The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani
That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda
A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since I read these two volumes, so I fear I shall struggle a little to be coherent about them. But they were both fascinating books in different ways and so I’ll try to pull together some thoughts about them. The first of the two, Bassani’s masterpiece “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” is a book that slipped into my vision some years ago in the form of a Penguin paperback version. I struggled to begin it and finally gave it away. However, it was recommended to me again recently after I’d read “The Leopard” and I thought maybe I should have another go. A little research revealed an Everyman version, translated by William Weaver (who was Calvino’s main translator) and I wondered if this might be the key. I took a risk sending off for a copy from an online seller with a terrible record and amazingly ended up with a really nice copy for a low price – an ex-library book, but despite that in very good condition for £2.81!
And I think translation might well have been the issue, because I sailed through this beautiful version with no hesitation. Told in flashback, the story is an elegiac one, narrated by a young Jewish man living in pre-WW2 Ferrara. He is unnamed, but as the foreword tells us, most often referred to as G. as commentators see the novel as heavily autobiographical. As the racial laws begin to take hold and Jews are gradually banned from public places and offices, several young people take refuge in the garden of the title to play tennis. The Finzi-Continis are a reclusive Jewish family, whose members are only glimpsed occasionally during the narrator’s childhood. However, as the exiled young people begin to mix, G. becomes entranced by the daughter of the family, Micol. Suffering agonies of emotion, he finally reveals his passion, but Micol’s response is evasive. Is she having an affair with one of the others? Does she like him or not? Or does she have some presentiment of what is to come?
But then, suddenly, from the door, which had remained half-open there, against the night’s blackness, a gust of wind comes into the entrance. It is a storm wind and it comes from the night. It bursts into the entrance, crosses it, passes, whistling, through the gates that separate the entrance passage from the garden, and meanwhile it has scattered, with its force, those who wanted still to linger, it has silenced abruptly, with its savage cry, those who were loitering to converse. Faint voices, then cries, promptly drowned. Swept away, all of them: like fragile leaves, like scraps of paper, like hairs from a head whitened by years, or by terror…
Really, outlining the plot for this book is almost irrelevant, as the events are not all. The writing is marvellous, long evocative sentences where Bassani puts himself into the mind of the individual characters. His work is compared with Proust, and there are certainly elements of similarity, particularly in the conjuring up of the past. However, Bassani’s writing is more accessible than Proust and his prose captures so beautifully a lost world which is just about to be destroyed. It’s not giving anything away to say that the Finzi-Continis perish in concentration camps as Bassani reveals this early on in the book, and the book is very much an elegy for a lost love and a lost past. I’ve barely scratched the surface here of this book’s brilliance – just read it!
In complete contrast, “That Awful Mess…” (also translated by Weaver) is set in a lively, bustling Rome; a city under the control of Mussolini and struggling to cope with the modernising world but with archaic traditions keeping order. Our protagonist is one Officer Francesco Ingravallo, commonly known to all as Don Ciccio; a melancholy and moody man, prone to much anxiety and emotion. Initially, the mess is a burglary at the apartment of a countess which is opposite that of some friends of Don Ciccio; however, soon events take a more sinister turn as murder is committed, and the appalled and angst-ridden detective has to try to get to the bottom of things. This is not as easy as it sounds, as the police force seems staffed with idiots; there are precious few resources (this is in a time before proper roads and transport, where getting from one place to another often depends on bicycles or horses and carts); and there is the rivalry with the Carabinieri. As the facts become harder and harder to untangle, it becomes unclear if Don Ciccio will ever find a solution…
To be perfectly honest, “Mess” isn’t that easy a read; the prose is colloquial and often rambling, following Ingravallo’s random thought patterns and going off at tangents all over the place, making it sometimes hard to keep up with the narrative. The language is dense and complex; the allusions often unclear; and there are long paragraphs having sideways snipes at Mussolini under various nicknames. Nevertheless, there’s something very compelling about it that keeps you reading, despite the fact that like most of Gadda’s works (according to the introduction) it’s pretty much unfinished
This really *isn’t* a crime novel; it’s more about existence, motivations, changing ways of life, the contrast between rich and poor, and it’s also an incredible portrait of human beings. All the characters are brought wonderfully to life with their ambitions and anguishes, and Gadda brilliantly gets inside their heads. I found it a difficult volume to read in places, but still somehow rewarding, and unlike some easier but less memorable books, I think this one will stay with me.
So, a pair of very different works, both with their challenges and both very haunting. Italian literature is something I’ve not explored that much in the past (apart from Calvino) but I’m definitely going to be looking for more books from that country in the future.