Published: 1962 (English 2007)
Translated from the Italian by Jamie McKendrick
“How many years have passed since that far-off June afternoon? More than thirty. And yet if I close my eyes, Micol Finzi-Contini is still there, leaning over her garden, looking at me and talking to me. In 1929 Micol was little more than a child, a thin blonde thirteen-year old, with large, clear, magnetic eyes. And I was a boy in short trousers, very bourgeois and very vain, whom a small academic set back was sufficient to cast down into the most childish desperation. We both fixed our eyes on each other. Above her head the sky was a compact blue, a warm already summer sky without the slightest cloud. Nothing, it seemed, would be able to alter it, and nothing indeed has altered it, at least in memory”
This story is the recollection by the narrator of his life 20-30 years earlier, growing up in the Northern Italian city of Ferrara. The people of this community are Italian Jews, the time is the 1920’s and 1930’s. The neighbouring Finzi-Contini’s are an aristocratic slightly aloof family, they have renovated an old sprawling property with a huge garden which seems like a secret and forbidden place to the rest of the community. The Finzi-Contini children do not attend the local school except to sit their yearly exams. Gradually over the years, the narrator, a young boy becomes friendly with the family, in particular with the daughter Micol and later on with the son and father. What starts off as a crush on Micol develops into a consuming passion.
Whilst primarily an exploration of the narrators relationship with the Finzi-Contini family, becoming more prominent as the story enters the 1930’s is the rise of Mussolini and the racial laws and increasing restrictions placed on the Jews. As a result of this, the garden of the Finzi-Continis became a type of refuge and meeting place, many a long hot summers afternoon spent discussing literature, sipping cold Skiwasser (water, raspberry syrup, a slice of lemon and grapes) and playing tennis. The differing attitudes and responses to their impending fate are explored throughout, not really in the foreground but always there like an increasingly blackening cloud.
We know from the outset sadly that none of the Finzi-Contini family survived the war.
I really wanted to love this book. The edition I read has the gorgeous, black and white almost airbrushed looking photo of Micol Finzi-Contini, the pivotal character. A beautiful, playful, opinionated yet unattainable and ultimately doomed young woman.
I could sense real class,beauty and sadness in the story but at times struggled to find it amongst the long winded sentences – particulary for the first 5 or so chapters. I think this could be a book that suffered in translation. There were quite detailed descriptions of Italian places and people, along with smatterings of other languages – most of which were unfamiliar to me. Of course it’s not the fault of the author’s that I don’t have any knowledge of Italian but it made the reading quite hard going.