The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

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9780156345705: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

The story of a wealthy, insular Jewish family in Fascist Italy just before the outbreak of World War II. The source of an acclaimed feature film directed by Vittorio De Sica. Translated by William Weaver.A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book

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Review:

Giorgio Bassani's masterwork has Vittorio de Sica's 1971 film adaptation to thank for its dual success and obscurity. Not enough people know that this tale of a middle-class Jewish youth's obsession with the far more aristocratic Micol Finzi-Contini stems from a novel, not a novelization. Bassani's doom- and tomb-ridden examination of one-sided love is far more complex--about individuals' inability to contend with personal and political annihilation. Events call for heroism, yet it seems "downright absurd that now, all of a sudden, exceptional behavior was demanded of us." The narrator writes in retrospect, 13 years after World War II's end, and reveals the Finzi-Continis' 1943 deportation to Germany right from the start: "Who could say if they found any sort of burial at all?"

As Fascist racial laws go from strength to strength, the family, which had long isolated itself from the other inhabitants of Ferrara, opens its walled grounds and tennis court to other young Jews and even returns to the local temple. Unfortunately, the situation encourages the narrator's dream that Micol will return his love, and she is forced into cruel honesty. "She looked into my eyes, and her gaze entered me, straight, sure, hard: with the limpid inexorability of a sword."

The author has re-created a tragic era in which even nobility could not outrun events, let alone admit they needed to. (For a nonfiction account of the fates of five Italian Jewish families under fascism, see Alexander Stille's Benevolence and Betrayal.) Bassani's elision of historical and personal agony is furthermore superbly translated by William Weaver. All is foretold in the novel's Manzonian epigraph, "The heart, to be sure, always has something to say about what is to come, to him who heeds it. But what does the heart know? Only a little of what has already happened."

About the Author:

Giorgio Bassani (March 4, 1916 - April 13, 2000) was an Italian novelist, poet, essayist, editor, and international intellectual.

Bassani was born in Bologna into a prosperous Jewish family of Ferrara, where he spent his childhood with his mother Dora, father Enrico (a doctor), brother Paolo, and sister Jenny. In 1934 he completed his studies at his secondary school, the liceo classico L. Ariosto in Ferrara. Music had been his first great passion and he considered a career as a pianist; however literature soon became the focus of his artistic interests.

In 1935 he enrolled in the Faculty of Letters of the University of Bologna. Despite the anti-Semitic race laws which were introduced from 1938, he was able to graduate in 1939, writing a thesis on the nineteenth-century writer, journalist, radical and lexicographer Niccolò Tommaseo. As a Jew in 1939, however, work opportunities were now limited and he became a schoolteacher in the Jewish School of Ferrara in via Vignatagliata.

In 1940 his first book, Una città di pianura (“A City of the Plain”), was published under the pseudonym Giacomo Marchi in order to evade the race laws. During this period, along with friends he had made in Ferrara’s intellectual circle, he became a clandestine political activist. His activity in the anti-fascist resistance led to his arrest in May 1943; he was released on 26 July, the day after Benito Mussolini was ousted from power.

A little over a week later he married Valeria Sinigallia, whom he had met playing tennis. They moved to Florence for a brief period, living under assumed names, then at the end of the year, to Rome, where he would spend the rest of his life. His first volume of poems, Storie dei poveri amanti e altri versi, appeared in 1944; a second, Te lucis ante, followed in 1947. He edited the literary review Botteghe oscure for Princess Marguerite Caetani from its founding in 1948 until it halted publication in 1960.

In 1953 Passeggiata prima di cena appeared and in 1954 Gli ultimi anni di Clelia Trotti. In the same year he became editor of Paragone, a journal founded by Longhi and his wife Anna Band. Bassani’s writings reached a wider audience in 1956 with the publication of the Premio Strega-winning book of short stories, Cinque storie Ferraresi.

Also in 1958 Bassani’s novel Gli occhiali d’oro was published, an examination, in part, of the marginalization of Jews and homosexuals. Together with stories from Cinque storie ferraresi (reworked and under the new title Dentro le mura (1973)) it was to be form part of a series of works known collectively as Il romanzo di Ferrara which explored the town, with its Christian and Jewish elements, its perspectives and its landscapes. The series also includes: Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini (1962, Premio Viareggio prizewinner); Dietro la porta (1964); L'airone (1968) and L'odore del fieno (1972). These works realistically document the Italian Jewish community under Fascism in a style that manifests the difficulties of searching for truth in the meanderings of memory and moral conscience. In 1960 one of his novels was adapted as the film Long Night in 1943.

Bassani died in 2000 and was buried in the Jewish Cemetery in Ferrara. He was survived by his estranged wife Valeria and their two children Paola and Enrico, and by Portia Prebys, who had been his companion since shortly after they met in 1977.

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