The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

by Giorgio Bassani

Book, 1996



Call number





MJF Books MJF Books, [1996?]


The story of a wealthy, insular Jewish family in Fascist Italy just before the outbreak of World War II. The source of an acclaimed feature film directed by Vittorio De Sica. Translated by William Weaver.A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book

User reviews

LibraryThing member funkendub
The ancient Greek word temenos suggests what lies at the heart of Giorgio Bassani’s melancholy novel: a walled reserve, a sacred space unmolested by the bustle of everyday political concerns surrounding it. A garden, in other words, is not only symbolic of a refuge; it is that refuge in the most
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ancient and material sense of the word. The garden of the Finzi-Contini family is indeed a reserve and refuge, its high walls holding at bay the implacable banality of fascism and anti-semitism that surges beyond its bricks.

In 1938, after knowing the Finzi-Continis for years, the young, unnamed narrator whom critics have come to call B, is invited within the walls. The daughter of the Finzi-Continis, Micòl, suggests they play tennis in order to divert themselves from finishing their theses. The Finzi-Contini garden becomes a temple of tennis: the young people gathering and playing in the garden are all Jews banned by fascist law from playing at the community courts in their Italian city of Ferrara.

A summer in the garden does indeed temporarily stave off the gathering dark. And in that summer an unrequited love blooms in the soul of B for the independent-minded, Emily Dickinson-loving Micòl. It’s easy to forget what we’ve read on the first page, to hold out hope that these two will find a way to be together. But that first page of the novel is always there….

Bassani structures the novel as a reminiscence of a long-ago sorrow. In the context that swallows the events of the novel—Italy’s descent into fascism and the murder of its Jewish population—the author is remarkably circumspect. B and Micòl are not emblematic of some larger issue; they are the focus, pure and simple. And that’s precisely what makes Bassani’s novel particularly moving: the adolescent sexual politics, the reserved if awkward teenage dance that takes place within the walls is all there is. B tells his story not to guide us, for he himself is, even as he looks back across the decades, lost, but to “seal here what little the heart has been able to remember.”

This beautiful, deceptively short novel is sumptuously translated by William Weaver, who has perfectly captured Bassani’s terse syntax as well as B’s quavering, melancholy tone. Bassani’s mastery was to superimpose, without seeming forced, the voice of the adolescent B with the narrator’s middle-aged memorializing. And Everyman’s Library has, as usual, risen to the occasion, presenting the book in a perfectly designed and bound (with sewn in ribbon for a bookmark) edition that is nevertheless inexpensive. For those in despair over the quackery of contemporary fiction and the fakery of its marketing, enter the temenos.

Originally published in Curled Up with a Good Book
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LibraryThing member whitreidtan
I ran across this book on one of my book group lists on the internet a couple of years ago but like so many books, I bought it and promptly stashed it into the masses to be read at some vague and later date. It can be quite hard to be rescued from this indignity as I forget about these books but
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this one is apparently a classic of Italian literature and appears on the list of books that could be read for the 1% Well Read Challenge so I headed to my stacks and pulled it out. The story, told from the perspective of a man looking back in time, tells of the Finzi-Contini family, a rich and somewhat reclusive Jewish family in Italy in the years leading up to World War II. The narrator is a young man, a Jew, who comes to be included in the inner sanctum of the Finzi-Continis, first befriending Alberto and Micol Finzi-Contini and then falling in love with the beautiful Micol. The story is an intricate one that balances the growing menace throughout Europe with the insular nature of the Finzi-Contini estate. The novel starts when the narrator is traveling with friends to Etruscan tombs. Their young daughter innocently sends him on a journey through memory to the time that he knew Alberto and Micol and their intriguing, eccentric family. This is not a lighthearted book, even though it details the narrator's growing love for Micol. The future looms too darkly over the Ferrarese Jews, including the Finzi-Contini family for all their seeming unconcern for Hitler and the suddenly enforced racial laws. There is a definite feeling of melancholy and dirge about the book and whether this is original or a function of the translation, it suits the storyline quite well. I won't say this is an easy book; it would be difficult if for no other reason than that we as readers know what inescapable fate is in store for these people but it is also a slow and ponderous book to read. There is much to appreciate but it has to be done slowly and with great deliberation.
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LibraryThing member thorold
An Italian friend said "Oh, that's a book we read at school" when I mentioned it to her; despite that, I liked it, even if it felt a bit like an Italian version of Brideshead Revisited. You know the sort of thing — young man with literary aspirations ingratiates himself with grand-but-doomed
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family. But there's lots of very enjoyable detail, symbolism that works but doesn't thrust itself down your throat, and political, artistic and emotional storylines that complement each other very stylishly.

Jamie McKendrick's translation for Penguin Modern Classics also seems to work very well, hinting at the linguistic complexity of the original but not getting too adventurous in rendering it into English.
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LibraryThing member gypsysmom
This book is on the 1001 Books to Read Before you Die list. I will never read all the books on the list nor do I want to but the list does work to suggest classic reading material that may not have made it to my attention otherwise. That's the case with this book. I know this book was made into a
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movie but I never saw it and I didn't know anything about the plot.

Written in the first person, the narrator (and author?) tells of growing up in the small Jewish community in Ferrara, a city near Bologna in Italy. As a child his family and the Finzi-Continis sat next to each other in the synagogue. The narrator's family consisted of three children of whom the narrator was the oldest. The Finzi-Continis had also had three children but the oldest, a boy, had died at the age of six. The son, Alberto, was a little older than the narrator and the daughter, Micol, was a little younger. The Finzi-Contini children were educated at home so the narrator didn't encounter them very often. Their family owned a great deal of land outside of the city and were wealthy. The narrator's family, while not poor, were not social equals with the Finzi-Continis. However, in 1939 when the Racial Laws started restricting the places were Jews could go Alberto and Micol invited a group of young people, including the narrator, to come play tennis on their tennis court. Micol and the narrator would pass the time by going for walks around the large estate when others were playing. The narrator fell in love with Micol. Even in winter, as often as he could, he would go to her house hoping to spend time with her. Micol rebuffed his advances and asked him to not come as much. For months he pined for her but finally his father asked him to give her up, counselling him that there could be no future for the two of them because of the difference in their stations and the impending war. And so, the narrator gave up his first love.

At first I felt the translation was clunky because it seemed the sentences would either run on or else end abruptly. Then I decided that was Bassani's writing style and after a while I grew used to it. It is a beautifully tragic love story set in a turbulent time. I would recommend it.
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LibraryThing member ChrisConway
Full of achingly beautiful elegiac descriptions, but I found it hard to care about the main character and his sentimental life. I think I would have enjoyed this book a lot at a different time in my life, when sentimental love stories meant more to me. (I apologize to fans of this classic novel for
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this review!)
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LibraryThing member CarlisleMLH
Very interesting book. It's a compelling read because of the intimate writing style and the content. Haunting. I gave it only 3 stars however because I wish the author could have given us more context, (although maybe that's part of the "style").
LibraryThing member AlanWPowers
I found this on my shelf, a legacy from a brother-in-law who used to run a bookstore in Milan. Though not a fan of sad books, and even less of the Holocaust as literary subject, I'd say this is not sad. It is heartening and vital, the account of a narrator, himself a Jew but one with a progenitor
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who was both Jewish and Nazi in WWI, when I take it the Nazis were nationalists like Macchivaelli at the end of the Prince. Mussolini, of course, started from that point, to bring Italy back to its ancient, Roman grandeur and all that.
This novel-autobiography (like Dickens' David Copperfield) accounts for the wide variation in adolescent Jews in Ferrara, one a large communist, one a rich aesthete who finds himself mortally ill,
one a...etc. Their literary endeavors are impressive, Micol the twenty something girl preferring, in an illness, to read light French romances. Her thesis at Venice is on Emily Dickinson. The narrator is an aspiring writer strongly aware of various Italian writers' political stances--from Croce's liberalism to D'Annunzio's empty (?) patriotism to Ungaretti's....etc. Clearly, I am tuncating my comments to keep within my self-imposed bounds of a few minutes' perusal.
One learns how the racial laws were enforced, the Jews first forbidden to take public seats--say, at university--and eventually, their very homes and gardens exappropriated for others's use. I am putting this too mildly. But one also learns of the status of American-made goods--an elevator, a refrigerator,
an Underwood typewriter.
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LibraryThing member amerynth
I rented the movie version of Giorgio Bassani's "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" more years ago then I care to count. I remembered absolutely nothing about it except for the video cover so I was interested to see if the novel felt familiar.

It did, not not in relation to the story, but because it
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frequently reminded me of Evelyn Waugh's excellent "Brideshead Revisited," but set in Italy and featuring young Jewish adults trying to hang on the remnants of past lives on the eve of the Holocaust.

While there isn't a whole lot that happens plot wise, the writing is beautiful and carries the story along wonderfully. I enjoyed this book a lot.
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LibraryThing member grheault
A classic, rich people playing tennis and philosophizing love story with a backdrop of Italy, 1930's. The story so focuses on lifestyle that it could have been set almost anywhere in the elite Western world, including the inescapable fact of being Jewish. The consequences of being Jewish varied
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from country to country, and what slips into the love story is the Italian story, there in the north, on the border with Germany, with a Mussolini making friends with a Hitler, with local insults and exclusions, and in 1938 anti-Jewish racial laws that seem unbelievable in 2013. But it did happen, and this is a sideways glimpse at the Italian side of the Holocaust from the point of view of a young man hopelessly in love, never thinking beyond his life, his thesis, and never grasping the war and genocide that were to arrive at his own door in very short order.

Have not seen the movie, found the translation a bit stilted and hard to follow, especially early on, but thought the later chapters were great and well-paced. Looking forward to seeing the movie

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LibraryThing member Mijk
I had avoided this book for decades, but i loved it. Baeutiful, wonderful, tragic, charming, pretentious (but why not?), all the praise thats been heaped on it by its fans fits. I can see why it has acquired cult status, but i'm not going to join in, I'm just glad that I finally allowed myself to
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read it. The intricate social differentiations and sensitivities in the local shul only made sense to me because of what I'd learned from my in-laws. I left my copy (after finishing it) in a budget hotel room in Reykjavik - if anyone ever finds this old yellowing-paged Quartet edition there let me now!
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LibraryThing member jklugman
I had a hard time with Bassani's writing (at least as translated by William Weaver). He has a meditative writing style where his narrator seems less interested in how he relates to other people and is more interested in describing his settings, including their history and their physical
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environment. Bassani has his main character act shamefully towards the doomed Micol but she seems to exist just so he can mourn the lost world of Ferrara Jewry.
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LibraryThing member LisaMorr
This short book takes place in Ferrara, Italy at the beginning of WWII and traces the Jewish narrator's relationship with the Finzi-Contini family, an aristocratic Jewish family with a big beautiful home within a very large walled estate. Very lyrical and bittersweet.
LibraryThing member otterley
With a brief prelude set amongst the tombs of the long disappeared Etruscans, Bassani sends us back to an equally endangered and obsolete tribe - the Jewish elite of northern Italy in the 1930s. We know from the start that the Finzi-Continis, rich intellectual Jews living in an enormous house in
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Ferrara, are - unlike the narrator - doomed to die of disease or death camp. Bassani takes us to this destination in an elliptical way. His Jews are assimilated to the extent that they join the Fascist party of Mussolini, but also inescapably other through their visits to the synagogue, the Jewish cemetery on the Lido in Venice, and their education. The story of those years for them is one of gradual persecution - memberships withdrawn, privileges denied, education barred, insults given - no knocks on the door or desperate attempts to leave. Our narrator falls into unreciprocated love with Micol Finzi- Contini - grows close to her family - and finally, rejected, moves away. The family's fate takes place in a few brief pages at the end of the book, looking back. There is a remoteness in the book, from the perspective of 25 years; politics and religion take over the protagonists' lives, but even as big events take place, the book focuses on love, on tennis, on poetry, architecture and beauty.
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LibraryThing member bodachliath
A historical novel set among an Italian Jewish community in the Second World War, this book has lyrical descriptive passages and a moving elegiac storyline. Very enjoyable.
LibraryThing member heggiep
Slow-moving and atmospheric but very sweet (bittersweet?).
LibraryThing member ffortsa
Bassani's novel chronicles the life of the Jewish population in Ferrara in the years leading up to WWII, and how the 'racial laws' affected them. The focus is on the exceptionally rich family of the Finzi-Contini, secluded on their garden estate behind stone walls, and their involvement with a few
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select young men in the town. Central to the story is a friendship and attempted romance between the narrator and the daughter Micol Finzi-Contini.

The looming disaster of the war hangs over this story without ever becoming present, which denies the story any sort of expected climax. I read the Quigley translation, and I have no way of evaluating it against the Italian but I didn't feel particularly drawn into the story.

My book circle also viewed the De Sica film that was derived from the novel, and there De Sica makes the decision to show the beginnings of the deportation. 183 Jews were deported from Ferrara; few if any returned.
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LibraryThing member librisissimo
Substance: If you want to know about the geography and social life of the Jews of Ferrarra, Italy, in the 1930s, go for it. Basically, this is a teen-age romance with lots of extraneous matter. The time period is mostly before the characters were sent to concentration camps, which is only mentioned
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and not shown. Primarily explores the secularity of the characters, and how that did not save them from the persecution and deportation.
Style: Champion of the complex convoluted comma-laden descriptive sentences.
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LibraryThing member ashergabbay
"Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini" ("The Garden of the Finzi-Continis"), by Giorgio Bassani, is not a new book. It was published in the 1960s but has since become a classic of Italian literature (the edition I read was published by Mondadori under the "Modern Classics" series).
The book is narrated by
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a young Jewish man in his early twenties (who remains anonymous throughout the book) from the town of Ferrara in northern Italy. His story is centered around the Finzi-Continis, a wealthy family inhabiting a huge villa surrounded by an even bigger garden, in which many of the book's scenes are set (hence the name of the book). It is a story of adolescent love, the love of the narrator to Micòl, the young daughter of the family. But it is also a story of the lights going out on the Jewish community of Italy, as the racist laws put in place by Mussolini gradually shunned them from public life. Throughout the book the personal relationships are intertwined with the political upheavals in Europe on the eve of the Second World War. As the narrator tells us in the beginning of the book, when he visits the family mausoleum in the local Jewish cemetery, none of the Finzi-Continis survived the war.
The main story of the book is the narrator's struggle to belong and his impossible love for Micòl. But for me the most touching part of the book is the penultimate chapter, where the narrator has a short conversation with his father after his relationship with Micòl ends. The father, whom the narrator had mostly shunned for many years in trying to distance himself from the lower status of his family, offers a few words of wisdom and comfort to his grieving son. Suddenly our hero realizes how perceptive and understanding his father really is and how much he depends on him for support. The chapter ends with the two embracing each other. The book is worth reading if only for this short chapter.
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Original language


Original publication date

1965 (English: Atheneum)
1962 (original Italian)



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