The Garden of the FinziContinis
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.”