Repression or Reflection: On Finding Happiness Amongst Unhappiness

In The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani, the narrator is a young Jewish man living in Fascist Italy prior to World War II. As more racial laws become implemented in Italy, he develops a deeper relationship with the Finzi-Continis, an aristocratic Jewish family. He is especially enamoured with Micol, though his feelings are unrequited, and he eventually moves past his obsession of her. Bassani shows that people, through the motifs of closed environments, ought not to isolate themselves from the present nor others, and instead, as shown through the motif of light, should focus on the present in order to deal with oppression, leading readers to wonder if the narrator was truthful or disillusioned in the account of his youth.The motif of the carriage, a closed environment, shows how when the narrator, not wishing to deal with present conflicts, isolates himself from others and ends up only feeling more insecure. The first time he encounters the Finzi-Continis’ carriage, he describes it as “never moving, not even to seek shade” (21) and how his “[nose] pressed against the crystal” (21). He is drawn to this carriage because of its firm crystal-like nature; he appreciates the unchanging, unmoving quality of the carriage that allows it to stay perfect. His looking at the carriage from the outside makes him want to enter the equipage even more, and he wants to be a part of this closed environment, symbolizing his desire to join the closed, exclusive group of the Finzi-Continis. A few years later, the narrator finally gets to sit inside the carriage, although it is no longer used. As he sits down, the carriage door shuts and “the pelting of the rain on the coach house roof had ceased to be audible” (77). The rain is a metaphor for the troubles the narrator face, as they “pelt” onto him, such as the racial laws that have increasingly become more prominent in Italy. As the narrator sits in the carriage, he is able to not hear the rain, or in other words, have to deal with these conflicts. The carriage represents the perfection of his childhood, a symbol for the unchanging, unconflicted past. However, Micol explains to the narrator how occasionally the servant Perotti will wash the carriage, which is why it is “best seen in the half-light [and] still manages to fool people fairly well” (78). The beauty of the carriage does not last in the light, suggesting that its qualities are transitory. The fool in this case is the narrator who marvels at the illusion, referring to how the past has already passed and cannot be revived even if one tried. Despite trying to shut out his worries by shutting himself inside the carriage, the narrator describes how he feels that it is “a stifling little room” (77). The suffocating environment where it is hard to breathe in suggests that this elevator does not promote life; one cannot continue to live in the past. The narrator’s isolationist viewpoint as seen through the carriage incident also extends to his interactions with Perotti in the elevator, revealing how idealizing the past is futile. When the narrator decides to go visit Micol in her room, Perotti suggests he rides the elevator instead of taking the stairs.To Perotti who controls the elevator, it bring him satisfaction to “[release] his torn love for the family he had served since a boy, his angry fidelity, like an old domestic animal’s” (141). Perotti is described as an angry domestic animal, as if serving the Finzi-Continis has devalued his human existence. He is torn because on one hand, he has served them since he was a boy, and feels obligation– even love– towards the family, but on the other hand, does not want to keep feeling inferior. His ambivalence towards how to feel towards his masters is reflected through his controlling of the elevator. He might not be able to control the future, but here in the elevator he is able to release his anger and passion. Although the future is unpredictable, at least Perotti finds certainty and control in the enclosed, secretive elevator. However, this satisfaction is merely temporary, as the elevator “stopped abruptly, forced him to break off almost at once, with evident displeasure” (141). The narrator is able to notice how Perotti shifts between anger, brief satisfaction while controlling, and then the dissatisfaction after the doing. Once Perotti steps out of the elevator, he must face reality again. Just like how time passes, an elevator ride cannot last forever; things in life quickly become the past. In many ways, the narrator describes the elevator similarly to the carriage, with “glistening crystal panels” (140) and a “stifling odor, of mold” (140). These descriptions reinforce the elevator as a cold, isolated environment, as well as a figure for the past, as it is so old that it begins to smell of mold. He finds the past stifling, revealing the irony that as he tries to escape oppression of present racial laws, he is now oppressed by the past. The narrator had also previously described the carriage as being stifling, showing the repetition of his suffering through trying to revive the past. This becomes a vicious cycle, as the more he tries to escape from present troubles, the more he feels stifled by his past.Instead of dwelling in the past, people should focus on the present in order to gain freedom from oppression, as shown through the motif of light. When the narrator goes to visit Micol’s room, she turns on the light in her room, muttering “there was no excuse for her to keep [the narrator] in such gloom” (142). This action of turning on the light represents the turning on of reality, enlightening the narrator’s view literally. His perspective of his world is so focused on the past that Micol must turn on a light, metaphorically shifting his view to the present, for him to see how naive he has been. This parallels the previous construction of the carriage only being beautiful when it’s in the half-light, and how when it is displayed in full light all of its defects appear. During another one of their conversations, Micol describes to the narrator how the “rain would end… pierced by dim shafts of sunlight [and] would be transformed into something precious, delicately opalescent, with glints, in their shifting hues” (84). Here Micol shows how rain and sunlight are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as they transform into something precious. The narrator had previously tried avoiding the rain and conflict by reflecting back upon his better moments, not realizing positive and negative aspects of life could co-exist. Yes, racial laws still would exist, but the solution did not solely lie in running away, or shutting oneself into isolation. Life, in its shifting hues– and positivity that could be found despite of the conflicts– would still go on. Bassani also uses light to highlight the intimacy of community. When the narrator visits the Italian synagogue as a child, he and others “found themselves bathed in a kind of golden mist” (22). This warm, golden light contrasts with the stifling, glassy feel of the carriage and the elevator before. The warmth of the sun hitting upon the synagogue gives a sense of shared community among the Jewish population. The word “bathed” is also significant, as if this sunlight washes over a person similar to a baptism or rebirth. This signifies a new freedom gained from oppression, a way to cope with the racial laws. The Jewish community may be constricted in activity by the racial laws, but their ability to band together fortifies a certain type of resistance against the government.The narrator’s struggle in trying to reproduce the better moments of his memories while ignoring many conflicts of the present reveals the difficulty he faced, stifled while immersing himself in the past yet was afraid of an unknown future. This clash becomes apparent in the narrator’s story of his youth as he retells others’ viewpoints the way he saw or thought it, which oftentimes might have been more pessimistic than the actual occurrence. The narrator is so divided at the end of the novel, for instance, wondering if Micol and Giampi were lovers, or if it were all an illusion. Through his uncertainty, however, comes one truth– as if foreshadowing the Holocaust in the prologue, the narrator thinks how eternity is “no longer an illusion” (6) to those who have perished, perhaps providing some consolation for the ever-changing, capricious life we live.

Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis: How Glass Captures and Protects the Beauty of the Past

Giorgio Bassani’s novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is told from the perspective of an unnamed speaker who is recalling his time spent with the Finzi-Contini family prior to the family members’ deaths in the Holocaust. This is an Edenic time, and one that the speaker attempts to preserve through writing the novel. Bassani uses the motif of glass as a symbol for preserving the objects that the characters value in order to convey that, as the past is recounted, the narrator is trying to keep the Finzi-Contins family alive in his own memories. Yet he knows full well the horrible end they had come to; by doing so, the speaker is able to accept the family’s demise and finally continue on with his life.

Perotti’s efforts to preserve his elevator and the discussion of the láttimi objects are used to demonstrate how glass is a symbol for preserving the objects that the characters cherish. The speaker rides in Perotti’s elevator and describes how the caretaker was “standing a few inches away [from the speaker], absorbed [with the elevator]” and had “shut himself up again in a silence” (141). Although the speaker is accompanying Perotti in the elevator, the caretaker doesn’t speak to him and is instead “absorbed” in operating the elevator, demonstrating how he is dedicating his entire attention to this object. The speaker then realizes that Perotti is being given “an opportunity perhaps rare–––which filled him with satisfaction” (141). Perotti, who only has a “rare” chance to operate his elevator, cherishes the time that he has with it. Operating his elevator fills him with “satisfaction,” because he is allowed to spend time with an object that he cares deeply for. When the speaker asks Perotti about the elevator, the caretaker describes that “it’s over forty years old, but it could haul up a regiment” (141). Despite the elevator’s age, Perotti has taken care of it so that it is still functional. Rather than letting it fall apart over time, he has preserved it so that it can still carry a “regiment.” Furthermore, the speaker indicates that the elevator was “glistening with crystal panels” (141). Crystal is often thought as something elegant and luxurious, which characterizes the elevator as something precious. Thus, the glass designates the elevator as a precious object that is preserved by its owner.

Glass is further used to demonstrate how Micól, like Perotti, cherishes her làttimi objects. Micól explains to the speaker that the làttimi objects are “glass” and emphasizes that she “adores them […] on [this] subject, [she] literally knows all” (84). Micól considers herself an expert on her làttimi, demonstrating her enthusiasm for her beloved items. Furthermore, glass is emphasized in descriptions of the elevator and the làttimi, both of which are objects that are loved by their owners. Micól continues to describe her search for the glass objects, saying that she would go on “làttimi [hunts]” and that she had collected “almost two hundred” (84). Her desire to “hunt” down every part of her extensive collection of nearly “two hundred” làttimi demonstrates her determination to acquire as many figurines as possible. The speaker notes this and describes how Micól was “rescuing, however temporarily, things, objects, from the inevitable death that awaited even them’” (85). Although the làttimi are merely objects, Micól attempts to save them from the inevitable death they would reach in the shops. Her need to protect the glass làttimi parallels Perotti’s attempts to save his elevator from perishing. Thus, glass is continually used to portray how the characters preserve the objects that they cherish. Glass is further used to demonstrate how Perotti and Micól’s need to preserve their precious objects parallels the speaker’s desire to protect the memories that he cherishes. As the narrator recalls his past with the Finzi-Contini family, he describes a “ten or twelve days that the perfect weather lasted, held in that kind of magic suspension, of sweet glassy and luminous immobility” (56). This Edenic moment, full of beauty and “magic,” is “glassy,” just like the objects that Perotti and Micól cherish. The speaker doesn’t want this Edenic memory to fade away, so he keeps it in his mind, where it can be held in “suspension.” Thus, just as Perotti and Micól protect their objects, the narrator does the same by attempting to preserve this memory. After spending months with the speaker, Micól confronts him about his obsession with the past. She states that for the narrator, “the past counted more than the present, possession counted less than the memory of it” (150). According to Micól, the narrator places excessive value on the past. Possession of any moment would “count less than the memory of it” because now that the narrator has these Edenic memories, he can cherish them forever. She further claims that everything but his memories “can only seem disappointing, banal, inadequate” (150). Because everything else seems “disappointing,” Micól again shows how the narrator places great value on his memories. Just as Perotti finds conversing with the speaker unsatisfying compared to being with his treasured elevator, the speaker finds anything other than his memories to be “banal” because they are “inadequate” compared to his past. Thus, Micól concludes that the speaker is “proceeding always with [his] head turned back” (150). Rather than focusing on the future or present, he is trapped in the past. The narrator cherishes his memories so much that he can’t proceed forward and address the future.

The motif of glass as a symbol for protecting one’s precious objects is used to demonstrate how the narrator attempts to preserve the Finzi-Contini family in his memory, despite already knowing that the members of the family have suffered horrendous deaths. The narrator reminisces about a time in the synagogue when the Finzi-Contini family sat “just a few feet away, and yet [were] very remote, unattainable: as if they were protected all around by a wall of glass” (24). Just as Micól and Perotti use glass to safeguard their objects, the speaker uses glass as a way to preserve his memory of the Finzi-Contini family. If the family members are “surrounded” by a glass that “protects” them, they can’t be harmed. Later in the novel, the speaker spends time with the Finzi-Contini family in front of a game board and glass. Micól explains that the game gives answers to questions, prompting the speaker to ask “does it also read the future, your glass?” to which Micól responds “of course” (132). Yet, the novel is written as a recollection of the narrator’s time spent with the Finzi-Contini family. Thus, as he recounts his past, the speaker already knows the “future” that Micól claims the glass tells. Micól further elaborates on the glass, explaining that it gives specific predictions. The glass foretells that in a few months, “war would break out: a war that would be long, bloody and grievous for all” (133). When they ask who the good forces in the war will be, it responds “with a single word: ‘Stalin’” (133). The glass is able to predict the “long and grievous” war that is World War II. Furthermore, it knows, specifically, that Stalin will be a part of the “good forces” that help end the war. In contrast, when the speaker asks the glass about his future, “nothing comprehensible would come forth from the oracle” (133). The glass is able to accurately foretell a future war and Stalin’s involvement in it, but is unable to predict the family’s end. However, its inability to predict the family’s deaths offers a way to protect the speaker’s memory of the Finzi-Contini family. If the speaker is able to recall a past time when the future of the Holocaust and the deaths of the Finzi-Continis had not yet arrived, his memories of the family can be safeguarded in an Edenic time. By preserving a time in which the future was filled with “nothing comprehensible,” the glass serves to protect the speaker’s memories of the Finzi-Continis, because his recollections of the family are not tainted with the future of the Holocaust. By remembering a time when the family’s demise was unknown, the speaker is able to recall a time filled with “perfect weather” that was “held in magical suspension” where the horrors of the Holocaust weren’t even comprehensible.

By preserving his joyous memories of the Finzi-Contini family, the speaker is able to accept the family’s death and move on with his life. At the beginning of the novel, the speaker describes how “for many years I wanted to write about the Finzi-Continis” (3), and by writing the novel, the speaker underwent a cathartic process of expressing his Edenic memories of the Finzi-Contini family. In the novel’s Epilogue, the speaker recounts that Micól detested the future and preferred “even more, the past, the dear, sweet, sainted past” (200). These words comfort the speaker, and he concludes the novel by saying “let [these words], and only them, seal here what little the heart has been able to remember” (200). After writing his story, the speaker allows these words only a “little” space in his heart, rather than giving them his entire heart. This maneuver demonstrates that he won’t let the memory of the family consume him. Instead, he has enabled himself to hold onto a small bit of Micól, and therefore he is finally able to move on, no longer looking with “his head turned back.”