Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis: An Exchange

Dorian and I wanted to try something a bit different for discussing Giorgio Bassani’s 1962 novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, and a bit last minute decided to send a few thoughts to one another and then post those with the other’s responses. I’m grateful that Dorian was kind enough to go first; I’ve now reciprocated, following his pattern here and grouping a few observations around some general topics to which he has responded. (Other bloggers who have joined in reading Bassani's novel are listed at the end of this exchange; I'll put up links to any others as they appear). 

Looking forward, Scott! I’ll write my responses in italics below yours.

I want to start by focusing on some narrative and stylistic elements lying a little outside my emotional response to the work, which – perhaps especially on the second reading – was significant. I was moved by the ending, by the vacuum it created that then allows the weight of all that Bassani has so cleverly kept “off stage” throughout the novel - by his homing in on the ways in which the characters largely go about their lives as though the mounting intolerance and oppression will pass – to collapse in on itself like a black hole. The “Garden” of the title is obviously an Edenic paradise, one that is even enclosed – literally – by a wall of angels, the “Mura degli Angeli.” I kept wondering where the serpent hid in this metaphor, perhaps in one of the garden’s many trees that Micòl catalogued and loved so well. More precisely, though, when, exactly, is the moment of the loss of this Eden?

Paradises are definitely made to be lost. I hadn’t noticed the reference to the angels! But if you were to keep to this metaphor, would Micòl be Eve? That would make me uncomfortable. She might be presented as a temptress earlier in the novel but by the end he rejection of the narrator is carefully thought-through.

One particular stylistic element that leapt out at me in the novel is Bassani’s notable treatment of:


Dorian, you’ve written about the distinctions Bassani makes within the small Ferrarese Jewish community. One gets such a sense in the remarkable synagogue scene of how Bassani uses the temple’s space to highlight those distinctions, through the relegation of women to an upstairs space enclosed behind a grille to the arrangement of benches used by particular families that suggest an arrangement according to status and class. Similarly, Bassani uses the walls and long paths of the Finzi-Contini estate to emphasize its isolation from the rest of Ferrara. I was struck repeatedly by how space in the novel takes on fluid, relativistic qualities. For example, one can never quite get a sense of the garden’s layout, nor of that of the house. They are more like dream-spaces, idealized as though infinite even within their confines. We are treated to many strange interiors, and many more small “compartments”:  the communicating study and library of Professor Ermanno; Alberto’s close and almost timeless room, with its refined aesthetic; Micòl’s bedroom with its glass menagerie; the living room in which the narrator’s father sleeps; the garden hutte, the subterranean chamber by Ferrara’s walls; even the Finzi-Continis’ tennis court itself, the roughly defined dimensions of which seem, as the threats to its existence as a haven close in, to push out as though in protest. Bassini gives us some striking descriptions of interiors, for example of Micòl’s room and of Professor Ermanno’s study – even of the elevator that (rather surreally) takes the narrator up to Micòl’s room. What to make of this? I’m struck by how unusual it is to find in a novel a combination of such a careful and granular, almost geometrically crafted approach to the spaces the characters inhabit and pass through (apparently Bassani revised and reworked the novel extensively and intensively) and at the same time a narrative that feels so deeply and emotionally rooted in personal experience. There’s something nearly classical about it.

Love these thoughts—smart and helpful. The novel’s use of space is, as you say, striking. Sometimes so carefully and clearly articulated, and at other times vague and hard to make sense of. In his essay “The Uncanny” Freud connects, through his reading of the great Hoffmann story “The Sandman,” architectural space with psychological states. And I wonder if a similar connection isn’t happening here. You spurred my thoughts in this regard by your brilliant observation about the tennis court, “the roughly defined dimensions of which seem, as the threats to its existence as a haven close in, to push out as though in protest.” The idea that space is changeable indeed seems to reflect or correlate to the changing political circumstances the Jewish characters find themselves in—and to the corresponding changes in mental state.

Following this way of thinking, do you think we could consider the architecture of the Finzi-Contini home—which as you note is at once described with great precision and oddly vague (how the hell do all those rooms connect to each other?)—as a form of resistance to the restrictions being placed on its inhabitants and their fellow Jews? Of course, that resistance is ultimately futile—the idyll is breached, the inhabitants of Eden ejected and murdered—so maybe this idea isn’t particularly effective. But I wondered if Bassani, through has oddly imprecise use of space at strategic moments, was trying to keep something in reserve, as it were, some magic, for lack of a better word, that the Germans couldn’t destroy. After all, the vagueness seems deliberate, given the precision offered elsewhere—an instructive comparison are Malnate’s rooms, which are rendered much more clearly, transparently: we could draw a floor plan if we had to, which I don't think we could do with the Finzi-Contini home.

On another note, I loved the elevator scene. It reminded me of the ones in Proust, with the narrator in the hotel at Balbec. I don’t think Perotti is like the lift-boy—he’s not trying to cruise the narrator, for one thing—so I’m not sure if there is anything more to this comparison than, “Hey, I know another book with an elevator in it.” In Bassani, the elevator is another emblem of the strange relationship between elitism/specialness/separateness and modernity. Perotti admires it but also distrusts it because it’s American. The elevator reminds me of the telephones: a modern technology that at least promises to connect people, but that sits uneasily with the Finzi-Continis rejection of modernity.

BTW I love the Glass Menagerie connection. I bet Bassani knew it.


This novel is full to overflowing with literature; I can scarcely begin to catalog Bassani’s references. Despite my having largely focused on reading Italian authors the past couple of years, Garden left me acutely aware of how little I know on the subject. One of the frustrations in reading the novel in translation and as an outsider is not being able to piece together all of the Italian references, and in particular to get a clear sense of the meaning of the narrator’s literary interests. For Micòl, with her choice to write on Emily Dickinson, this appears a bit easier, given that despite her extroversion and the glow of life she carries about her, she herself is a rather Dickinsonian figure, ensconced away in the highest room of a remote mansion in the center of a seemingly infinite park.  I had a harder time understanding the narrator’s decision to focus on Enrico Panzacchi as his dissertation topic: a minor late 19th century poet about whom, unfortunately, I can find very little in English. Curious too is his decision to shift from what appears from his description to have been a more well thought out idea for a dissertation on several 16th century Italian painters, though this appears to be tangentially connected to the growing anti-Jewish sentiment, which has apparently resulted in the art historian at the University of Bologna – “one of the leading figures of Italian Jewry” - losing his post (to be replaced by the famous – and goy – art critic Roberto Longhi, another instance where Bassani’s fiction hews closely to real events). I wondered if this might be a subtle way of revealing the damages wrought by the laws, that they change the narrator’s course of study from what is arguably the greatest explosion of artistic talent in Italian history to a concern with a minor writer little known outside academic circles. The uses to which Bassani puts literature are manifold; beyond that one must also see Garden as not just a story of Fascism intersecting with young love, but also of the development of a writer, of a “vocation of solitude.”

Again, very interesting and beautifully put. I barely know anything about Dickinson and nothing about Panzacchi. But I think you are right about “minor-ness.” In the 1930s Dickinson was probably not the force, intellectually speaking she is now, especially not in Italy, I would think. But it seems fitting that Micòl goes for the more famous figure. The narrator’s marginality is on display here. That makes me think of the conversation about “Bartleby” in which the narrator ends up taking the side of the lawyer, and Micòl reproaches him for his conformism and lack of imagination. I don’t know how to square that with his later resistance work, but I am reminded of an earlier exchange with Professor Ermanno. The Professor mentions his work on the inscriptions on the graves in the Jewish cemetery in Venice. His research led him only to write “two slim essays” in which he “merely expound[ed] the facts… without venturing any interpretation on the subject.” A couple of pages later, the narrator admiringly references a book by another scholar, a book that “confined itself merely to touching on the subject: masterfully, but without exploring it deeply.”

I’m not sure how to put all this together, but I think it’s significant that the narrator’s scholarly work is connected to superficiality. Another commentary on his character? Or should we take him seriously when he (and the Professor) values the circumspection of staying on the surface?

Remembrance and Witnessing

I group the following thoughts around this heading in part to elicit your thoughts as a professor of Holocaust literature and as someone versed in its varieties of remembrance. Among the most powerful elements of Garden for me was the manner in which Bassani portrays the incremental quality of Fascism’s effects on the community, and the ways by which the characters adjust and adapt. In focusing on the bright lives that go on, playing, within the Mura degli Angeli in the Finzi-Contini’s paradise, Bassani keeps the outside world’s events off on the periphery (another example of his structural use of space, a kind of concatenated solar system with Micòl the sun at its center). Yet those events nonetheless intrude from time to time into this little garden of Eden, drop by drop like a water torture, creating an increasingly intolerable accretion. Interestingly, the first drop may be the narrator’s memory of a Passover seder in 1933 coinciding with the infornata del Decennale, Fascism’s tenth anniversary, where the narrator recalls seeing in his father’s face, despite his father’s approval of Fascism’s rise, “a shadow of chagrin…a stumbling block, a little obstacle, unforeseen and unpleasant.”  The first sign of a concrete deprivation is not even the letter informing Jewish members of the Villa d’Este tennis club that they are no longer welcome, but the rumor of such a letter. Later, we learn in the margins about a Finzi-Contini uncle dismissed from his job with the state railroad; the replacement of the Jewish art historian at Bologna; two young Jewish tennis players who, on the verge of winning a championship match, have the game called with the excuse of oncoming night serving to prevent the embarrassing situation of their being declared winners. Such events reach the chief characters too, as Micòl relates her tale of a Fascist on her dissertation committee objecting to the proposal that she be bestowed honors, and the narrator recounting his having been ordered out of the library reading room he’d considered “a second home.” Almost none of these incidents is presented directly; all are recounted to others, with the exception of the narrator describing to the reader near the novel’s end his having been threatened and called a “dirty Jew!” after making sarcastic comments in a cinema. One is left with hints of an almost ghost narrative, allusions to events outside those at the novel’s bright core, conveying a closing in, an inevitability of the catastrophe vouchsafed in the prologue. An aspect of the well-regarded film version by Vittorio de Sica I disliked is de Sica’s failure to respect these deliberate omissions by Bassani. For instance, de Sica shows the Finzi-Continis being rounded up, even shows them in a detention center awaiting deportation. He even shows Micòl in the hutte with Malnate, the narrator watching through the window, whereas Bassani leaves ambiguous the question of whether the narrator, in his petty jealousy, has completely invented this relationship.  

I found this depiction of the slow removal of liberties, the gradual chipping away at the Jewish community, to be the most powerful element in the novel. Among the most central questions pertaining to the Holocaust is: “How did this happen?” Bassani may not seek an encompassing answer to that question, but he is certainly interested, as an artist, in depicting and questioning the characters’ reactions to these small events, in the inquietude, denial, acquiescence, contempt and other responses with which they confront each new indignity (one response is, of course, to write, and the narrator is the one figure in the novel we know to have begun as acquiescent to Fascism – he’s noted as having won a young Fascist writing contest - to a rejection and renunciation of those who seem resigned to it). Bassani strikes me a one of the few writers of the Holocaust (Aleksander Tišma is another) who convey so well the moment when such restrictive measures reach a tipping point, and the brutal knock on the door represents the abrupt culmination of a force that has been building in plain sight but which, for reasons including the above reactions, was not stopped. What Bassani achieves so beautifully and heartbreakingly at the end of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is to leave the reader sitting quietly with the events described, contemplating and conjuring the vital, intelligent, beautiful Micòl and, around her, all the exuberance of life, the aspirations and unfulfilled loves that Fascism and Nazism snuffed out. Perhaps the least prominent but most important character in the novel is the innocent young Giannina from the novel’s prologue, the “extraordinary tenderness” of whose comment about the Etruscans having been “also alive once” sets the author’s motion in memory, and provides the long view of history, of the many peoples who have lived and have passed, of the almost instinctual and constitutional importance of remembering.

Again, nicely put. So much to think about here. Your last comments—and I agree the child’s statement is crucial, but I did find it a bit heavy-handed—make me wonder how we’re to understand the relationship between history and memory. Is there a difference between things that happened in the past a long time ago to people we don’t know and those that happened more recently to those we did? Another way to get at this would be to wonder why it is that the narrator can only start to tell his story when he can think of it as history rather than as memory? Why does it take the Etruscans for him to tell the story of the Jews of Ferrara?

As to the slow drip of menace that leads to a tipping point: absolutely. In his famous history of the Shoah, Raul Hilberg distinguishes between the stages of European anti-Semitism. For many centuries, he says, non-Jews said to Jews: You cannot live among us as Jews (i.e. forced conversion). Later, especially in the early years of National Socialism (it’s not a precise time-table by any means, but still useful), non-Jews said to Jews: You cannot live among us (i.e. forced emigration). And then, as codified at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 but not decided there, non-Jews said to Jews: You cannot live (extermination). The point is that most historians of the Holocaust are functionalists rather than intentionalists—the Holocaust is a function of many events, not the result of Hitler’s/the Nazis’ intention.

At the same time, I would note that the drip-drip quality you note in Bassani (and your close readings of the mediated quality of the news are so brilliant) has a lot to do with the particular historical situation. For many Jews in Eastern Europe, for example, the Holocaust came much more rapidly, especially in the Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union. The situation of Jews in Italy was a bit different, since fascism there wasn’t anti-Semitic to any great extent until quite late in the 1930s. None of this is to take away from what you’re saying—it’s just to point out the particular situation. And to be sure there are many texts by or about Jews in Germany and Austria in particular that describe the same kind of chipping away of life that Bassani offers us here. Ruth Klüger’s amazing memoir Still Alive is just one example.

The more I think about Bassani’s novel, the more I think about it as a portrayal of a survivor, in which the guilt, depression, and deadened affect so many felt (Levi writes about this so well) is being retrospectively displaced on to the narrator’s pre-war life. If I think about it this way, I’m able to take the narrator better than I otherwise can. But I still wonder: why that displacement. Part of me thinks a fundamental conformism inheres in the narrator, despite his work for the Resistance.

Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Scott, and for letting me respond. We can keep the conversation going in the comments, I hope. And I’d love for others to join in.

Among those who have already joined in are Jacqui, Meredith and Grant of JacquiWine's Journal, Dolce Bellezza, and 1streading's Blog, respectively. Please read their reviews/commentaries on The Garden of the Finzi-Continis in the links!

Images by Filippo de Pisis, b. Ferrara 1896, d. Milan 1956


  1. As always, I enjoyed your discussion of a book and a movie that get repeated attention from me after their original appearances years and years ago. As a sidebar to the topic, please allow me to suggest Alexander Stille's non-fiction Benevolence and Betrayal a study of five Jewish families in Italy during this time. The book deals with their particular beliefs running the political gamut thus emphasizing the "confused" situation in which the Jews of Italy found themselves at that time.

    1. Thanks JLS - I'll look for the book, especially in light of Dorian's comments about the particularities of the situation of Italian Jews.

  2. Thanks for this recommendation--the book looks fascinating.

  3. Another very interesting post on this rich and multi-faceted novel. I too was struck by Bassani's descriptions of the Finzi-Continis estate, especially the garden and surrounding walls. I found it difficult to get a fix on the broad layout of the grounds, e.g. the position of the tennis court relative to other areas, the location of the coach house with the old carriage, and so on. A map might have been helpful - but then again, I suspect Bassani wanted to leave the layout to the reader's imagination.

    Many thanks for hosting this readalong with Dorian. I'm glad I joined in.

    1. Yes, I rather suspect Bassani would not have liked to include a map. I'm so glad you decided to join in the group reading!

  4. Dorian - thanks for your trove of illuminating comments here. I'll respond in roughly the same order in which you made them.

    I too have trouble thinking of Micòl as an Eve figure, but De Sica might not have: look at the still from his film that I used in the group reading invitation!

    I love your comments about the possible use of space as a form of resistance. In part, of course, this may also be just a function of the narrator's memory lending a certain vagueness to the estate, but that imprecision also seems to underscore the sense of longing, of something not quite attained.

    I'm almost sure Bassani was well aware of The Glass Menagerie (he and Tennessee Williams both worked on the screenplay for Visconti's film Senso).

    Your comments about the narrator's superficiality and conformity intrigue me, and I wish that you or I or someone had paid more attention to the scene where Professor Ermanno describes the Jewish cemetery in Venice. As you might recall, Ermanno also notes that he wanted to write a "novel" about it. Increasingly, I think we can view the narrator as someone bright but fairly conventional. And while I see him as dynamic, it's the dynamism that comes from holding onto an instinct while all around is changing. It's a kind of calcification of his instinctual anti-Fascism that leaves him as someone who - unlike the loquacious Malnate - actually takes a concrete stand (though we are privy to witnessing this - it's only suggested by his time in prison and his irritation with those who seem simply to acquiesce).

    Ah, and thanks so much for bringing in additional perspective on the Holocaust literary context of the novel as well as that of the Jewish community Bassani portrays. The relationship of history and memory is difficult to disentangle, but it seems significant that the narrator feels compelled to tell this story 14 years after the Finzi-Continis' deportation, and that the trigger for this compulsion is a contemplation of the Etruscans, a people who - unlike the Jews - essentially disappeared, broken up and assimilated, and now a more or less mysterious people.

    Thanks for proposing this project. There's obviously a lot more to be said; for that, and for what's been said already, I'm grateful for the differing perspectives the group reading has engendered.

  5. Scott, these sentences made a big impression on me:

    I think we can view the narrator as someone bright but fairly conventional. And while I see him as dynamic, it's the dynamism that comes from holding onto an instinct while all around is changing.

    The first fits well with my sense of the narrator as the kind of character I think Ishiguro has perfected. Sorry to keep coming back to him, but I just can't shake the comparison in my head. We are led to see the conventionality of Ishiguro's characters slowly, drip by drip, in the way they express themselves (often through sue of cliche or affectlessness). It takes a long time to see them as something other than the hero of their own story. This I think is similar to Bassani. But whereas in Ishiguro that conventionality is usually allied to callousness, even monstrosity, Bassani is doing something a little different, as your second sentence helps me see. I'm very taken by your suggestion that calcification, in this novel, is actually a useful thing.
    It almost seems to me that we have usefully nuanced each other's readings of this character--me making you more skeptical of him, and you making me more appreciative of him. In that sense, I think our conversation has been very useful! And it's been a lot of fun!

    I'm also taken by your comment about the difference between the Etruscans and the Jews. The latter indeed have not died out. So is there something false about the narrator's offering that moment as a spur to tell the story that's been bottled up inside him?

    The book remains complex and beguiling no matter how much we work away at it. A good sign!