The Beautiful Micòl

Dan Jacobson

As a novelist Giorgio Bassani is both allusive and elusive. Allusive, because he makes a habit of writing as if all the objects of his attention, from the topography of Ferrara, his hometown in northern Italy, to the names of minor characters in his tales, are bound to be as resonant to his readers as they are to himself. Elusive, because the sober, distancing tone of his prose seems to be at pains to avoid intimacy both with his readers and the characters whose lives he is recording. His instinct seems to be to remain at a distance from the latter especially, as if to shield himself and his people from the sufferings he knows they will have to go through. Yet he cannot let them go: the power of memory and unassuaged sorrow drives him on.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which rightly remains by far the best known of Bassani’s works, has in effect two prologues. One is formally entitled ‘Prologue’; the other appears as the first chapter of the novel. The prologue describes a group of friends on a sightseeing expedition to ‘a famous Etruscan necropolis’ some ten years after the end of the Second World War. Among the group is a nine-year-old girl, the daughter of one of the visitors. On hearing of their destination she asks her father why it is that ‘old tombs’ are ‘less sad than new ones’. Yet as they draw closer to the acropolis she changes her mind, and suddenly says that she now understands that the ‘Etruscans really did live, and that I care about them just as much as about the others.’ The first-person narrator, whose name is withheld throughout, recalls that for him the entire visit is ‘infused by the extraordinary tenderness of this remark’; later, on the journey back to Rome, he finds himself going over his recollections of another cemetery, the Jewish cemetery of Ferrara (‘at the end of Via Montebello’), and of one particular site within it: the dominant, ugly, monumental tomb of the Finzi-Continis, who were once much the richest and grandest of all the Jewish families in the city.

At that point, while seemingly still engaged in idle yet sympathetic recollections of this kind, the narrator suddenly speaks of something horrifically at odds with everything that has preceded it:

And my heartstrings tightened as never before at the thought that in that tomb, established, it seemed, to guarantee the perpetual repose of its first occupant – of him, and his descendants – only one, of all the Finzi-Continis I had known and loved, had actually achieved this repose. Only Alberto had been buried there, the oldest, who died in 1942 of a lymphogranuloma, whilst Micòl, the daughter, born second, and their father Ermanno, and their mother Signora Olga, and Signora Regina, her ancient paralytic mother, were all deported to Germany in the autumn of 1943, and no one knows whether they have any grave at all.

On that note the prologue ends. Its effect is to hang a black star of grief over the entire novel. Everything the chief characters do, every pleasure they indulge in, every ambition they nourish or disappointment they suffer, is inflected by our foreknowledge of the fate of the Finzi-Contini family – along with as many of their co-religionists as their murderers could manage to lay their hands on. Thereafter Bassani has the tact and self-confidence to say little more of the fate that awaits his people, though we are later shown the various ways in which the malice and greed of some of the locals, and the fear felt by others, combine bit by bit to isolate the city’s Jews from their former fellow citizens. For the rest, only sentences scattered here and there in the book, and a brief paragraph in the epilogue, refer directly to the subsequent catastrophe. Yet it remains impossible for readers to escape from the irremediable, proleptic ‘memory’ that has already been fixed in their minds.

Chapter 1, the second prologue, opens with a sardonic history of the Finzi-Contini’s family tomb in Ferrara. (‘It seems that a distinguished professor of architecture – responsible for many other eyesores in the city – had been commissioned by Moisè Finzi-Contini . . . It is likely that the distinguished professor of architecture was given a completely free hand. And with all that marble at his disposal – white Carrara, flesh-pink marble from Verona, black-speckled grey marble, yellow marble, blue marble, pale green marble – the man had, in his turn, obviously lost his head.’) However, now that all the Finzi-Continis have been wiped out, the tomb itself has fallen into decay, and so has the grand house at the other end of town in which they had lived. What is left of the house, post-war, is inhabited by ‘an embittered, wild, aggrieved tribe’ of paupers who have ‘scraped’ away the antique murals that had once decorated its walls. The trees, too, are gone from the ‘vast parkland’ within the ‘interminable outer wall’ that had once isolated the residence from the rest of Ferrara.

The touches of fierce humour here are not unusual in Bassani’s work, its general sombreness of tone notwithstanding. In one of his shorter novels, The Heron, which is presented entirely through the consciousness of a man in a deep depression, the writing changes markedly in mood once the central character makes up his mind to take his own life. For the first time in years he suddenly feels cheerful, even fulfilled, and goes about the business of setting up the suicide (by gunshot) with a business-like alacrity. At that point, the novel ends.

In The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, it is only after the extinction of the family, the house and the tomb has been recorded that the story begins to unfold sequentially. It then immediately becomes apparent that the tale – set though it is in circumstances of war and terror – belongs to a fictional genre familiar to everyone. Essentially, it is the story of a poor boy (relatively poor, in this case) who falls in love with a young woman whose sophistication and social standing are so far above his own that only some special turn of events, some outstanding display of will and cunning, will enable him to win her favour. From ancient ballads to works like Great Expectations and The Red and the Black or An American Tragedy and The Great Gatsby – not to speak of Brideshead Revisited or something as farcical and irresistible as the movie Titanic – we know where we are with such tales; and we know too that things are unlikely to go well for the men involved in them. Especially if, like the narrator of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, they are of a brooding disposition.

The young woman in this novel is Micòl, the only daughter of the Finzi-Contini family. As a child the narrator occasionally exchanges glances with her at synagogue, and is permitted by the Finzi-Contini coachman to climb onto the steps of the family coach, from where he can press his nose against its window and stare into the ‘entirely grey interior, sumptuously padded and in semi-darkness’; to him it looks ‘like a drawing-room’. What with the coach, and Micòl’s beauty and status, he is pretty much done for even before the two of them finally meet on their own for the first time. In true fairytale fashion, Micòl leans over the high wall surrounding the family estate and challenges the young man on a bicycle below to climb up towards her. Which he does, of course, though with much trepidation. Between that meeting and the next, however, yet more years pass; and it is one of the grimmer ironies of the book that what brings the two of them together are the new ‘Race Laws’ drafted by Mussolini to please his ally, Adolf Hitler. Under these laws Jews have been banished from many of the city’s amenities, the local tennis club included; so the Finzi-Continis, who have a tennis court in their grounds, step into the breach and invite all the expellees from the club to join them there.

In this way the narrator, himself a keen tennis player, at last gains regular access to the big house, and hence to Micòl too. He also establishes a warm friendship with her kindly parents and ailing brother, as well as some of the other ostracised players. One of them, Malnate, a burly, intense industrial chemist, older than the narrator and ‘not much’ of a tennis player, is a gentile and an anti-fascist, indeed a Communist, who has joined the outcasts as a matter of preference. He is a particular friend of Micòl’s ailing brother; and the narrator eventually comes to suspect that he may also be Micòl’s secret lover. (That conundrum is one among others in the novel that are never resolved; all that is certain about Malnate, ultimately, is that he is called up to serve in the Italian army, is dispatched to the Russian front, and never returns from it.) As for the beautiful Micòl, she remains what she has been throughout: unattainable, moody, unpredictable, something of a tease, seemingly unable to yield herself to the narrator or, possibly, to anyone else. Among other gnomic remarks, she tells her admirer that they are too much alike to become lovers: an observation he turns over and over in his mind, seeking to find in it a meaning he can welcome. He has one fierce kissing session with her, and some lesser ones, which bring him as close physically to her as he will ever get. Beyond that, nothing; until she utters a phrase that eventually hardens into an irrevocable dismissal. ‘I’d be grateful,’ she says, ‘if from now on you were a little less assiduous in your visits . . .’

An anti-climax, then? For the young man, yes, bitterly so. In the circumstances it is a tragedy, too, since neither he nor Micòl has any notion of just how little time she has, along with the thousands of unknown Italian Jews who will accompany her to a hideous death. In the novel’s epilogue the narrator tells us that the story of his relationship with Micòl ends with the last glimpse he has of her in the cortège following her brother’s corpse to the family tomb. (A building which, as the reader already knows, is itself soon to be desecrated.) But does he really see Micòl on that last occasion? In a move that is reminiscent of much else in the novel – of too much else in the novel – we are told only that ‘it seemed to me, for a moment, that I could make out her ash-blonde hair.’ The narrator’s back-trackings here (‘it seemed to me, for a moment’) could be taken as a sign of his honesty, a confession of how difficult it is for him to tell the exact truth about the past he is trying to recall. Yet one might also accuse him of distracting the reader’s attention from Micòl’s plight in order to make a display of his own scruples; and in this way falling back into the kind of self-preoccupied reverie to which he is frequently given.

In 1970, Vittorio de Sica directed a filmed version of the novel that at the time seems to have been admired by everyone – aside from Bassani himself. In the film the depiction of the horrors-to-come is held back from the viewer until the very end; and one can see why de Sica should have decided to ‘save’ his version of the round-up and the terror inflicted on its bewildered victims, in order to create a climactic ending to the story. Paradoxically, the result seems to be one of depletion, even of banality, when compared with Bassani’s terse account of the same events in his prologue. The present translation of the novel is the third that has appeared in English since it was first published, almost fifty years ago: this is in itself a striking indication of the number of readers who have been fascinated by the story, by the place and period it describes, and by Bassani’s highly individual manner of treating material that a malign fate had assigned to many other members of the community he had once belonged to.

While relatives of Bassani are known to have died in Buchenwald, he himself managed to remain at large (a two-month spell in an Italian prison aside), and to survive the fall of Mussolini and the subsequent Nazi takeover of northern Italy. He used what freedom he had to work on an underground newspaper and to publish some of his writings under various pseudonyms. After the war he became a prominent figure in Italian literary life: working in Rome as editor of the once-famous quarterly journal Botteghe oscure and subsequently in the even more famous publishing firm of Feltrinelli, he produced a sequence of novels and stories devoted largely, but by no means exclusively, to Jewish life in Ferrara. When his time finally came he was buried there, in the city’s Jewish cemetery, at the age of 84. Whether as fiction or autobiography or (as seems most likely) some inextricable mingling of both, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis will continue to be read as the work of a subtle and obsessed artist, with a particular, almost sotto voce talent for writing about unhappy love, crazed ideology, and the capacity of peoples to inflict disasters on themselves and others.