Friday 6 May 2016

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis I knew first as De Sica's film, and then, for decades in my memory, as a vast garden with a tennis court and a brother and sister separated from the town of Ferrara by a high wall. The two young actors (Dominique Sanda and Helmut Berger) have an internal nordic complicity or likeness that deflects from the Sephardi identity they have in the book; they don't so much act as lie in wait for our responses. If that is a condition of haute jewishness in late nineteen thirties Italy, then De Sica is eloquent.

There are three generations of Finzi-Continis; the house has a library; there's a constant and again nordic great dane dog called Jor. If this were Visconti rather than De Sica the house and garden would be more voluptuous, more lingering. There would be more politics, if gentlemanly and gracious. The tennis is awkward, as if, despite or because of Skiwasser (water with raspberry syrup, a slice of lemon and a few grapes) and very distinguished canap├ęs from the kosher shop in Ferrara, every match is doomed.

Bassani's book is less rhapsodic than De Sica's film. Here is a young man in love, reflection and confusion about when to kiss, when to stay away, about missed opportunities, bungled moments, conversations about politics, choice of thesis topic; and then Hitler obliterates everything; fascism and communism are both relegated. There are no more conversations.

The story is better than the writing. The translation could be more involving. The printing of the edition I bought is repro, too thick and too black, which adds to the discomfort, the feeling that you're reading for the tale, for the narrator's loss, the jewish loss, and in honour of the Finzi-Contini garden, those tennis afternoons and their refreshments, as well as your responsive twenty-five year-old self.

The title, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, like, The Beautiful Room is Empty, or, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, is everything.

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