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,” James wrote, “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.” But by telling a story about Jews in the Italian city of Ferrara during the late 1930s, Giorgio Bassani jeopardized this artist’s freedom: the circumference of his novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which appeared in 1962, 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 except 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 named Giannina, who sighs over the Etruscan dead. Her father explains these 5,000-year-old tombs are so ancient that it is 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,” Giannina asks her father, “who do you think were more ancient, the Etruscans or the Jews?”) 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 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 prayer shawl 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 twelve 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.”
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, 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 Torah scrolls: “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 party card from 1919, that is, of having joined the Fascist party at the very beginning, even before Mussolini took power. For the first fifteen 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 cannot respond to B., who in so many ways seems like her perfect match. That 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, 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 the war 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,” B. reflects. “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.”
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.
This piece originally appeared in Tablet.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic.