The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani (“Who knows how, and why, a vocation for solitude is born?”)

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To me, the image of a garden is of so much potential. Inherent to a garden is growth, beauty, and the possibility of perfection. (I think of the Garden of Eden as presented in the Old Testament.)

But there is also the possibility of everything going wrong: weeds, decay, the infiltration of parasites.

So it’s interesting to me that Bassani titles his novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Not The House of the Finzi-Continis. Not The Hütte of The Finzi-Continis. The Garden. And what an apt title it is, to tell the story of this affluent Jewish family living in Ferrara, Italy, in 1938, who can indulge in the play a lovely garden has to offer.

There is a tennis court, disappointing to the Professor’s children, Micol and Alberto, but nevertheless a gathering place for their group of friends who wish to seize the beauty of summer. Waiting by the entrance gate to this garden’s tennis court are Bruno Lattes, Adriana Trentini, Carletto Sani, Tonino Colevatti, and three or four other young men and women. They meet to play tennis, to laugh and compete and partake of Skiwasser, the beverage Micol insists on providing as she finds it the most refreshing.

Our narrator, the man who falls in love with Micol, is also an insistent one. He comes to her house to play tennis never missing an afternoon, and when she goes away to study in Venice, he goes to her home to work on his thesis in her father’s library. He has been invited, to be sure, but he seems unable to determine when he might be overstaying his welcome; he is unable to determine the extent of Micol’s affection for him, which does not seem to surpass that of friendship, even after subtle gestures on his part. (How he laments not following her to Venice, where surely, he thinks, his efforts could have changed the course of events.)

If on that rainy afternoon, when the radiant Indian summer of ’38 suddenly ended, I had at least managed to speak to her–I told myself bitterly–perhaps things between us would have gone differently from the way they went.

After virtually throwing himself upon her, quite literally, she is forced to tell him that she does not love him. She does not wish him, in fact, to visit as much as he has. Perhaps he should take three weeks to stay away altogether.

So much is in decline: the relationship between Micol and the narrator who loves her; her brother Alberto’s health; the strength of the Jewish position in the late 1930s. We are told from the very beginning that Alberto dies of a lymphogranuloma, and the other members of the family are all deported to Germany in 1943.

It is a story of tremendous loss and rejection: of this man’s love, as well as the injustice the Jewish people suffer during this particular time period. It is a story, to me, of our ultimate isolation and solitude; no one is able to save anyone else.

Perhaps it is all we can do, sometimes, to take care of ourselves.

(I read this novel at Dorian’s invitation, and look forward to reading the thoughts of others who have read along. Jacqui’s is here.)

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20 thoughts on “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani (“Who knows how, and why, a vocation for solitude is born?”)

    • I have only read the novel, but I was thrilled to see our library has a copy of the film which I would very much like to see. I felt I had to read the book first, since I am more of a literary person than a movie “critic”, and usually enjoy the books more. I am looking forward to thoughts of fellow readers, as I fear I have glossed over some of the novel. It is hard not to give away the plot in one’s review, and the conclusion deeply reiterated his isolation to me.

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    • Such a good word: elegiac. I think I have taught third grade for so long that my vocabulary has been impacted in a less than sophisticated way. And it is so true that it is mournful, sorrowful, a lament, really, throughout. Our narrator laments so many things: his loneliness, to be sure, but also a time gone by and opportunities lost.

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  1. It’s a beautiful novel – and for some reason (maybe because of your Italian Bellezza nickname) it’s the novel I have always associated with you. It has a similar feel of lost innocence as Le Grand Meaulnes.

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    • That is so interesting to me, Marina, that you have associated this novel with me. I hope it is for the Italian setting rather than the aloofness of Micol. Of course, she is not aloof to all; who knows what went on in the “hutte”? I can only imagine…

      And yes, there is a loss of innocence among all the other losses we’ve mentioned.

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  2. Thanks for this terrific, post DB! I’m finishing up my post and hope to have it live tonight or tomorrow.
    I’m especially struck by your final line. I think you are right that the narrator does take care of himself. But I wonder what form this takes. I talk about the revelation that he is active in the Resistance, which seems to suggest some sense of a greater good or community. But for me there is so much that’s dubious about the narrator–the scene you reference where he throws himself on to Micòl is particularly unpleasant–that I have a hard time as reading him as anything other than selfish. But I also worry that I’m being too hard on him.
    Can you say a little more about what had in mind when you said he takes care of himself?

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    • I struggled with that line so much because it is exactly what I feel we cannot do, to take care of only ourselves. So I went back and added “perhaps” as if that helps. But, I am in a dilemma. I meant it more in the emotional preservation sense than a physical one; our narrator seems so naive and tender (even with that episode we both dislike). He longs to be loved in return by Micol, and to find that she not only does not love him but has deceived him was especially piercing to me. I’ve wanted to talk about the end, and yet one cannot (should not?) give away the conclusion in one’s review. But I thought he was betrayed by both Micol and the “friend” who stayed out late with him simply to buy time for sneaking back into the garden.

      I never saw our narrator as selfish, necessarily. I saw him more as a wounded soul, struggling to find his way. Struggling to understand his place with Micol which turned out not to exist at all.

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      • That’s helpful. You definitely like him more than I do. I’m not sure if he was in fact betrayed or if he has imagined that. The evidence fits, but the ending actually seems inconclusive to me.

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        • We are at the mercy of his point of view, and if he was betrayed it’s because he felt that way. (And vicariously, so did I.) Micol certainly never led him on; he let himself believe what he hoped was true about their relationship. I don’t think I liked or disliked him, but I did pity him. I feel that his “friends” let him down by keeping their relationship secret and letting him carry on so blindly.

          Perhaps, and probably this is stretching it, the Jews carried on with their lives blindly, too, at least at the beginning. Few could have suspected that they would be so brutally, horribly, persecuted. Could being blindsided by others be a theme in this novel as well?

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  3. BTW I’m so glad you and the other commenters here so far have enjoyed the novel. I was so blown away by it and want to read all the rest of Bassani ASAP.

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    • I can’t say I was blown away by it. I enjoyed it, yes, and best of all is the opportunity to discuss it with all of the participants. But I can’t help but wonder if some of the power escapes me. I think I will need to read it again, and certainly read the thoughts of you and Frances and Scott and Gary. (I think he read it.)

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  4. Pingback: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani (tr. William Weaver) | JacquiWine's Journal

  5. Lovely review, Bellezza. Like you, I really felt for the narrator at various points in the story.

    I particularly like your comments on loss and rejection: “It is a story of tremendous loss and rejection: of this man’s love, as well as the injustice the Jewish people suffer during this particular time period. It is a story, to me, of our ultimate isolation and solitude; no one is able to save anyone else.” Yes, that’s it exactly. This novel seems to capture the loss of so many things – a haunting and elegiac read.

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  6. Pingback: “Mysterious, Statuary Fatality”: A Conversation on The Garden of the Finzi-Continis | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

  7. That’s the line I was having trouble finding, and that I thought so critical in this novel: “Who knows how, and why, a vocation for solitude is born?” I saw this as the link between the narrator and the Finzi-Continis, the way in which part of their allure for him is their aloofness, a kind of solitude and isolation that resonates with him – and which of course resonates as well with his chosen profession of writer. It is certainly a story of “isolation and solitude,” ironic given the bright world the garden represents compared to the encroaching darkness. I’ll be curious to know what you think about the film – and I’m so glad you decided to join in the discussion!

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  8. This review and the comments make this book very attractive, however I feel I would need to be in a better headspace to give this narrator the attention he seems to want from the reader. Might purchase it on kindle for a later date… I’m interested in the connection to the jewish history of that era.

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