For many years I have wanted to write about the Finzi-Continis — about Micòl and Alberto, Professor Ermanno and Signora Olga — and about the many others who lived at, or like me frequented, the house in Corso Ercole I d’Este, Ferrara, just before the last war broke out. But the impulse, the prompt, really to do so only occurred for me a year ago, one April Sunday in 1957.
So begins the prologue of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. The event that prompted the narrator was a visit to some Etruscan tombs and an innocent remark from a little girl about why the old tombs are considered less sad than modern tombs. This makes the narrator think about the Finzi-Continis’ tomb, built about a hundred years before but now nearly completely overgrown with weeds. A tomb that does not hold the more recent Finzi-Continis as most of them were taken to German concentration camps in 1943. The house is now occupied by refugees and is in a decrepit state.
After an enticing prologue the narrator gives us a bit of background history of the Finzi-Continis, which is mostly learnt from his father: it was Moisè Finzi-Contini who had amassed the fortune to build the estate in the mid-nineteenth century and it is his son, Professor Ermanno and his Venetian wife Olga who are owners at the time of the novel’s events. The Finzi-Continis are rather aloof, not only from the local populace but also from other Jews. The only time anyone sees them is when they visit the Temple; occasionally the narrator sees the children, Alberto and Micòl, during school exams. It is a meeting between Micòl and the narrator following the release of exam results in June 1929 that forms the pivot of the novel. The narrator has, unusually, failed one of his exams and will have to retake it: embarrased about this failure and in a orgy of self-pity he goes off in a sulk and ends up face down on some grass next to the wall to the Finzi-Contini’s estate. Whilst bemoaning his fate Micòl calls to him from on top of the wall; this is the first time that they have actually talked to each other. The narrator looks back at this event wistfully many years later.
How many years have passed since that far-off June afternoon? More than thirty. And yet, if I close my eyes, Micòl Finzi-Contini is still there, leaning over her garden wall, looking at me and talking to me. In 1929 Micòl was little more than a child, a thin, blond thirteen-year old with large, clear, magnetic eyes. And I was a boy in short trousers, very bourgeois and very vain, whom a small academic setback was sufficient to cast down into the most childish desperation. We both fixed our eyes on each other. Above her head the sky was a compact blue, a warm already summer sky without the slightest cloud. Nothing, it seemed, would be able to alter it, and nothing indeed has altered it, at least in memory.
Micòl urges the narrator to climb the wall but he is scared about the height and forestalls climbing by claiming that he needs to find somewhere to hide his bicycle. Micòl, however, readily climbs down the wall and helps him find an underground chamber in which to hide his bike. Whilst down in this chamber he fantasises about living there, relying on Micòl to bring him food, they would live there as man and wife, he only leaving the chamber at night to wander about and to spy on those he had left behind. When he finally leaves the chamber he just gets to see Micòl’s face disappearing over the wall with a smile and a wink for him.
The rest of the novel covers a later period when the narrator is a student. It is 1938, the war is approaching, and racial laws have been passed which restrict the actions of the Jewish population. Following the ban of Jews from the local tennis club Alberto invites them, including the narrator, to play tennis on the Finzi-Contini’s private court. The narrator befriends Alberto and Micòl and enters their social circle. The narrator is still besotted by Micòl and to a certain extent she is with him. One time, to escape the rain, they take cover in an old coach-house and then take refuge in a little-used carriage. Later, the narrator rues the fact that nothing happened in that carriage, that he didn’t let her know of his feelings, that he didn’t try to kiss her.
If on that rainy afternoon, in which the luminous Indian summer of 1938 had suddenly come to an end, I had at the very least managed to say what I was feeling — I thought with bitterness — perhaps things between us would have gone differently from the way they did. To have spoken to her, to have kissed her: it was then — I couldn’t stop telling myself — then, when everything was still possible, that I should have done it!
Regrets, missed opportunities due to an inability to act on impulse and, as Micòl later tells him, an inability to live in the present but instead a penchant for the past means that nothing comes of their love. When the narrator tries later to act on impulse he just makes a hash of it.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis takes its place alongside such books such as In Search of Lost Time, Brideshead Revisited and Le Grand Meaulnes. It has a wistful, doomed quality about it, especially as the events take place with the backdrop of imminent war and rising anti-semitism. Though slow and at times and a little boring it is one of those books that mature for a while after we’ve finished reading it. I found it helpful re-reading the prologue and early chapters again after completing the book.
I read this as part of Stu’s Italian Lit Month and hope to read at least another one for this event.