Giorgio Bassani, who died in 2000, famously brought one Italian masterpiece to light and created another. As an editor he was instrumental in rescuing from oblivion Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard,* which had been rejected by many other publishers as old-fashioned and politically incorrect. Bassani’s own contribution, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, has the quiet intensity of a Vermeer, intimately evoking his home city of Ferrara and the small Jewish community within it during the critical months after Mussolini introduced the racial laws to placate Hitler in 1938.
Despite its particularity this beautiful, haunting novel has a resonance far beyond those city walls and the darkening months before the war. Bassani’s account of the joys and tormenting uncertainties of first love is as universal as the themes threading through it: the unknowability of other people, the connecting layers of history, the weight of memory and lost time.
I remembered, wrongly, that the narrative begins and ends with a bicycle ride (Ferrara has the highest per capita use of cycles anywhere in Europe except Copenhagen). In fact the story is framed by the (unnamed) narrator’s visit, years later, to an Etruscan burial place, which reminds him of the Finzi-Continis’ rather ugly marble tomb in the Jewish cemetery in Ferrara, and thence of their shared past. If this is beginning to sound relentlessly gloomy, it isn’t, despite the undeniably elegiac tone.
The scene that I remembered, the first real encounter between the 13-year-old schoolboy dawdling with his bike on the way home after failing his maths exam, and Micòl Finzi-Contini, consoling him over the wall of her family estate, is in fact the first act in the narrative proper. It is also another prelude to the main events ten years later; but then the whole book is an extended prelude, not so much to a culmination as to a vanishing point, which we have already been warned about at the beginning.
In 1938, after years out of contact, Micòl’s brother Alberto invites the narrator, now a young man, and ‘the others’ no longer welcome at the tennis club, to play on the tennis court in
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