Monday, February 12, 2018

Re-Emerging: The Best of 2017





Seraillon has been on one long hiatus. Heavy demands of a new position have pushed blogging far to the margins and have even made finding time to read a challenge. In the spirit of wanting to breathe life back into the site and in the hope that I’ll be able to pay it more attention in 2018, I here present a tardy “end of year” post. Past such posts, commenting on some works I read but about which I did not write, have occasionally felt like a form of cheating. Following more than eight months of silence, this post feels more akin to grand larceny. Nevertheless, here are a baker’s dozen or so of highlights from 2017, omitting works about which I did write as well as far too many fine books I might have substituted for some listed below (the full list is in the "Books Read" tab in the margin).

La Divine Fôret (La Divina foresta/The Divine Forest), by Giuseppe Bonaviri (René Cecetty, translator): Throughout 2017, I again kept up a keen interest in Italian literature. One Italian writer I’d longed to revisit was Sicily’s Giuseppe Bonaviri, despite having already read everything I could find in English translation. France stepped into the breach, providing two French translations. The first, L’Histoire incroyable d’une crane (The Incredible Story of a Skull), is anomalous thanks to genre and setting: a science fiction work that takes place mostly in a not very accurately-imagined Boston. A cautionary parable of scientific excess, this late career novel (2006) still features Bonaviri’s grandly humanistic spirit and characteristically warm embrace of an international melding of cultures. But Bonaviri’s early work La Divine Fôret (1969) truly grabbed my attention. Like Bonaviri’s Nights on the Heights, The Divine Forest traverses the author’s more typical geographical territory: the mountains above the Catanian plain near his home town of Mineo, and involves a quest and a generous indulgence in conveying the mysterious natural phenomena of Sicily, interlaced with numerous references to the successive waves of peoples and cultures that have crisscrossed the island. Yet the novel also borrows several pages from Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, which appeared just four years before, by recounting the journey of a particle from the Big Bang to a steep ravine in the mountains of eastern Sicily. Here, through successive transformations unfolding over millions of years, the particle passes through mineral, vegetable and animal states, and the consequent dizzying exploration of Sicily from its rugged soil to the highest reaches of its atmosphere makes The Divine Forest the most charming of the Bonaviri works I’ve read to date.

The Communist (Il Comunista), by Guido Morselli (Frederika Randall, translator): Another Italian I’d discovered and longed to explore further was Guido Morselli, whose short novel Divertimento1889 had proved an instant favorite. Morselli is a remarkable, deceptive writer. The Communist, for example, translated into English for the first time by Frederika Randall last year (bringing to three the number of the author’s seven novels available in English translation), has met with some lukewarm reviews in the Anglophone press. Some reviewers appear frustrated by Morselli’s slightly quizzical deviations from what in most respects appears to be a straightforward realist novel. Such deceptiveness, however, marks all three of the novels now I’ve read by Morselli, among the most innovative, deliberately literary and subtle of modern Italian authors. The Communist represents a bold and at first glance somewhat unappealing idea for a novel: a serious examination of a person’s struggle with ideology but told with an insider’s understanding of the ideology and its realpolitik workings. I have learned more about the structure and struggles of the Italian Communist Party than I ever thought I’d want to know. But Morselli never makes his subject dry or loses sight of its significance; after Russia and China, Italy had, in the post-WWII years, the largest and most important communist party in the world. At the same time that Morselli dissects the party in ways that might be of particular interest to Italians familiar with its history, he elevates The Communist into the genre of other powerful depictions of an individual’s confrontation with an ideological system. In addition, rather unexpectedly, The Communist juxtaposes the devoted efforts of Italy’s communists (and of the Soviet Union, for that matter) with the abstraction, alienation and isolation of the U.S., since Morselli’s main character, a party legislator from Emilia-Romagna named Walter Ferrarini, has in his past spent over a decade in the U.S., where he married an America grocery store heiress, a frayed relationship that will come back to demand his attention. Belonging in part to a niche of Italian literature that explores Italians’ relationship with the promise of America, The Communist struck me as far more fascinating and perceptive than, for example, Cesare Pavese’s more famous The Moon and the Bonfires. At times Morselli’s insightfulness and tone with regard to American culture approach those of Nabokov’s famous “travelogue” through the vacant landscapes of America in Lolita. What the tepid critics seem most to miss is Morselli’s subtle but often great wit. Niggling, untidy events of Walter Ferranini’s personal life tug constantly and seriocomically at the loose threads of that ideology he believes to serve as a pattern for the world’s future, causing a slow personal unraveling. Morselli also humorously questions his own literary enterprise, as in a scene in which Walter tries to get Alberto Moravia to publish an article. I know of few other fiction writers who take so seriously the personal struggles that create history, and fewer who can simultaneously convey those battles with such purpose, tenderness and sly humor.

Past Conditional (Contro-passato prossimo), by Guido Morselli (translated by Hugh Shankland): I’m clearly taken with Guido Morselli, as both novels I read by him in 2017 make this list. Morselli’s “alternate history,” Past Conditional, daringly re-envisions World War I. Using an abandoned mine, the Austrians pierce a secret rail tunnel through the Alps into Italy and quickly secure the country, leading to rapid German domination of the continent. This is not, however, a novel aimed at cheap theatrics like some “What if…?” scenario one might find on The History Channel. Simultaneously an engrossing adventure story and a serious wrestling with history as fact and field, Past Conditional posits a startling theory: that German victory in WWI might well have prevented WWII and led to a unified Europe spared the terrible extremism it went on to suffer. Despite Morselli’s occasionally grim war-time material, his humor is again what wins here; the fates he assigns to William Churchill and Adolf Hitler, for example, are particularly amusing, as is an inter-chapter in which the author painstakingly (and unreliably) tries to explain to his publisher his aims in writing the book. The protagonist of Past Conditional is an Austrian officer and painter suggestive named Walter von Allmen and who conceives of the tunnel. But it is another Walter, drawn from actual history, the unlikely German-Jewish statesman Walter Rathenau, who serves as the implied hero of Past Conditional, in which he is elevated, through a series of political convulsions, to Chancellor of Germany. Morselli’s evident idolization of Rathenau – the author wrote a rejected monograph about him – may well explain Morselli’s choice to use “Walter” as first name for most of his novels’ protagonists. Past Conditional appears to predict, among other things, the political fractures that have led to Brexit, and the importance Morselli places on a unified Europe, as though anticipating today’s rancorous debates, is a paramount thematic element. But for all its conceptual experimentation, the novel is surprisingly tender and humanistic.

Blood Dark (Le Sang-Noir), by Louis Guilloux (translated by Laura Marris): With no conscious intention on my part, I read several works in 2017 focused on World War I, perhaps due to an instinctual awareness of the war’s centennial. Does anyone else find it odd and even troubling that so little attention seems to be being paid to this anniversary? I’d never heard of Louis Guilloux, but Blood Dark fairly leapt off the shelf at me. After reading about the author, I initially put the novel aside while first taking on his Okay, Joe, a hybrid fiction/non-fiction account of his service as translator for U.S. forces in Bretagne in 1917 in court martial cases that resulted in some 170 executions of American soldiers, all but two of them Black. It is astounding that this story isn’t better known in the U.S., or that Guilloux’s powerful little book isn’t taught in American classrooms as a classic on U.S. racism. Blood Dark, while set in the same time and place, is of an entirely different caliber, again modeled on actual events in that his portrait of Charles Merlin, or “Cripure” in the novel, so nicknamed by his students as a mocking condensation of Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason,” is partly based on Guilloux’s teacher Georges Palante, a philosopher renowned across Europe who elected nonetheless to devote himself to teaching high school. The narrowness of the novel’s temporal and geographical setting – it unfolds over a single day in 1917 in the town of Saint Brieuc in Bretagne - is inversely proportional to the great breadth of the work’s themes. A depiction of a man both embittered by life and steadfast in his defense of civilization and intellectualism despite a war ripping everything to pieces, Blood Dark presents an engrossing, eviscerating depiction of small town, bourgeois manners and mentality; a condemnation of war as scathing and indignant as anything by the War Poets; a rare glimpse into overlooked historical aspects of the war, such as the revolt of young French soldiers against an older generation sending them to die; and a devastating portrait of intellect facing age and death. The republication of this exceptional novel in a fresh English translation should count as among the literary events of the year. As some reviewers have noted, Blood Dark stands as a more humanistic companion to Céline’s Journey to the End of Night.

Benighted, by J. B. Priestly: What a thrill to discover J.B. Priestley’s Benighted and to find that it has been republished for the first time in 50 years! This title of this 1927 novel may thus be unfamiliar, but many will know the film based upon it: James Whale’s The Old Dark House. Priestley’s original story, concerning five travelers forced by a storm to spend the night in a rural Welsh house occupied by an exceedingly odd family harboring dark secrets, did not disappoint. Priestley employs an unusual use of stagecraft to construct his scenes as well as a peripatetic use of free indirect discourse, which Priestley wields like a flashlight to illuminate the inside of his characters’ heads. Priestly is thus able to flesh out his starkly memorable characters in ways the film, for all its delights, cannot. Benighted also fell within my unpremeditated focus on World War I, as Priestly amplifies the post-World War I atmosphere and themes suggested in the film. Like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Benighted manages to avoid much direct reference to the war while still conveying the magnitude of its impact on a whole generation.

A High Wind in Jamaica, by Richard Hughes: Only two years removed from Benighted but at least ostensibly far more removed from the war, Richard Hughes’ 1929 novel A High Wind in Jamaica is a book I’ve longed to read since university after a classmate skipped a regular event he’d never missed just so he could finish reading it. Hughes’ novel - the story of the abduction of children by pirates, creating a not-so-natural version of the “forbidden experiment” of exploring what occurs in child development more or less free from parental involvement, and immersing one in the emotional lives of the young characters – must certainly rank among the pinnacles of the English novel in the 20th century: daring in concept, exquisite in language, imaginative and lyrical, a moving, thrilling and thoroughly unsparing evocation of the wildness of childhood and of the strangeness and ferocity of the world. This one I’ll be reading again.

The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin: Jemisin’s novel, the first of a trilogy, kept me up reading all night (thanks to Dorian of the Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau blog for the recommendation). Jemisin has won high praise as well as the Hugo award and a Nebula nomination for this sci-fi epic concerning The Stillness, a vast continent plagued by earthquakes strong enough to produce a “season,” an extended period of hundreds of years of terrible deprivations, climactic change and tests of species survival among the continent’s diverse inhabitants. The story centers around Jemisin’s chief character, Essun, a mother who in the disturbing opening scene discovers her young son beaten to death. The trilogy follows her pursuit across The Stillness to find the killer - her own husband - and, more importantly, her missing daughter. Essun is an “Orogene,” one of a class of people deemed essential for their psychic ability to calm or redirect the tremors that plague The Stillness, yet also feared and denigrated as “Roggas” for the way in which this power can set off quakes and cause other harm. Nemisin turns the Orogenes’ skill into a brilliant metaphor for exploring the mechanisms of social oppression. I’ve never quite read anything like this set of books, in which points of contiguity with our own world are often those in which the reader can recognize elements of the emotional costs of navigating oppression, in particular but hardly limited to that experienced by African-Americans. There is nothing especially explicit about race in the novels, but rather a veiled suggestiveness woven throughout the trilogy, including via Jemisin’s use of allusive terminology and even anagrams. But Jemisin’s aim is not to offer a parable or simple parallel universe; her endlessly capacious imagination takes the reader through one highly original conceit after another, with occasional signifiers dropped in to reorient the reader to the real-world relevance of this remarkable work.

A Cup of Rage (Um copa de cólera), by Raduan Nassar (translated by Stefan Tobler): An older man, retired from political life, and his young mistress, a journalist, spend the night at the man’s country estate. A momentary explosion of rage at a servant’s oversight rips a gaping hole in the fabric of the couple’s liaison, and unsaid, pent-up tensions underlying their sexual passion erupt in furious recriminations and accusations. One quickly realizes that the first-person narrative in this 1978 novella by Brazilian writer Raduan Nassar has brought the reader inside the head of a monster, making for a highly discomfiting reading experience. However, the battle of words, wits and nerves stemming from the explosion is a masterpiece of fiercely dynamic and extreme concentration, the psychological equivalent of witnessing the unfolding of intracellular processes in vivo. In scarcely 60 pages, Nassar uncovers a whole network of social tensions, between one generation and another, men and women, masters and servants, an open society and the fascistic elements determined to stomp it out - a stunning condensation of the violent social dynamics of Brazil, and a dazzling introduction to a writer about whom I’d heard nothing. This his first work translated into English.

The House of Life, by Mario Praz (translated by Angus Davidson): What is Mario Praz’s non-fiction book The House of Life doing on this list? I have no burning desire to inflict it upon other readers, and I can guarantee it won’t be to many people’s taste. But The House of Life certainly was one singular reading experience. The book’s rather pretentious premise - a room-by-room guided tour of Praz’s private collections within his Roman palazzo - is quite nearly a literal invitation to come up and see his etchings. This does not, on the surface, sound promising. Cyril Connelly called it among the dullest books he’d ever read, "a bravura of boredom, an audacity of ennui that makes one hardly believe one's eyes." Indeed, it seems the kind of thing that only a dealer in antique furniture, clocks, decorative paintings, bric-a-brac, etc. from across Europe might find fascinating. Unexpectedly, however, so did I. Into Praz’s seemingly never-ending catalogue of objects, he weaves stories associated with or associations set off by them, and one never quite knows where he’s going to go, whether recalling an assignation, quoting Eugenio Montale on Italo Svevo or delving into some fascinating, hidden corner of history. The book itself, with several fold-out color photographs of the rooms, is beautiful. I learned a hell of a lot about European culture and more about interior decorating than I ever expected to know, from a writer widely regarded as one of the great critics of the subject. In the end, The House of Life becomes a strangely hypnotizing meditation on materiality, on beauty, on why objects matter to us and why they seem to matter so much, particularly given Praz’s observation that “with human beings, things do not go so smoothly.”

The Abyss, by Marguerite Yourcenar (translated by Grace Frick and Marguerite Yourcenar): Embarking on a long book by Yourcenar is no small undertaking; her erudition is awe-inspiring. The Abyss (Le Livre au Noire in the original French) is no exception. Its nearly 400 pages range temporally over much of the 16th century and geographically across Europe and far beyond its borders. With breathtakingly beautiful prose, Yourcenar has created an unusual historical novel, one in which her main character, Zeno of Bruges, is an Archimboldean composite of several 16th century figures, most notably the philosopher Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake for refusing to recant his beliefs. Engineer, alchemist, physician and philosopher, Zeno keeps on the run from ecclesiastical and governmental authorities keen on suppressing his free-thinking, his travels unfurling Yourcenar’s splendid and intricate tapestry of the 16th century’s schisms, revolts and advances, and at the same time a riveting exploration of the mechanisms of human knowledge and the conscience of the age.

Collected Essays, by James Baldwin (Library of America): I picked this volume up early last year and have picked it up again and again ever since, reading in it wherever the book fell open. I have long revered Baldwin’s fiction, but these essays, by one of the most insightful thinkers about the “complex fate” of being an American, make for essential reading across subjects ranging from a the responsibility of the writer to a portrait of Harlem to American religion to the life of Black American entertainers in Paris to literary criticism (I will never look at William Faulkner the same way again). Baldwin’s insights into the seeming intractability of whites in America to understand the racial divide they have created are delivered with anger, disbelief, scorn, pity, generosity and humility but above all, a steady insistence that Americans dare to look at and recognize one another as human beings – or face “the fire next time.”

Cyrano de Bergerac, by Edmund Rostand (Anthony Burgess, translator): Finally, I cannot leave off of such a list Anthony Burgess’ brilliant translation of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, a constant companion this year, a talisman even, if not outright antidote, to the daily inanities of a darkening world seemingly intent on the destruction of language. Cyrano stands an affirmation of intelligence, wit and the glorious power of words, the embodiment of the adage that the pen is mightier than the sword (although Cyrano wields his sword pretty deftly too). While the play is a wonder in the original French, Burgess has provided an almost equally razor-sharp and deeply satisfying English version.



Thanks to all of you who stopped by seraillon in 2017 despite the long silence. I’ll have an announcement soon about an out-of-print work I’ve championed on this site that is about to hit the shelves in a new English translation, and I expect also to share a little literary and culinary inspiration from Giuseppe Bonaviri quite soon.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis: An Exchange





Dorian and I wanted to try something a bit different for discussing Giorgio Bassani’s 1962 novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, and a bit last minute decided to send a few thoughts to one another and then post those with the other’s responses. I’m grateful that Dorian was kind enough to go first; I’ve now reciprocated, following his pattern here and grouping a few observations around some general topics to which he has responded. (Other bloggers who have joined in reading Bassani's novel are listed at the end of this exchange; I'll put up links to any others as they appear). 

Looking forward, Scott! I’ll write my responses in italics below yours.

I want to start by focusing on some narrative and stylistic elements lying a little outside my emotional response to the work, which – perhaps especially on the second reading – was significant. I was moved by the ending, by the vacuum it created that then allows the weight of all that Bassani has so cleverly kept “off stage” throughout the novel - by his homing in on the ways in which the characters largely go about their lives as though the mounting intolerance and oppression will pass – to collapse in on itself like a black hole. The “Garden” of the title is obviously an Edenic paradise, one that is even enclosed – literally – by a wall of angels, the “Mura degli Angeli.” I kept wondering where the serpent hid in this metaphor, perhaps in one of the garden’s many trees that Micòl catalogued and loved so well. More precisely, though, when, exactly, is the moment of the loss of this Eden?

Paradises are definitely made to be lost. I hadn’t noticed the reference to the angels! But if you were to keep to this metaphor, would Micòl be Eve? That would make me uncomfortable. She might be presented as a temptress earlier in the novel but by the end he rejection of the narrator is carefully thought-through.

One particular stylistic element that leapt out at me in the novel is Bassani’s notable treatment of:

Space/Interiors/Exteriors

Dorian, you’ve written about the distinctions Bassani makes within the small Ferrarese Jewish community. One gets such a sense in the remarkable synagogue scene of how Bassani uses the temple’s space to highlight those distinctions, through the relegation of women to an upstairs space enclosed behind a grille to the arrangement of benches used by particular families that suggest an arrangement according to status and class. Similarly, Bassani uses the walls and long paths of the Finzi-Contini estate to emphasize its isolation from the rest of Ferrara. I was struck repeatedly by how space in the novel takes on fluid, relativistic qualities. For example, one can never quite get a sense of the garden’s layout, nor of that of the house. They are more like dream-spaces, idealized as though infinite even within their confines. We are treated to many strange interiors, and many more small “compartments”:  the communicating study and library of Professor Ermanno; Alberto’s close and almost timeless room, with its refined aesthetic; Micòl’s bedroom with its glass menagerie; the living room in which the narrator’s father sleeps; the garden hutte, the subterranean chamber by Ferrara’s walls; even the Finzi-Continis’ tennis court itself, the roughly defined dimensions of which seem, as the threats to its existence as a haven close in, to push out as though in protest. Bassini gives us some striking descriptions of interiors, for example of Micòl’s room and of Professor Ermanno’s study – even of the elevator that (rather surreally) takes the narrator up to Micòl’s room. What to make of this? I’m struck by how unusual it is to find in a novel a combination of such a careful and granular, almost geometrically crafted approach to the spaces the characters inhabit and pass through (apparently Bassani revised and reworked the novel extensively and intensively) and at the same time a narrative that feels so deeply and emotionally rooted in personal experience. There’s something nearly classical about it.

Love these thoughts—smart and helpful. The novel’s use of space is, as you say, striking. Sometimes so carefully and clearly articulated, and at other times vague and hard to make sense of. In his essay “The Uncanny” Freud connects, through his reading of the great Hoffmann story “The Sandman,” architectural space with psychological states. And I wonder if a similar connection isn’t happening here. You spurred my thoughts in this regard by your brilliant observation about the tennis court, “the roughly defined dimensions of which seem, as the threats to its existence as a haven close in, to push out as though in protest.” The idea that space is changeable indeed seems to reflect or correlate to the changing political circumstances the Jewish characters find themselves in—and to the corresponding changes in mental state.

Following this way of thinking, do you think we could consider the architecture of the Finzi-Contini home—which as you note is at once described with great precision and oddly vague (how the hell do all those rooms connect to each other?)—as a form of resistance to the restrictions being placed on its inhabitants and their fellow Jews? Of course, that resistance is ultimately futile—the idyll is breached, the inhabitants of Eden ejected and murdered—so maybe this idea isn’t particularly effective. But I wondered if Bassani, through has oddly imprecise use of space at strategic moments, was trying to keep something in reserve, as it were, some magic, for lack of a better word, that the Germans couldn’t destroy. After all, the vagueness seems deliberate, given the precision offered elsewhere—an instructive comparison are Malnate’s rooms, which are rendered much more clearly, transparently: we could draw a floor plan if we had to, which I don't think we could do with the Finzi-Contini home.

On another note, I loved the elevator scene. It reminded me of the ones in Proust, with the narrator in the hotel at Balbec. I don’t think Perotti is like the lift-boy—he’s not trying to cruise the narrator, for one thing—so I’m not sure if there is anything more to this comparison than, “Hey, I know another book with an elevator in it.” In Bassani, the elevator is another emblem of the strange relationship between elitism/specialness/separateness and modernity. Perotti admires it but also distrusts it because it’s American. The elevator reminds me of the telephones: a modern technology that at least promises to connect people, but that sits uneasily with the Finzi-Continis rejection of modernity.

BTW I love the Glass Menagerie connection. I bet Bassani knew it.

Literature

This novel is full to overflowing with literature; I can scarcely begin to catalog Bassani’s references. Despite my having largely focused on reading Italian authors the past couple of years, Garden left me acutely aware of how little I know on the subject. One of the frustrations in reading the novel in translation and as an outsider is not being able to piece together all of the Italian references, and in particular to get a clear sense of the meaning of the narrator’s literary interests. For Micòl, with her choice to write on Emily Dickinson, this appears a bit easier, given that despite her extroversion and the glow of life she carries about her, she herself is a rather Dickinsonian figure, ensconced away in the highest room of a remote mansion in the center of a seemingly infinite park.  I had a harder time understanding the narrator’s decision to focus on Enrico Panzacchi as his dissertation topic: a minor late 19th century poet about whom, unfortunately, I can find very little in English. Curious too is his decision to shift from what appears from his description to have been a more well thought out idea for a dissertation on several 16th century Italian painters, though this appears to be tangentially connected to the growing anti-Jewish sentiment, which has apparently resulted in the art historian at the University of Bologna – “one of the leading figures of Italian Jewry” - losing his post (to be replaced by the famous – and goy – art critic Roberto Longhi, another instance where Bassani’s fiction hews closely to real events). I wondered if this might be a subtle way of revealing the damages wrought by the laws, that they change the narrator’s course of study from what is arguably the greatest explosion of artistic talent in Italian history to a concern with a minor writer little known outside academic circles. The uses to which Bassani puts literature are manifold; beyond that one must also see Garden as not just a story of Fascism intersecting with young love, but also of the development of a writer, of a “vocation of solitude.”

Again, very interesting and beautifully put. I barely know anything about Dickinson and nothing about Panzacchi. But I think you are right about “minor-ness.” In the 1930s Dickinson was probably not the force, intellectually speaking she is now, especially not in Italy, I would think. But it seems fitting that Micòl goes for the more famous figure. The narrator’s marginality is on display here. That makes me think of the conversation about “Bartleby” in which the narrator ends up taking the side of the lawyer, and Micòl reproaches him for his conformism and lack of imagination. I don’t know how to square that with his later resistance work, but I am reminded of an earlier exchange with Professor Ermanno. The Professor mentions his work on the inscriptions on the graves in the Jewish cemetery in Venice. His research led him only to write “two slim essays” in which he “merely expound[ed] the facts… without venturing any interpretation on the subject.” A couple of pages later, the narrator admiringly references a book by another scholar, a book that “confined itself merely to touching on the subject: masterfully, but without exploring it deeply.”

I’m not sure how to put all this together, but I think it’s significant that the narrator’s scholarly work is connected to superficiality. Another commentary on his character? Or should we take him seriously when he (and the Professor) values the circumspection of staying on the surface?



Remembrance and Witnessing

I group the following thoughts around this heading in part to elicit your thoughts as a professor of Holocaust literature and as someone versed in its varieties of remembrance. Among the most powerful elements of Garden for me was the manner in which Bassani portrays the incremental quality of Fascism’s effects on the community, and the ways by which the characters adjust and adapt. In focusing on the bright lives that go on, playing, within the Mura degli Angeli in the Finzi-Contini’s paradise, Bassani keeps the outside world’s events off on the periphery (another example of his structural use of space, a kind of concatenated solar system with Micòl the sun at its center). Yet those events nonetheless intrude from time to time into this little garden of Eden, drop by drop like a water torture, creating an increasingly intolerable accretion. Interestingly, the first drop may be the narrator’s memory of a Passover seder in 1933 coinciding with the infornata del Decennale, Fascism’s tenth anniversary, where the narrator recalls seeing in his father’s face, despite his father’s approval of Fascism’s rise, “a shadow of chagrin…a stumbling block, a little obstacle, unforeseen and unpleasant.”  The first sign of a concrete deprivation is not even the letter informing Jewish members of the Villa d’Este tennis club that they are no longer welcome, but the rumor of such a letter. Later, we learn in the margins about a Finzi-Contini uncle dismissed from his job with the state railroad; the replacement of the Jewish art historian at Bologna; two young Jewish tennis players who, on the verge of winning a championship match, have the game called with the excuse of oncoming night serving to prevent the embarrassing situation of their being declared winners. Such events reach the chief characters too, as Micòl relates her tale of a Fascist on her dissertation committee objecting to the proposal that she be bestowed honors, and the narrator recounting his having been ordered out of the library reading room he’d considered “a second home.” Almost none of these incidents is presented directly; all are recounted to others, with the exception of the narrator describing to the reader near the novel’s end his having been threatened and called a “dirty Jew!” after making sarcastic comments in a cinema. One is left with hints of an almost ghost narrative, allusions to events outside those at the novel’s bright core, conveying a closing in, an inevitability of the catastrophe vouchsafed in the prologue. An aspect of the well-regarded film version by Vittorio de Sica I disliked is de Sica’s failure to respect these deliberate omissions by Bassani. For instance, de Sica shows the Finzi-Continis being rounded up, even shows them in a detention center awaiting deportation. He even shows Micòl in the hutte with Malnate, the narrator watching through the window, whereas Bassani leaves ambiguous the question of whether the narrator, in his petty jealousy, has completely invented this relationship.  

I found this depiction of the slow removal of liberties, the gradual chipping away at the Jewish community, to be the most powerful element in the novel. Among the most central questions pertaining to the Holocaust is: “How did this happen?” Bassani may not seek an encompassing answer to that question, but he is certainly interested, as an artist, in depicting and questioning the characters’ reactions to these small events, in the inquietude, denial, acquiescence, contempt and other responses with which they confront each new indignity (one response is, of course, to write, and the narrator is the one figure in the novel we know to have begun as acquiescent to Fascism – he’s noted as having won a young Fascist writing contest - to a rejection and renunciation of those who seem resigned to it). Bassani strikes me a one of the few writers of the Holocaust (Aleksander Tišma is another) who convey so well the moment when such restrictive measures reach a tipping point, and the brutal knock on the door represents the abrupt culmination of a force that has been building in plain sight but which, for reasons including the above reactions, was not stopped. What Bassani achieves so beautifully and heartbreakingly at the end of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is to leave the reader sitting quietly with the events described, contemplating and conjuring the vital, intelligent, beautiful Micòl and, around her, all the exuberance of life, the aspirations and unfulfilled loves that Fascism and Nazism snuffed out. Perhaps the least prominent but most important character in the novel is the innocent young Giannina from the novel’s prologue, the “extraordinary tenderness” of whose comment about the Etruscans having been “also alive once” sets the author’s motion in memory, and provides the long view of history, of the many peoples who have lived and have passed, of the almost instinctual and constitutional importance of remembering.

Again, nicely put. So much to think about here. Your last comments—and I agree the child’s statement is crucial, but I did find it a bit heavy-handed—make me wonder how we’re to understand the relationship between history and memory. Is there a difference between things that happened in the past a long time ago to people we don’t know and those that happened more recently to those we did? Another way to get at this would be to wonder why it is that the narrator can only start to tell his story when he can think of it as history rather than as memory? Why does it take the Etruscans for him to tell the story of the Jews of Ferrara?

As to the slow drip of menace that leads to a tipping point: absolutely. In his famous history of the Shoah, Raul Hilberg distinguishes between the stages of European anti-Semitism. For many centuries, he says, non-Jews said to Jews: You cannot live among us as Jews (i.e. forced conversion). Later, especially in the early years of National Socialism (it’s not a precise time-table by any means, but still useful), non-Jews said to Jews: You cannot live among us (i.e. forced emigration). And then, as codified at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 but not decided there, non-Jews said to Jews: You cannot live (extermination). The point is that most historians of the Holocaust are functionalists rather than intentionalists—the Holocaust is a function of many events, not the result of Hitler’s/the Nazis’ intention.

At the same time, I would note that the drip-drip quality you note in Bassani (and your close readings of the mediated quality of the news are so brilliant) has a lot to do with the particular historical situation. For many Jews in Eastern Europe, for example, the Holocaust came much more rapidly, especially in the Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union. The situation of Jews in Italy was a bit different, since fascism there wasn’t anti-Semitic to any great extent until quite late in the 1930s. None of this is to take away from what you’re saying—it’s just to point out the particular situation. And to be sure there are many texts by or about Jews in Germany and Austria in particular that describe the same kind of chipping away of life that Bassani offers us here. Ruth Klüger’s amazing memoir Still Alive is just one example.

The more I think about Bassani’s novel, the more I think about it as a portrayal of a survivor, in which the guilt, depression, and deadened affect so many felt (Levi writes about this so well) is being retrospectively displaced on to the narrator’s pre-war life. If I think about it this way, I’m able to take the narrator better than I otherwise can. But I still wonder: why that displacement. Part of me thinks a fundamental conformism inheres in the narrator, despite his work for the Resistance.

Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Scott, and for letting me respond. We can keep the conversation going in the comments, I hope. And I’d love for others to join in.



Among those who have already joined in are Jacqui, Meredith and Grant of JacquiWine's Journal, Dolce Bellezza, and 1streading's Blog, respectively. Please read their reviews/commentaries on The Garden of the Finzi-Continis in the links!





Images by Filippo de Pisis, b. Ferrara 1896, d. Milan 1956