Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

A luminous novel, all the more so for the storm that threatens.

It is set in Ferrara mostly between the autumn of 1938 and the summer of the following year. Interesting times. Mussolini's 'racial laws' have just come into force. Their impact on the life of the Jewish narrator is not, at first, that serious: he is ejected from his tennis club. Indeed, for the door that has been closed on him, another more interesting one immediately opens: that to the garden of the Finzi-Continis. This wealthy Jewish family has long led a reclusive existence, the parents leaving their grounds only for the sabbath, the two children educated at home. The narrator knows both Alberto and Micol (they come to his school annually for the exams) but has had very little contact with them. Nevertheless, Micol has always drawn his eye, and at the new 'tennis club' that meets now every afternoon of that autumn, the attraction grows and seems to be reciprocated. Yet, when the winter descends on the town, nothing has 'happened', and soon Micol departs for Venice to complete her degree. When she returns, and he tries to move the relationship on, she rejects him saying that two people so similar could not be in love. He makes a fool of himself in ways familiar to us all, but eventually is able to accept what can never be.

It's a tale of first love and of becoming a man. In the background, there is the social exclusion of the racial laws, the slide towards war and the impending holocaust. Obviously the character of the unnamed narrator (it is only in the film that he acquires a name, Giorgio) is not aware of all this, but the writer is. For this book is an act of witness, though not (as with Primo Levi) of the Holocaust itself, but of the many pasts that it wiped from the face of the earth. Bassani wants to make some of those pasts live again, to rescue them from oblivion, to skirt death using the instrument of the creative memory.

Death is ever present. Our first sight of Ferrara is the massive, almost gaudy, tomb of the Finzi-Contini family. The generation that built it is now housed inside, but of the generation that followed (the four that we know - Professor Ermanno, Signora Olga, Alberto and Micol plus the first-born, Guido), only two are commemorated: Guido, who died very young and Alberto, laid there riddled with cancer in 1940. There are three missing, dead but also disappeared, their particular fates unrecorded.

The achievement of the novel is that he is able to evoke the living, breathing fascination of these characters and, in particular, of Micol. She is certainly a young woman seen through the eyes of a young man in love, but not limited by that. She is beyond him, something both mysterious and luminous and following a path of her own. He 'becomes a man' in the moment he is able to acknowledge that. What she might have become is impossible to say - he, and therefore, we - do not understand her enough to even speculate. But she lives as a character on these pages, and seems to come from beyond them. It says so much for this novel that he makes us feel the horror of the unimagined slaughter to come just through the awareness that it destroyed such a person as Micol.

There are a lot more reasons than this to praise The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. I don't need any more to make me re-read it.

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