Undoubtedly one of the great classics of 20th-century Italian literature, Giorgio Bassani’s novel Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini (1962) still deserves our attention today.
Set within the Jewish community of Bassani’s hometown Ferrara, near Bologna, the novel paints a picture of Jewish life in fascist Italy during the 1920s and 1930s so delicate and moving that it is almost beyond comparison.
The novel begins with the nameless narrator visiting Ferrara and its cemetery in the 1950s. It is here that we discover that the mausoleum of the Fitzi-Contini is empty, except for the graves of Alberto, who died from Hodgkin’s disease and his brother Guido, who died as a young child. The rest of the family has been deported to German concentration camps.
It is with this knowledge always on the reader’s mind that Bassani’s novel becomes such an extraordinary experience. For Bassani is not interested in portraying his characters as victims. Rather, we are introduced to their daily lives. In the first part of the novel we therefore learn about the narrator’s everyday life in the Jewish community and at school, as well as his growing fascination with the mysterious Finzi-Contini family, whose children Alberto and Micol only come to school to sit their exams. When one day she invites him to climb over the wall and into the famous garden, the narrator, coming from a humble background, is immediately smitten not only with Micol’s beauty, but also with the park and the villa her aristocratic family lives in.
A few years pass, by now the racial laws have almost turned the Finzi-Continis’ reclusive lifestyle into a necessity. Excluded from the university library as well as the local tennis club because of his Jewishness, the narrator joins Micol and her brother Alberto to play tennis on their own court. They are also joined by their old friend Malnate, a Gentile and a passionate communist. The narrator also uses the private library of Prof. Ermanno, Micol’s father, to complete his studies in Italian literature. Amidst heated political debates, homemade lemonade and the regular rhythm of the tennis court, the narrator falls madly in love with Micol and begins to woo her. Even though she sometimes seems to reciprocate his feelings, it remains an unhappy love, thwarted not only by a difference in class that would make a marriage between them impossible. Following his father’s advice, the narrator eventually gives up the pursuit of a life that is not suitable for someone of his class and only remains in touch with Malnate, severing all ties with the Finzi-Continis. And yet, driven by his unchanging love for Micol, he climbs into the magical garden once more at night, not long before their deportation, to make a discovery that changes everything and makes his time spent here appear in a completely new light.
Written in a beautiful, very subtle style, Bassani offers a glimpse of his own past and a form of life that was lost with the Holocaust. And yet even though a deep sadness pervades this novel, as we see its protagonists live their lives so close to the abyss, there is also an undeniable beauty to those tender memories of a youth that tried to be like any other. Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini was made into a movie directed by Vittorio de Sica, starring Helmut Berger, in 1970. It was published in English by Penguin.