The ancient Greek word temenos suggests what lies at the heart of Giorgio Bassaniís melancholy novel: a walled reserve, a sacred space unmolested by the bustle of everyday political concerns surrounding it. A garden, in other words, is not only symbolic of a refuge; it is that refuge in the most ancient and material sense of the word. The garden of the Finzi-Contini family is indeed a reserve and refuge, its high walls holding at bay the implacable banality of fascism that surges beyond its bricks.
In 1938, after knowing the Finzi-Continis for years, the young, unnamed narrator, whom critics have come to call B, is invited within the walls. The daughter of the Finzi-Continis, MicÚl, suggests they play tennis in order to divert themselves from finishing their theses. The Finzi-Contini garden becomes a temple of tennis: the young people gathering and playing in the garden are all Jews banned by fascist law from playing at the community courts in their Italian city of Ferrara.
A summer in the garden does indeed temporarily stave off the gathering dark. And in that summer an unrequited love blooms in the soul of B for the independent-minded, Emily Dickinson-loving MicÚl. Itís easy to forget what weíve read on the first page, to hold out hope that these two will find a way to be together. But that first page of the novel is always thereÖ
Bassani structures the novel as a reminiscence of a long-ago sorrow. In the context that swallows the events of the novelóItalyís descent into fascism and the murder of its Jewish populationóthe author is remarkably circumspect. B and MicÚl are not emblematic of some larger issue; they are the focus, pure and simple. And thatís precisely what makes Bassaniís novel particularly moving: the adolescent sexual politics, the reserved if awkward teenage dance that takes place within the walls is all there is. B tells his story not to guide us, for he himself is, even as he looks back across the decades, lost, but to ďseal here what little the heart has been able to remember.Ē
This beautiful, deceptively short novel is sumptuously translated by William Weaver, who has perfectly captured Bassaniís terse syntax as well as Bís quavering, melancholy tone. Bassaniís mastery was to superimpose, without seeming forced, the voice of the adolescent B with the narratorís middle-aged memorializing. And Everymanís Library has, as usual, risen to the occasion, presenting the book in a perfectly designed and bound (with sewn in ribbon for a bookmark) edition that is nevertheless inexpensive. For those in despair over the quackery of contemporary fiction and the fakery of its marketing, enter the temenos.