Describing a book as “beautiful” can be dismissed as a lame start to a piece of criticism. A word more at home among the spidery handwriting of a schoolchild’s book report, the self-respecting critic treats it as gingerly as someone with high blood pressure handles the salt cellar.
But (aside from the fact this is a blog, which, according to our cultural gatekeepers, is not subject to the same rigorous standards that are daily showcased in our newspapers) I nevertheless offer the word “beautiful” as being the most appropriate epithet for Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which has recently been reissued by Penguin in a new translation by Jamie McKendrick.
Perhaps it is because, with its near-static structure and attention to quotidian detail, the novel brings to mind a group portrait or a bleached-out photo of a long-past event. And the paradox of portraiture—capturing a particular moment for all time simultaneously underlines its transience—is strongly felt in Bassani’s novel, in which the idyll of young love (even if it is unrequited) is subtly contrasted with the pitch-black fate that awaits most of the characters.
Unfolding in the late 1930s in the northern Italian town of Ferrara, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis traces how the narrator, travelling from adolescence to young manhood, falls under the spell of the eponymous family, in particular the daughter, Micòl. Both the narrator and the family belong to Ferrara’s Jewish community, which during the novel’s timeframe begins to be gradually undermined by Italy’s Racial Laws, introduced from 1938.
The persecution experienced by the characters is handled in a low-key manner, more of an intermittent ominous chord than a persistent drumbeat. For example: The narrator is asked to leave a library, while two other characters are cheated out of victory in a tennis tournament because of their religion. But the serpent lurking in the lush grounds belonging to the Finzi-Continis need not hiss to make its presence felt—the novel’s prologue already foretells doom:
Almost thirty years after the events covered in the main body of the book, the narrator visits some ancient Etruscan tombs, the sight of which stirs memories about the ancestral burial plot of the Finzi-Continis.
And my heartstrings tightened as never before at the thought that in that tomb, established, it seemed, to guarantee the perpetual repose of its first occupant—of him, and his descendants—only one, of all the Finzi-Continis I had known and loved, had actually achieved this repose. Only Alberto had been buried there, the oldest, who died in 1942 of a lymphogranuloma, whilst Micòl, the daughter, born second, and their father Ermanno, and their mother Signora Olga, and Signora Regina, her ancient paralytic mother, were all deported to Germany in the autumn of 1943, and no one knows whether they have any grave at all.
The novel dovetails beautifully—again that word—with the more famous works by Bassini’s compatriot, Primo Levi. Just as Levi’s lightly fictionalized novels limn the hell of Auschwitz, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis revivifies the world that was consumed by that camp’s industrial crematoria.