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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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Yet if the Finzi-Continis set themselves apart from other Jews, it is not because they are desperate to assimilate. On the contrary: One of the beautifully subtle strokes in Bassani’s novel is that it is precisely their fidelity to Jewishness that sets the family apart from the Ferrarese Jewish community. The narrator’s own father knows little of the Jewish liturgy, for instance, and thinks that it is rather disgraceful for a Jew to be too traditionally Jewish. He himself is “a freethinker, a war volunteer, a Fascist … a modern Jew, in other words.”

At synagogue, the narrator’s father sneers when he sees the Finzi-Continis avidly kissing the Torahs: “prompt to lean forward impetuously beyond the bench, kissing as many mantle hems as they could, with an almost indecent eagerness, greed.” Absurdly, this spectacle of piety only confirms the narrator’s father’s belief in the Finzi-Continis’ “subterranean, persistent anti-Semitism”: In being more Jewish than the Jews, they are betraying the Italian Jewish consensus, and thus can be considered “objectively” anti-Semitic. This paradox is confirmed when the Finzi-Continis stop attending the main synagogue and set up their own exclusive chapel. It is as though they are claiming Jewishness for themselves, and thus denying it to everyone else.

The deep irony of this situation becomes even more acute when the political polarities of Italian Jewish life are suddenly reversed. To the narrator’s father, one of the marks of being a modern, patriotic Jew is being a Fascist: He even boasts of having a 1919 party card, that is, of having joined the Fascist party at the very beginning, even before Mussolini took power. For the first 15 years or so of Mussolini’s reign, Italian Fascism was not at all anti-Semitic. In the Ferrrarese Jewish community, B. notes, “the number of party members had … risen abruptly to 90 percent.” The only prominent Jew to refuse to join the party is, of course, Ermanno Finzi-Contini, the family’s patriarch. This is not because he is an ardent anti-Fascist, but simply another manifestation of the family’s Bartleby-like withdrawal from every common  pursuit. (Late in the book, B. and Micol discuss “Bartleby the Scrivener” and debate the wisdom of the clerk’s stubbornness.)

Yet in 1938, when Mussolini, under pressure from his Nazi allies, institutes an anti-Semitic code modeled on the Nuremberg Laws, it is the Finzi-Continis who turn out to have been prescient, and the “modern” Ferrarese Jews who are taken by surprise. Suddenly, Jews are forbidden to marry Gentiles, to attend state schools, to serve in the military—even “to insert death notices in the papers, appear in the telephone directories, employ domestic servants of the Aryan race, frequent ‘recreational clubs’ of any kind.”

It is this last, seemingly trivial provision that ends up being responsible for the main action of the novel. Hearing that Jews have been banned from the local tennis club, Alberto and Micol invite their Jewish peers to play on their private court. This brings B., now in his early twenties and finishing a college degree, back into contact with Micol for the first time since they were children. He falls deeply in love and is confused to find himself first seemingly encouraged, then brutally rejected by Micol, who is true to the family tradition of elusiveness. The scene in which he tries to kiss her for the first time is an unforgettable portrait of humiliation:

Slowly, first with one leg, then with the other, I climbed onto the bed. Now I was lying on her with my full weight. I kept blindly kissing her face, succeeding only rarely in gaining her lips, never managing to make her lower her eyelids. Finally I hid my face against her neck. And while my body, as if on its own, thrashed convulsively over hers, motionless as a statue beneath the blankets, suddenly, in an immediate and terrible sundering of my whole self, I had the distinct feeling that I was losing her, had lost her.

She was the first to speak. “Get up, please,” I heard her say, very close to my ear. “I can’t breathe like this.”

The mystery at the emotional heart of the novel is why Micol can’t respond to B., who in so many ways seems like her perfect match. This itself may be the reason, since Micol cannot imagine a love based on friendship. “Love—at least the way she imagined it—was something for people reciprocally determined to get the upper hand,” Bassani writes, “a cruel, fierce sport … to be played with no holds barred, and without ever calling on goodness of soul or sincerity of purpose to mitigate it.” Bassani’s insight into the perversity of desire echoes Proust’s.

Yet at the same time, it is clear that their shared Jewishness is also part of Micol’s inability to see B. as a lover: “How were we to act? Become engaged, for instance, with the consequent exchange of rings, visits of parents, et cetera? What an edifying tale! … And what smug satisfaction, what pious satisfaction, for everybody, when we appeared together at the Italian synagogue next Kippur. … Some, on seeing us, would surely bless the racial laws, declaring, in the face of such a splendid union, that there was one thing still to say: every cloud has a silver lining.” The Finzi-Continis are defined, after all, by their “offensive” separateness. To become ordinary Jews, just another married couple in synagogue, would violate Micol’s deepest self-image.

Bassani leaves unspoken the harsh irony of what follows—the way the Finzi-Continis will be subsumed in the vast mass of the Jewish dead. He breaks off the tale, instead, at the end of the summer of 1939, just before World War II begins, at the moment when B. is finally reconciled to the fact that Micol will never love him. Our last image is of B. standing outside the Finzi-Continis’ house at night, staring at Micol’s window—admitted to the secret garden, yet never able to belong there. “My story with Micol Finzi-Contini ends here. So it is just as well for this story to end too, now, for anything I might add would no longer concern her, but, if anyone, only myself,” B. reflects.

In the same way, Bassani seems to imply, anything he might add about Micol’s fate would no longer really concern her—not her as an individual, the way she has appeared in this novel. In defiance of the Holocaust, he claims the Jamesian right to draw the circumference of the story where he wants it, where it is most artistically fitting to end. In this way, Bassani restores at least the illusion of uniqueness and agency to Micol Finzi-Contini. It is the only gift he can make her—and it is the one that such a proud person would want most of all.

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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

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