Having already blogged about nostalgia (here) a week or so ago. I found it again reappearing, pretty much in capital letters, in Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, my Italian reading for my Italian holiday.
The narrator of the story falls in love with Micòl Finzi-Contini, a wealthy beautiful Jewish neighbour. But Micòl is characterised with her nostalgia – preferring ‘the dear, the sweet, the sacred past’ to the present moment. When the narrator realises he is in love with her and kisses her passionately on several occasions she is completely frigid. She explains that it is because they were childhood friends:
she needed me to understand – it was absolutely unnecessary that we spoil, as we were risking doing, the lovely memories of a shared childhood. For us two to make love? Did it really seem feasible to me?
For Micòl, the past is more precious than the present. She sees the narrator in sepia, steeped in memories, awash with innocence. She refuses to pollute it, to alter the image by overlaying an adult perspective.
The failed love story of Micòl and the narrator takes place in 1930s Italy and is itself one giant memory, a lengthy nostalgia-tinted flashback. For in the Prologue the narrator says the ‘impulse, the prompt’ to write about the Finzi-Continis only happened ‘a year ago, one April Sunday in 1957’. An outing to some Etruscan tombs reminds the narrator of the ‘monumental tomb’ of the Finzi-Continis. And then he says, before the main story has even begun, that only one of all the Finzi-Continis he knew had ended up in the tomb. All the others:
were deported to Germany in the autumn of 1943, and no one knows whether they have any grave at all.
The morning shadow of that tomb looms over the story that follows. We know that these hot bright moments of youth – of tennis, of gardens, of climbing walls, of reading, of love – will be extinguished before evening falls.
And, with this introductory remark about the Finzi-Continis being deported, one imagines that the following story will be all about the approaching doom. And yes, the introduction of Racial Laws are mentioned in the book and the characters discuss how they have been affected by them – being asked to leave the library, getting into a fight at the cinema – but they are really just part of the background to what is really a story about falling in love, and that love not being requited.
But the knowledge of Micòl’s forthcoming death brings poignancy and a real frustration with her insistency on a nostalgic viewpoint in which her past has more weight than her present. I want to shout at her that soon she’s going to die, that their world is vanishing, that really it is the present that is so precious, such a brief flash of daylight before the Nazi eclipse takes hold.
Of course, for the narrator, it is a different nostalgia at work. Rather than Micol’s veneration of childhood, with no regard for the present, the narrator sees that entire youthful period as precious. For he is looking back from 1957, from after the War and everything that it entailed. And that nostalgia gives a certain sepia sanctity to his memory. And while heartbreak is so exquisitely described, it feels so divorced from what is going to happen next. How can the pain of first love possibly be real, given the pain that is to follow? How can these golden days have existed so close behind the mass extermination that is to come?
How can this book just be a love story? How can it really be about a boy’s friendship with a girl, him falling in love with her and she turning him down, when it’s set in the late 1930s in Italy?
This is where real tragedy lies. Real life continues and is so normal, so completely oblivious to the horror that is to follow, the horror that is on such a different scale, the pain so incomparable. And that normality – that innocence, those days of idling around a tennis court – becomes so unbearably painful, so unspeakably poignant, in the shadow of the War, which is to come and disrupt everything, silently end it all.
So to Hell with nostalgia! Why be wistful for the past when the present, actually, is pretty amazing? Unless some colossal tragedy on the scale of The Second World War were to get in the way, we can’t really complain. The present, each moment of now, should be of absolute paramount importance. For how are any of us to know what lies around the corner? How can we know what might burst out of the shadows and change everything? Only then, once something really truly horrendously awful has happened, do we have the right to pine for the past. Just think how stupid we’d feel if in the future we looked back and saw we’d wasted the golden moments of life longing for something in sepia.