Sunday, 12 September 2021

The Finzi-Continis in a field near Coachford

We had sent off our appeal to the Board, to the current Inspector; the day was blue. It was a day for the field near Coachford, with sandwiches of amber beetroot and cheese, aubergine pickle, butter, mayonnaise, basil, coriander; with tomatoes, cucumber, a piece of fennel and the remains of yesterday's frittata.

To read, I took The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani, for its tenderness, tennis parties, its moment in history, sense of loss, imminent or immanent in the magna domus, the House, and the garden, planted a couple of generations before, now ripe. Au vert paradis des amours enfantins. An old hunting dog called Jor lies in front of doorways. There are hot showers, telephones, and fruit water, iced for summer, warm for winter.

In the field near Coachford, a matted Border collie is padding about the shoreline, keeping half an eye out. I am in 1930s Ferrara. P is reading about the sensuousness of stones. The animate material of our world. Purple loosestrife at the water's edge. Ducks at sixes and sevens. east west, west east. An island of gulls. 

There is always a combustion engine in paradise. Today it was a pump across the water for an hour or so. Irrigating what? Later a birdscarer imitating shotgun fire. Protecting barley for cows for humans for milk and meat. The hum of rural empire. A slight wind from the east is enough to send us into the long grass. Grasshoppers use our knees as calling ground, chirping their knees together to call in a mate.  

People don't eat in the garden of the Finzi-Continis. They change their clothes. They play tennis. They reminisce about plums, and how later they preferred Lindt chocolate. The narrator and Micòl go on a pilgrimage round the garden. The scene revealed, inhabited. The action is all around, unspeakable. Meanwhile, the garden is respite, saviour, citadel. 

Micòl does not want to be kissed. The narrator has no idea why. She has no future. She prefers le verge le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui and even more the past, the dear, sweet, sainted past. She introduces him to trees, she speaks their dialect. 

"There they are, my seven old men," she might say. "look at their venerable beards!" Really—she would insist—didn't they seem, also to me, seven hermits of the Thebaid, seared by the sun and fasting? What elegance, what"holiness" in those trunks of theirs, dark, dry, curved, scaly? They looked like so many John the Baptists, honestly, nourished only by locusts. 

The narrator is excluded. The Finzi-Continis excluded themselves. Though they are both jews. Juden sind everywhere unerwünscht. Unless you have your own garden, your own black-green hole. And even then they are falling, settling in irrevocably at the edge of town. And even that, as the medics say, will not protect you. 

His father has always said the Finzi-Continis are in a world of their own. Micòl is not for him. The young men, nonetheless, spend a winter of evenings talking Fascism, Communism, il Duce, Hitler, Franco, war and history, history and war, novels and poetry. They talk indoors, among books they have read. 

Anne Boyer (Garments against Women) says literature is the preserve of the property-owning class: what it means to be well or happy in a society that demands and denies the conditions of wellness and happiness: the state of not writing, otherwise known as life.

Life, however, includes books. And loss. And trees. And crow bangers. Wellness is a dubious word.

My story with Micòl Finzi-Contini ends here. So it is just as well for this story to end too, now, for anything I might add would longer concern her, but, if anyone, only myself.

Already, at the beginning, I have told of her fate and her family's.

Giorgio Bassani begins his novel with the description of a tomb. It stood out. It was meant to. A real horror, his mother said. A pastiche. Like Aïda. Ancient Egypt and Roman baroque, the Greeks at Knossos; all these cultures of the dead. He ends his story with the unburied death of his past, like Palinurus in Virgil, unburied on a foreign shore. 

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