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Earthly Gardens

In The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Giorgio Bassani’s 1962 novel, an aristocratic Jewish family in Italy tries to wall itself off from the Holocaust

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Tal Shochat, from the 2011 exhibition In Praise of a Dream: Shezif (Plum), 2010, left, and Eshkolit (Grapefruit), 2011. (Courtesy of Andrea Meislin Gallery.)
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In the preface to the New York edition of Roderick Hudson, Henry James explained that the chief problem of the novelist is deciding where to stop his characters’ stories—at what point to give up tracing the development of relationships. “Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, a circle within which they shall happily appear to do so,” James wrote. But by telling a story about Jews in the Italian city of Ferrara during the late 1930s, the novelist Giorgio Bassani jeopardized this artist’s freedom: The circumference of his 1962 novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis was determined for him by history. In 1943, after the northern part of Italy was occupied by German soldiers, most of Ferrara’s small Jewish community was sent to the death camps. (Out of 183 deportees, only one returned to the city.)

In a brief prologue, Bassani makes clear that the members of the Finzi-Contini family died in the Holocaust: “for Micol, the second child, the daughter, and for her father, Professor Ermanno, and her mother, Signora Olga, and Signora Regina, Signora Olga’s ancient, paralytic mother, all deported to Germany in the autumn of ’43, who could say if they found any sort of burial at all?” At this early point in the book, we do not know anything about these characters but their names, though they will go on to populate the narrator’s emotional universe. They are introduced under the sign of death, and we read about their friendships and enmities and love affairs knowing that all such complications will be annulled just a few years after the action of the novel ends.

But is death an annulment? That is the question raised by the novel’s prologue, which is set in 1957. In it, the narrator—who goes unnamed in the text, but who is conventionally referred to as “B.” just as Proust’s narrator is called “Marcel”—describes an excursion with friends to the coast near Rome. On the way back home, the small group visits an Etruscan necropolis, a complex of funeral mounds that makes “the area, really … nothing but an immense, almost uninterrupted cemetery.” One of the party is a young girl, Giannina, who sighs over the Etruscan dead. Her father explains these 5,000-year-old tombs are so ancient that it’s hard to feel any real grief for their inhabitants: “it’s as if they had never lived, as if they had always been dead.” But Giannina disagrees: “But now, if you say that … you remind me that the Etruscans were also alive once, and so I’m fond of them, like everyone else.”

It is not hard to make the connection between the girl’s affection for the ancient dead and the more recent dead who weigh on the narrator’s mind. (“Tell me, Papa: who do you think were more ancient, the Etruscans or the Jews?” Giannina asks her father.) What Bassani calls the girl’s “extraordinary tenderness” seems to release a blockage in his mind: It is possible, he realizes, to preserve the dead as they were when they lived, to refuse to allow death to invalidate life. “For many years I wanted to write about the Finzi-Continis,” he explains in the book’s first sentence, but it was not until this episode that “the stimulus, the impulse to do it really came to me.”

The gulf between the values of life and the manner of death is especially wide in the case of the Finzi-Continis, for as we go on to learn, the family was defined above all by its aloofness from the Jewish community of Ferrara. For one thing, the Finzi-Continis were much richer than their neighbors. Their ancestor, Moise—part of the first Italian Jewish generation to be emancipated from the ghetto—acquired a large tract of land near the city wall of Ferrara, and the family built a magnificent estate there, complete with a magna domus or “great house.” This is the “garden” of the title, which is not an ordinary flower or kitchen garden but a vast walled enclave. In effect, the Finzi-Continis have retreated into their own world.

To the young B., this withdrawal makes the Finzi-Continis an object of fascination. The family has children his own age—a boy, Alberto, and a girl, Micol—but because they do not attend the public school, he sees them only occasionally; above all, in synagogue. In a resonant image that haunts the whole book, B. describes being gathered under his father’s tallit for the benediction, and staring at Micol Finzi-Contini, hidden away under her own father’s tent-like tallit: “Below him, for the entire duration of the blessing, Alberto and Micol never stopped exploring, they too, the gaps in their tent. And they smiled at me and winked at me, both curiously inviting: especially Micol.”

It is not hard to guess that B. is destined to fall in love with Micol, or that the love will be unhappy. (In this sense, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis can be compared to Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, another novel about a middle-class boy who falls fatally in love with an aristocratic family.) The course of their adult relationship is foretold in an incident when they are about 12 years old. Micol invites B. to climb over the garden wall, but by the time he convinces himself to do it, she has disappeared back into the house.

If the Finzi-Continis’ wall is an invitation to B., however, most of their neighbors take it as an insult:

Oh, it still took very little to be offended by it! It was enough, say, to pass along the endless outside wall … or else … overlooking the park, to peer through the forestlike tangle of trunks, boughs, and foliage below, until you could glimpse the strange, sharp outline of the lordly dwelling, and behind it, much farther on, at the edge of a clearing, the tan patch of the tennis court: and the ancient offense of rejection and separation would smart once more.

Already in this early passage, Bassani begins to establish the paradoxical Jewishness of the Finzi-Continis. When we read of a people that has committed an “ancient offense,” that is blamed for “rejection and separation,” that is simultaneously envied and feared and despised by its neighbors, it is impossible not to think of the Jews among the Christians of Europe. The Finzi-Continis, Bassani suggests, are the Jews of the Jews themselves, embodying and raising to the second power all the ambiguities of the Italian Jewish condition. They are Jews who exemplify Jewishness by dissociating themselves from other Jews—as the narrator’s father notes with scorn:

Instead of giving themselves so many airs, they would have done much better … to remember who they were, where they came from, for it’s a fact that Jews—Sephardic and Ashkenazic, western and Levantine, Tunisian, Berber, Yemenite, and even Ethiopian—in whatever part of the earth, under whatever sky History scattered them, are and always will be Jews, that is to say, close relatives.

One might even say that the Finzi-Continis treat their fellow Jews the way the Jews themselves treat the Gentiles—whom the narrator’s father refers to, with anxious contempt, as “goyische blacks.”

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David B. says:

This is a beautifully sad book. There is also a stunning European film made of the book. A must see. A study in esthetics and humanity and how it all went up through the chimney. Read the book and watch the film.

Baba Wawa says:

I remember seeing the movie when it first came out – must have been in the late 1970s. It was very well done. Obviously, the book is even better. Thank you.

Jameson says:

Glad to see Tablet is keeping us up to date with contemporary culture.

David B. says:

Jameson,
if you are looking, go to the Nextbook site. It is all contemporary mate. No need to worry. There are about three links on this page alone to Nextbook.

Evelinsche says:

Unlike Jameson I consider the book and the movie timeless, I decided to give the article a chance to tell me something new and it did. The choice of the trees photo/painting above was lovely, too. More Kirsch, less Leibo.

Justicegirl says:

I too thank-you for this lovely piece. I was knocked out by the film upon it’s release; though I had no awareness of the novel. Jameson should remove his blinders. He obviously has no clue what he might find (and learn).

What an insightful and nuanced revisiting of Bassani’s Garden of the Finzi-Continis! Unaware of Adam’s commentary, I wrote a post on the same topic for the upcoming Jewish Blog Carnival. This is a novel well worth taking down from the shelf again and again, not only for its historical significance, but for the questions it raises about Jewish identity, divided loyalties, and love.

Great novel and so was the film version made from it.

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Earthly Gardens

In The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Giorgio Bassani’s 1962 novel, an aristocratic Jewish family in Italy tries to wall itself off from the Holocaust