I am currently busy with an ambitious project in which I delve deeply into the history archives of the Holocaust, a matter of history which is commemorated annually, but is horrifically denied in some quarters of the world. The theme of memory, whether joyful or, in this case, painful, comes to the fore in this exercise.
The project entails intensive research of the dictators who were responsible for this event. It asks whether or not there are any similarities to these dictators amongst the leaders of the world post World War 2. It entails a journey into the fictional accounts and interpretations of the Holocaust, mainly through film and the texts from which it has been adapted.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, written by Italian author, essayist and narratologist, Giorgio Bassani, was one of the first discoveries I made into the horror of the Holocaust. I received a modest, but generous B plus for the following essay I wrote on Bassani’s novel which narrates the lives of an aristocratic Italian, Jewish family before, during and after the promulgation of Benito Mussolini‘s Race Laws in 1938. My lecturer gracefully remarked that my “historical and contextual analysis” was “well done”.
If you have not yet read the novel (or seen the Italian film version) I hope that your reading of my essay may encourage your interest in this thorny subject and hunt down a copy of this rare literary masterpiece.
– Giorgio Bassani –
In The Garden of The Finzi-Continis time is central and the narrator uses it to remember his friendship with Micol Finzi-Contini, his association with her aristocratic family, the changes that engulf Ferrara during Benito Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship and the debilitating effects that this oppressive regime has on the Jews of Ferrara.
Time is inconsequential to Micol. The depressing realisation that her privileged life is coming to an abrupt and murderous end devastates her. Masking her fear from the narrator, she believes that it is better for her to forget her family’s illustrious past than to remember it.
It is the narrator’s objective, however, as a literary agent, to record events from the past. The significant historical events of the nineteen-thirties in Ferrara cannot be forgotten. Whilst reminiscing nostalgically on his friendship with Micol, he comments severely on Mussolini’s fascist persecution of the city’s Jews. He adeptly records the history of Ferrarese Jews from earlier dynasties in order to place their condition in its proper context.
Throughout the story we are reminded of the significance of 1938 during which the Racial Laws in Italy are promulgated by Mussolini. In the Introduction to the text we learn that “the narrator already suffers anxiety concerning those sights that belonged to a past which, though it seemed remote, was still recuperable, was not yet lost”. In this context, while time is central to The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, there is an overriding theme of hope in the fabula.
The consequences of the fascist Race Laws are far more devastating to Micol and her aristocratic family than to the narrator and his working-class family. The Finzi-Continis stand to lose more; their regal lifestyle, rich heritage and influence in Ferrarese society. The narrator’s father has a pragmatic view of events in fascist Italy and believes that his family and society will survive the onslaught on their Jewish heritage. Ironically, their agnosticism at the time of il Duce contributes towards their religion’s survival.
The symbolism of the walls that surround the Finzi-Continis’ garden and home is significant. Whilst it brings them security and seclusion, it is symbolic of the Ghetto’s that have surrounded and ensnared the Ferrarese Jews for centuries. Referencing “the remarkable history of the Jews in Ferrara” we learn that the Ghetto is first enforced through the Papal Legations in fifteen ninety-eight and only repealed after the unification of Italy in 1859. It returns in 1938.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis begins in medias res where the narrator sets the tone of the fabula, placing it in context with a visit to the ancient Etruscan graveyard. He focusses on his relationship with Micol and the Finzi-Continis, giving an account of their history alongside the history of Ferrara and its Jewish community.
He also comments on the idealistic socialist, Malnate, who disappointingly has a discreet sexual relationship with Micol. It is not a loving relationship as Micol is devoid of feelings of love for the opposite sex. She merely feeds her naturalistic desires. Through his father, the narrator is critical of the Finzi-Continis’ hedonistic lifestyle and personally criticizes Malnate’s ill-conceived ideology. Tragically, Malnate is lost to Stalin’s Russia. Not devoid of sentiment, the narrator adopts his father’s pragmatism and is able to survive Fascism.
The narrator’s father pours scorn on the Finzi-Continis’ lavish lifestyles and idiosyncratic penchant for monuments in their honour while his son is admittedly still fascinated by them.
While his knowledge of Ferrarese Jews, the Finzi-Continis and their fates at the hands of Fascism and the Race Laws is acute, he agnostically observes the important Jewish festivals of Pesach, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hoshannah.
While observing the regal and graceful carriage, seldomly used by the Finzi-Continis, their mode of transport having been replaced by automobiles, we think of the revolutions that the carriage’s wheels make when transporting its passengers. It hints at the narrator’s perception of time as revolving. Although the story is linear, the narrator suggests that history repeats itself cyclically.
To the narrator the ornate carriage is a relic of an era of grace and tranquility for the Finzi-Continis. It is emblematic of a lifestyle which no longer has any value for Micol who waits impatiently for it to end. While she does this, the narrator nostalgically recalls the carriage’s illustrious history with the Finz-Continis family.
Micol is well aware of the disintegration of her family’s aristocracy and way of life, and is mentally too weak to endure its persecution. A rapid conclusion of their lives and legacy is desired, rather than witnessing its decline.
A keen knowledge of botany, Micol’s fondness for fauna and “passionate admiration for trees” suggests an awareness that these beloved natural objects are passing away. In genocide and war, nothing is spared, not even plants and trees.
In his Prologue the narrator reports that Micol and the rest of her family are “deported to Germany in the autumn of 1943.” It is difficult to understand how a wealthy family such as the Finzi-Continis is unable to escape their horrible fate, Micol is aware of their fate, but does not want to understand it.
As a Jew, the narrator is concerned about surviving the Fascist onslaught.
The aesthetically and culturally rich society to which the narrator aspires, is dangerously close to being extinguished by fascism. That it survives and is revived is ironically due to the rebellious resistances carried out by socialists and communists who despise the avant-garde lifestyles that the narrator and his friends value and uphold.
The separation of Jews from the broader Ferrarese society is not the narrator’s main concern, but rather, the “racial divisions which keep the very wealthy Finzi-Continis” isolated from working-class Ferrarese citizens. It is not fascism, nor religion which distances him from Micol, but the social phenomenon, long part of Italy’s history, of distance between the aristocracies and their working-classes being maintained.
I agree with the suggestion that “the intimate enclosure is a classical scene of missed opportunities and bad timing”. The narrator concedes that a love for life to which he aspires cannot be endured, and the cruel fate that history consigns to it does debilitate the human condition. There is hope, however, that the infinity of time will afford the writer an opportunity to revive a life precious to him. Indeed, Giorgio Bassani, who endures incarceration, goes on to lead an aesthetically and culturally rich life, propagating his desire to record history.