Stilted nostalgia – perhaps damaged in translation

This is my review of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Penguin Modern Classics) by Giorgio Bassani.

This book probably needs to be read in Italian to be fully appreciated, since the prose comes across as over-flowery in translation. Despite this, the at times over-meticulous descriptions create evocative images with a sense of nostalgia for old Italian towns and the dusty estates of doomed aristocrats in 1930s Italy. The rise of Fascism, with its evils not yet understood, and the growing menace to the complex Jewish community are also outlined quite well, although it would have been more dramatic not to have had the fates of the key protagonists spelt out so baldly from the outset. By contrast, the way in which certain relationships were hinted at but left to the reader to guess was interesting.

The prologue to this translation, which I read last, informs us that Bassani struggled to write. Apart from such touching scenes as the hero's late night conversation with his father, or the details of some of his "squabbles" with the source of his infatuation, Micol, I found many of the exchanges quite stilted and the portrayal of relationships "underdeveloped". I therefore concluded that Bassani's style works quite well for describing scenes, but is less good for human relationships – although perhaps he is accurate in suggesting a certain formality in relationships in that period. I was puzzled that the hero seems quite "coy" in some ways in his relationship with Micol, but appears unphased by a quick visit to a prostitute, clearly implying this was not the first one but he saw no need to mention this before, and it struck me as odd that he passed over "the deed" in a brief clause.

The book makes no concessions, with many erudite references to Italian writers and works which can mean little to the great majority of readers. Again, this may reflect acccurately the nature of education for upper class people of the day.

Last but not least, the extremely long and complex sentences wore me down, to the extent I probably would not have finished the book if not obliged to do so for a reading group. I struggled on in the expectation of "something happening", but much of the book was about not a great deal. Bassani was forever announcing "some significant point" which proved to be nothing much.

My feelings are mixed. I see why this is a classic, but it could have been more dramatic, moving and unusual – the theme of "thwarted first love" is after all a well-worn one. I am left with a few insights e.g. in the opening chapter which describes a visit to Etruscan tombs, a child asks why we care so little about the long dead, and more about those recently so.

I realise that some of my reservations may be due to the quality of the McKendrick translation.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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