This may well turn into more of a rambling and discursive review than usual because this is a book that I liked but don’t quite know why; and sometimes logorrhea is the only way to clarify my thinking. And I did like this book a great deal despite it being nothing like what I had imagined it would be.
This novel has been more or less on my list for a very long time; ever since the movie was released in the US in around 1971. A friend in high school, an intellectual, a Marxist, and a year older than myself, saw the movie and talked about it. I don’t recall what he said (he might have mentioned something about social divisions within the bourgeoisie under fascism, but that is pure conjecture now, 44 years later). And I remember wanting to want to see the movie, but realizing that in fact I was unlikely to enjoy it, in part because a movie about the persecution of Jews under fascism would be painful, and in part because my taste in movies at the time ran to westerns and action adventure - though that would soon change. In any case, from that time to this I have had both the movie and the novel on my background list of things to do. But it never popped to the top of my list until a week ago when the new Everyman’s edition of the book showed up on the new-books shelf at my local library.
It was not what I expected. A novel whose main characters are Jews in northern Italy during the late period of fascism would, I thought, be primarily about their suffering under the increasing persecution. But that persecution is seldom at the forefront; instead, it is a background menace, referred to at times, at times causing anxiety and inconvenience, but never the main aspect of the story. Ignoring, of course, the narrator telling us within the first few pages that both his family and the family Finzi-Contini perished, were murdered, in a German concentration camp within a few years of this story, and that the narrator was the only survivor.
The narrator is the first-born son of a modestly well to do family: by no means rich, but well enough off. The father is active in civic affairs, a member of the local Merchants’ Club; a man who seems always a bit perplexed or uncertain. The family is a “fully assimilated” Jewish family. They go to temple but otherwise partake fully in the civic and social life in Ferrara, a small city in the Veneto on the Po river.
The story begins in about 1928 when the narrator is thirteen and encounters Micòl, the daughter of the wealthy and reclusive Finzi-Contini family, peering at him over the wall of her family’s estate. She invites him to climb the wall and see their garden. He very much wants to do so: he has been intrigued by her, seeing her every week at temple, but procrastinates, telling her that he doesn’t want his bicycle to be stolen. She points him to the entrance of a nearby underground storage room and tells him he can hide his bicycle there. Instead of merely putting his bicycle out of sight, he wanders in and begins daydreaming. It is not until 20 minutes later that he comes back out, by which time the Finzi-Contini chauffeur has discovered Micòl and has ordered her off the ladder where she is waiting for the narrator. And thus is established the character of the narrator: indecisive, a day-dreamer, already infatuated with Micòl but unable to take the simple steps to get to know her better.
We fast forward to the late summer of 1938. The “racial laws” have just taken effect, barring Jews from attendance at state schools and institutions, from membership in other organizaations, and so on. But the effects are only just beginning to be felt. One day the narrator receives a phone call from Micòl’s brother Alberto, inviting him to play tennis at their house. The narrator is confused by this, because he has never interacted socially with any of the Finzi-Contini, and he has not yet received the letter from the local tennis club “accepting his resignation”. So he responds rather coldly and declines. But soon he does receive the letter and, out of curiosity as much as anything, goes to the Finzi-Contini estate to play tennis. The estate is large, 20 acres, on the outskirts of town, with extensive gardens, a house for the chauffeur and his wife, a horse barn, and various other out-buildings, and an enormous and somehat rundown main house. Soon he, along with several others, make the tennis outings an almost daily occurence, through the long Indian summer of 1938.
Among the regulars is a slightly older man from Milan, age 27, named Giampiero Malnate, a chemist at a new synthetic rubber plant, a Marxist, and a friend of Alberto. As the weeks pass the narrator has increasing feelings for Micòl, and establishes a sort of friendship with Alberto and Malnate. He and Micòl take long strolls together through the extensive grounds and form a friendship, but the narrator begins to daydream, and actually dream, of moving beyond friendship with her.
Micòl is the most interesting character in the novel. She is whip-smart, witty, sardonic, and just generally a very capable young woman. We learn later in the novel that she is very much responsible for the proper running of the household, and she is completing her college degree. It is easy to see why the idealistic narrator might fall in love with her.
In late October the Indian summer comes to an abrupt end, as a cold rain descends. Micòl and the narrator are caught out in it and seek shelter in one of the out-buildings in the Finzi-Contini garden, where the narrator suddenly kisses Micòl unexpectedly. She is taken aback and lets him know that things are not heading that way. A few days thereafter she leaves abruptly for Venice, where she plans to complete the thesis for her degree. She leaves without saying goodbye to the narrator, who is a bit crushed. But he soon learns that she tried to call. He begins visiting Alberto almost daily, and almost daily Giampiero Malnate is there as well. The three of them spend hours talking in Alberto’s room; the narrator and Malnate arguing about politics, and Alberto watching, always seeming protective of his friend Malnate (who is not one who needs any protection). It becomes clear that Alberto is homosexual and that he is basically in love with the decidedly heterosexual Malnate. But the narrator no more than hints at this until near the end of the novel.
As autumn turns to winter, the narrator one day is evicted from the local public library: a place he has been going regularly since he was a boy, and where he had become friends with the librarian. More fallout from the racial laws. The father of the Finzi-Contini, a former professor, invites the narrator to come to the Finzi-Contini house to complete his studies: the household library contains 20,000 carefully cataloged volumes. The narrator gladly accepts, and for some months is there twice daily: once in the morning to work on his thesis, and again in the evening to spend time with Alberto and Malnate. In all this time Micòl remains in Venice.
She returns sometime around Passover, but is quite distant with the narrator. Though he continues to come to the house twice daily, he sees her only rarely. Eventually he asks her why she is being so cold to him, and she tells him that it is because she doesn’t want to interrupt him while he is working, and that she has never interrupted her brother while he has guests. But, in a slightly exasperated tone, she tells him that she will stop in to say hello when he is next in.
Things begin to go pretty badly at this point. Micòl gets a cold and is sick in bed; the narrator asks to see her, and is brought to her room. He is soon overcome with lust and basically leaps on her: she is unresponsive and eventually tells him to get off because she can’t breathe. She also tells him that he is being an ass, that they will never be more than friends. Quoting Baudelaire she says that one must choose between honesty and love; the implication being that she has chosen honesty, and so should he.
I’ve spent way too much time on this synopsis, trying to get clear in my head the basics of the story, and I don’t want to give away the actual ending - though there are no great surprises there.
So: why did I like this so much? In part it was the beautiful translation: long, elegantly constructed sentences, almost lyrical, but never seeming contrived or precious. I assume that the original was like that, but I certainly don’t have the facility in Italian to find out. There are long passages in which the narrator is thinking in detail about some event that will happen; daydreaming as usual, fantasizing about an upcoming encounter with Micòl, or thinking back on something in the past. In the middle of an actual conversation the narrator will have a long reflection about Micòl, or about Alberto (whose health becomes a great concern in the latter part of the novel), or about his father, or his own future.
Much of the interest in the story is due to the hermetic nature of the Finzi-Contini family. Despite their generosity, inviting people to play tennis at their home, offering the narrator the use of the family library, they keep themselves essentially at a distance from the outside world. At home they seem to speak some odd hybrid of Veneto dialect and Ladino, and the two Finzi-Contini children have invented a way of speaking that they call Finzicontinese, with strange pauses and word emphasis, as though one were to underline in a sentence only the least important words.
It occurs to me now that there is one character in the story I have not mentioned: the Finzi-Contini dog, Jor, a young great dane when the first episode takes place in 1928, and a very elderly one at the conclusion of the story in 1939. He is often present, friendly to the narrator and to the other guests, but basically protective of the family. Though he appears ofen, I do not know to what end. There is only one scene in which Jor’s appearance might have made for a dramatic outcome, but nothing really happens. I would like to know what Bassani had in mind for that dog.
Overall I don’t know what Bassani had in mind for the novel. In one sense it is jarring to see bourgeois life carrying on in the midst of fascism (early on, Bassani tells us that most of the Jews of Ferrara were card-carrying members of the fascist party - a requirement of life, not a commitment to fascist ideals - a requirement that Finzi-Contini père firmly rejected). One is reminded of the Humphrey Bogard farewell to Ingrid Bergman: “it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Yet we are left feeling that those problems amount to a great deal; the more so because we know that the lives of most of the characters will be cut short soon after the conclusion of the story.