I happen to run across a series of references to The Garden of the Finzi-Continis in a variety of unexpected places, one after the other, until I finally gave up, took it as a sign, and ordered the book. When you consider that this is a relatively unknown book (in fact, who would ever have heard of it at all if it hadn’t been made into an Academy Award-winning movie back in 1970?) by a relatively unknown—in this country anyway—Italian author (Giorgio Bassani), you can see why I took those references as a sign.
It was described in one of the unexpected places as a somewhat decadent, autobiographical or semi-autobiographical love story set in Mussolini’s Italy in the years leading up to World War Two, but other than a brief and chaste description of the anonymous narrator’s visit to a brothel there is nothing traditionally decadent about the characters or the plot. And it only qualifies as a love story to the extent that it is a tale of unrequited love.
So, while it is a tale of missed opportunities and crossed purposes between two young star-crossed lovers (to coin a phrase), what makes it so unforgettable and compelling is the mounting sense of horror the reader feels, knowing what is inevitably coming to the protagonists and their friends in Fascist Italy. Because the anonymous narrator and the beautiful, wealthy Micòl and most of the other primary characters are all Jewish. In fact, Bassani starts his book with a spoiler alert, recounting what happened to Micòl and the rest of her family. The conclusion of that spoiler alert reads:
“Whereas for Micòl, the second child, the daughter, and for her father, Professor Ermanno, and her mother Signora Olga, Signora Regina, Signora Olga’s ancient, paralytic mother, all deported to Germany in the autumn of ’43, who could say if they found any sort of burial at all?”
And Bassani ends his book in the summer of 1939, just before Hitler’s September invasion of Poland, the official start of World War Two, before the family is departed, but you know, you know.
The decadence comes from the inability of these highly educated, highly cultured and, at least in the case of Finzi-Contini family, immensely wealthy Jews to understand what was happening around them. As the unrequited love story progresses, the Fascist government passes one law after another, so-called “racial” laws that increasingly circumscribe the civil rights of Jews in Italy, banning their books, barring them from access to certain public places, denying them higher education, increasingly tightening the noose until you want to reach into the pages and shake the narrator and Micòl and her family. Sheltered by the high walls of their immense garden, by their wealth, their education, their absorption with a world of ideas and literature, their naïveté, they continue their endless tennis matches, their conversations, their ill-timed and doomed attempts at love, and close their eyes to the manifest clues of evil already among them and the far greater evil to come. In fact, there is a reason for the title of the novel: the vast and beautiful garden becomes a metaphor for the hermetic bell-jar and willing blindness of the Jews of that time and that place. Or perhaps blindness is not the right term. Perhaps, for certain people raised in such sheltered circumstances, it is impossible to imagine evil, or even recognize it when it shows itself. Perhaps some people are simply born without the protective instincts it takes to survive.
Of course, hindsight always has perfect vision, but it is amazing how many Jews throughout all of Europe clung to the belief that nothing too terribly bad would happen to them. And I suppose it’s not surprising they didn’t understand: the world had never experienced or even dreamed of evil on the scale Hitler unleashed. By the time it was obvious and understood it was too late; very few Jews were lucky enough to escape after the holocaust began in earnest. And today history repeats itself again: anti-Semitism is on the rise once more, both in Europe and in America, and ignorant, uneducated people use certain words (Nazi, Fascist) to condemn anyone they don’t agree with, precisely because they don’t have a clue of the reality behind those words. Fools on Capitol Hill justify bad behavior and anti-Semitic rhetoric by equating the experiences in a refugee camp to the nightmare of concentration camps and the unimaginable evil of the holocaust. The experience and wisdom learned at such terrible cost just a few generations ago fades away, diminuendo, diminuendo, vanishing like disappearing ink in the harsh and ugly glare of ignorance.
The translation, by William Weaver, has been hailed as magnificent, and perhaps, technically, it is. But from the little I know of Italian, it appears as if Mr. Weaver has kept the ornate sentence structure common in Italian, which I find makes for very awkward reading in English:
“What Perotti did talk about with me, as he waited for me to finish sipping the coffee, was, if anything, the ‘running’ of the house, gravely compromised, in his view, by the too-prolonged absence of the ‘signorina,’ who, to be sure, had to become a professoressa, although (and this ‘although,’ accompanied by a dubious grimace, could refer to many things: to the fact that the rich, lucky they, had no necessity to earn a living, or to the racial laws which, in any case, would make our diplomas mere pieces of paper, without the slightest practical use)…but, still, even a quick visit, because without her, the house was rapidly going to rack and ruin…she could have made a quick visit, perhaps every other week.”
I mean to say, what?
That may well be how the sentence was structured in Italian, and it may be the height of elegant writing in Italian, but all I could think of—as I went back repeatedly and reread certain sentences to try and unravel them—were some of Mark Twain’s famous comments about German:
“Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth.”
“The Germans have an inhuman way of cutting up their verbs. Now a verb has a hard time enough of it in this world when it’s all together. It’s downright inhuman to split it up. But that’s just what those Germans do. They take part of a verb and put it down here, like a stake, and they take the other part of it and put it away over yonder like another stake, and between these two limits they just shovel in German.”
“My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years. It seems manifest, then, that the latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired. If it is to remain as it is, it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it.”
I could go on, but you get the picture. Mr. Weaver’s translation may be linguistically accurate, but the truth should never be allowed to get in the way of a good punch line, and I would have been more satisfied with the flavor of the thing. Less literary fidelity and more flavor please.
That said, I am delighted I struggled through. It is not a cheery book. (Other than Mel Brooks’ The Producers, with its marvelous send-up of Hitler and the Nazis, what about that dark time is cheery?) But it is compelling and heartbreaking as an almost-love-story, a wistful reminder of a more elegant and better-educated time, and a much-needed, stark reminder of what we can expect if we continue to allow ignorance and hate to dim our memories.