel a great deal, particularly the elegiac mood and atmosphere, I didn’t fall in love with it — and it’s not entirely clear to me why I’ve been left feeling this way. Perhaps my expectations were a little too high (I’ve seen it cited elsewhere as an all-time favourite book), or maybe I’ve just read too many portrayals of lost and vanished worlds lately. I’m thinking specifically of Gaito Gazdanov’s semi-autobiographical novel, An Evening with Claire, and some of Teffi’s works, both of which tap into similar themes. Even something like Antal Szerb’s A Journey by Moonlight has a similar tone and feel. I think I need to take a break from this type of story for a while, just to avoid any more emotional burn-out!

      While I was able empathise with the narrator, I did find him rather immature and naive at times, especially in his interactions with Micol. That scene where he virtually forces himself on her is particularly embarrassing. Once again, I’ll be fascinated to see what you say about him in your post.

      The Marias comparison just occurred to me as I was thinking about Bassani’s style, particularly those long, evocative sentences he employs at various points in the novel. Others may disagree with me on that point, but that’s all part of the fun of hearing different views and perspectives!

      And yes, it was interesting to see Kaggsy’s comments on the translation. I remembered her fondness for the Weaver as she had previously clicked with some of his other translations from the Italian – based on the works of Italo Calvino, if I’m not mistaken. Maybe Scott will be able to offer a view on the various merits of the different translations of the Finzi-Continis? That’s got to be his area of expertise!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’ll like it. Glad to hear you enjoying the Waugh adaptation. It’s still sitting on my hard drive just waiting to be viewed – hopefully in the next week or so.

      Reply
  7. Eric

    This sounds like such a poignant novel and you describe so touchingly the tension of what’s to come and sense of loss for a reality interrupted by virulent ideologies & war. Thanks for the summary & review!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Eric. It’s definitely worth a read if you fancy a change from contemporary writers and stories. I think you would find it interesting, especially if you’re in the mood for something wistful and elegiac.

      Reply
  8. J. C. Greenway

    Oh I loved this book so much when I read it, I was about 18 I think and it was haunting. Great review and thanks for the reminder – might be due to reread it!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Joanne – you’re very welcome! I can imagine it being an even more haunting reading experience at that stage in life – being so close in age to the two central protagonists would only make those emotions seem more intense, more vividly realised. I’m glad my review stirred up a few memories for you. It definitely strikes me as a book that would benefit from a second reading. :)

      Reply
  9. Pingback: “Mysterious, Statuary Fatality”: A Conversation on The Garden of the Finzi-Continis | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

  10. 1streading

    Interesting that we have touched on a number of the same passages.
    Only reading your review did I wonder if the feeling the novel is imbued with (unrequited love, missed chances) in some was relates to the narrator’s feelings about the Holocaust. I don’t mean he thinks the events are analogous but that something about the emotion is similar.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, there is something similar about the emotions, especially the sense of loss. It’s one of the novel’s overriding themes for me, this overwhelming feeling of absence and loss – as you say, missed chances and opportunities, lives and loves that were never fully realised.

      Reply
      1. banff1972

        Grant is definitely on to something. It’s like the book displaces the loss it can’t talk about (the Holocaust) on to the one it can (the love affair). Not that they’re analogous, as you say, but that similar emotions govern them, as Jacqui puts it.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s a great way of looking at it. I hadn’t quite considered it in those terms before, but now you mention it, I can see what you mean.

          Reply
        2. Scott W

          I think you’re right, Grant, and that maybe this is even the crux of the novel’s tension, that struggle of the narrator to reconcile the intense, unrequited feelings he had for Micòl – a genuine loss, even if a first, immature love – with the unfathomable abyss of the Holocaust. Thanks largely to the discomfort you had with the narrator, Dorian, I’m coming to see, even in Bassani’s choice to push the horrors of the Holocaust off to the very edges of the novel, an egoism that the narrator, even in 1957 when he begins his backwards glance, has not overcome. He’s essentially a conformist – for example, willing to participate in a Fascist writing contest as a youth, opting for a safe dissertation topic – yet I do think that he’s dynamic, growing into a realization that the daily indignities of the racial laws held more threat than those around him seemed to understand. As a writing exercise, it would be interesting to compose a coda to the novel that imagines the narrator’s life between 1943 and 1957.

          Reply
              1. Scott W

                Ha! Well, he gets out of prison and I imagine he has to do a lot of unpleasant little odd jobs for a few years. But he begins to write – some prison sketches maybe, a few short stories about his home town, but all writing around the central emotional crisis of his life, not about it. He marries – an outsider, a shiksa, probably – but it does not go well. His spouse feels he holds too much back, has too many hidden recesses of emotion, spends too much of his time in his vocation of solitude. They split after barely a year of marriage. Ferrara holds too many heavy and oppressive memories. He has no more family there. He moves to Rome, where he can lose himself. He has friends, but none of them very close. They look out for him, though, inviting him to dinner from time to time and more occasionally on weekend excursions, where he’s usually a fifth wheel. But he’s smart, well-educated, a likable and handy reference source to those around him. Still, his memories keep him aloof and apart, even when he’s around people. Something remains untouchable, unreachable. Then he writes this book.

                Reply
  11. madamebibilophile

    Lovely review Jacqui. I bought this recently but when I saw it was the third in a series I thought I’d need to read the others first. From your review it sounds as if it could in fact stand alone?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, madame bibi. What a coincidence! Yes, it does work as a standalone novel. As far as I’m aware, the books in the Ferrara series are united by the same setting and common themes, but each one can be read individually without any prior knowledge or experience of the others. That said, I’m sure there must be a cumulative effect if you end up reading the whole series. :)

      Reply
  12. Scott W

    Jacqui, what a beautiful distillation of Bassani’s novel! I wrestled so much with how to convey the work with a sense of its essential elements, but you make it seem easy. You sum it up beautifully with that list of losses that Bassani conveys, a losses that move from the particular to the ungraspable magnitude of the Holocaust. Another element I particularly like in your post is how you convey the narrator’s exclusion from the “Eden” of the Finzi-Contini garden (it’s rather startling to realize that despite his having known the Finzi-Contini children since childhood, he doesn’t gain access to their home until he’s around 20 years old, and to Micòl’s room a couple years after that). And in a sense, the narrator’s act of remembrance is an effort to return to the garden of paradise. I also like “aura of fatality” and “elegiac”; as you say in the comments, that’s the perfect word to use here. I’m so glad you decided to join in the group reading!

    Reply
    1. banff1972

      Jacqui always makes it seem easy!
      Scott, your comment here reminds me of the comparison someone else made in this comment thread to Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. I jumped at that because I had just been thinking about this book in another context–sounds like I really need to read it!

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        Ah, you are too kind, both of you! Funnily enough, I was looking at Le Grand Meaulnes in a bookshop the other day, just after Marina had recommended it. It looks excellent. Plus the Penguin Classics editions has such a beautiful cover – I’m a sucker for things like this.

        Reply
      2. Scott W

        Le Grand Meaulnes is a really beautiful little novel. The mention of it several times now in connection with Garden makes me want to read it again – it’s been years.

        Reply
        1. banff1972

          I actually found it on my shelves today! (You know you have too many books when…) Sounds like we have a winner for the next reading group….

          Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks so much, Scott. Even though I didn’t quite fall in love with novel, I did enjoy it a great deal. Plus, these discussions are opening my eyes to so many other perceptions and interpretations that I might even revisit it one day. I guess I felt the loss fairly heavily here, possibly because I lost my own loved ones in terrible circumstances at a fairly early stage in life. Maybe that’s why these characters and their emotions spoke to me in particular way.

      Reply
  13. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

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