Talk about best-laid plans … I had Tuesday set aside to write this, with Vita’s granny coming to look after the terrorbot for a few hours to give me a bit of time and space to think about the finer points of Italian fiction, when what happens? The lurgi strikes! And so most of Tuesday was spent asleep and the days since have been semi-asleep and semi-entertaining Vita, who is sleeping rather less than we’d like. Still, it has not been unpleasant – the husband has stepped in and taken her with him on errands (who needs Gymboree when there’s Leylands?), and even when I’ve been feeling grotty, it is terribly sweet listening to her gurgle. She is busy mastering ‘vvvvvvv’ and ‘fffffff’ and ‘boof’ sounds at the moment. If it weren’t for all the raspberries that intersperse said noises, I would have thought she might be composing her first poem.
So I hope you will excuse yet another belated post.
The book is rather more taxing than my usual picks and there were stirrings of dissent as many walkers complained about Bassani’s never-ending, clause-upon-clause-upon-clause sentences, and how hard it had been to ‘get into’ the book. My heart sank somewhat as I listened to the grumbles for I could only agree – whilst re-reading the novel in preparation for the meeting, I’d spent the first fifty pages or so wondering how I’d managed to misremember this plodding dull novel as being poignant and wonderful.
Luckily, everyone agreed that the book gets much better, and by the time the narrator and Micol are playing tennis, they were all thoroughly engrossed. In fact, they were grateful that the book club had provided an incentive to stick with it, thereby discovering a brilliant, very moving novel that would stick with them forever. I am all for giving up on a book if you’re not enjoying it, but perhaps this is a useful reminder of the importance of giving it a good shot – 100 pages is usually a safe bet – before deciding whether or not to put it aside.
Key to the The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is its structure. It begins with a Prologue and ends with an Epilogue; the main chunk is set further back in the past and feels neatly contained within these formal boundaries. In the Prologue, the narrator visits some Etruscan tombs, which prompts him to remember the monumental tomb 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 Micol, 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.
Well, you can see why there were complaints about the lengthy sentences …
You can also see that in one sense, Bassani tells us the end right at the beginning, and the grim fate of the Finzi-Contini family falls over the whole book. So this makes us suspect, then, that it’s not going to be so much about the terrible things that history has in store for them – unless Bassani means to totally ruin the suspense – but rather what happens first, what can be salvaged from the precious years before their untimely death, the private story that would otherwise be brushed aside by history’s grand sweep.
The narrator takes us back to his youth, and after a while spent on his early encounters with the Finzi-Contini family, we hit the moment when their acquaintanceship turns to profound friendship. (This is when the book starts to pick up.) The Italian Racial Laws of 1938 prevented Jews from doing all sorts of things, and this is felt in Ferrara not least in Jews being forced to stop using the country club. So the (Jewish) Finzi-Continis invite the city’s young Jews to use their own private tennis court. The narrator comes along to play tennis and is soon in love with the daughter Micol. From this, he develops a bond with the whole family, as he uses the father’s library, and talks politics with the brother.
Bassani makes the book two things at once: a story of the tender pain of first love and a harrowing depiction of the situation of Italy’s Jews in the late 1930s. The personal is entwined with the political. This is easier said than done – it is all too easy to write historical novels in which the context weighs down the story so that you feel like you’re drowning in the author’s research notes (c.f. A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book). With Bassani, however, we are encouraged to think more about the joy of being young in the seemingly enchanted garden of the Finzi-Continis than the politics which get the narrator there in the first place. One walker said she’d had to keep turning back to double-check she’d read it correctly, as she’d been so unnerved by the way Bassani so matter-of-factly dropped in devastating instances of Jewish exclusion from society.
We discussed at length the many images of containment and circles that appear in the book. There are the walls of Ferrara, the walls of the garden, and even the ‘circolo’s – literally ‘circles’ but meaning ‘clubs’ from which Jews are being expelled. I stumbled across this very good essay by Adam Kirsch about the novel, in which he pointed to this quotation from Henry James:
Really, universally, relations stop nowhere and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, a circle within which they appear to do so.
It’s a brilliant quote!
Kirsch argues that Bassani’s very self-conscious structuring of the novel with Prologue and Epilogue is his method of drawing this circle, and the reason it is so laboured (e.g. the Epilogue begins: ‘The story of my relationship with Micol Finzi-Contini ends here.’) is because he is drawing the circumference of the novel ‘in defiance’ of the historical circumference, which ends, as we know, with her deportation to Germany and grave-less death. Bassani is drawing a circle around the precious moments of youth and first love, as a means of defying the greater circle of history.
It’s a neat argument. And yet, however well Bassani has written it as a love story, protecting it within so many defensive circles, history is still glimpsed through the chinks in the walls. For instance, when the narrator pauses on his bicycle:
I stopped beneath a tree – one of those old trees, lindens, elms, plane trees, horse chestnuts which, a dozen years later, in the frozen winter of Stalingrad, would be sacrificed for firewood, but which in 1929 still raised their great umbrellas of greenery high above the city’s ramparts.
In something as innocent as a tree, we are given a flash of the horrors that are to come.
Short, unlaboured moments like this litter the text, jolting you out of the oasis of youthful romance, and making the narrator’s loss of innocence all the more poignant for being in the context of the world’s horrific loss of innocence. The mentions of historical context feel artfully oppressive, as though the walls are closing in and the world will soon implode … as indeed it will.
As we walked across the Heath and looked down on London below, I thought that this feeling of the book was similar to the feeling I had when walking through Lucca – the Italian walled city (not unlike Ferrara), where Emilybooks spent a blissful couple of months last year. As you walk through the streets, you can never completely lose yourself in the city as the walls are always there surrounding you. You meander along, wiggling and winding and thinking you’re lost and then all of a sudden there’s the wall. It vanishes only for a moment before reappearing in the distance as you enter a square, or there at the end of an alley. When you’re in the city, you are never free of its walls. So, as we walk through his novel, Bassani never lets us entirely disappear into the love story – like the city walls, history is never out of sight for long.
The next walking book club will be a Daunt Books Festival special – discussing the wonderful Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns as we wander through Regent’s Park. You can book your place (as well as get tickets for all the other talks) here.