Novels in Translation: Georgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis & Theodore Fontane’s No Way Back

Novels in translation.  We love them, but are occasionally baffled.  I recently read two highly-touted novels, Georgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and Theodore Fontane’s No Way Back.  The structure of each novel is elegant, but the writing is uneven.

But I did prefer the former to the latter, as you see in these two short reviews.

The Italian writer Georgio Bassani’s novel, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, is understated, moving, and mournful.  Set in the ’30s in Italy, when fascism is rising, it is the story of the  Jewish narrator’s friendship with the Finzi-Continis, a wealthy Jewish family who died in a concentration camp.

The novel begins in 1957.  A weekend drive to an Etruscan tomb evokes for the narrator the massive, pretentious tomb built by the paternal great-grandfather of his friends.  Just as the Etruscans have died out, so have the Finzi-Contanis.

The narrator begins,

For many years I wanted to write about the Finzi-Continis–about Micol and Alberto, about Professor Ermanno and Signora Olga–and about all the others who inhabited or, like me, frequented the house in Corso Ecole I d’Este, just before the last war.  But the stimulus, the impulse to do it really came to me only a year ago, on a Sunday in April 1957.

(This is William Weaver’s translation:  elegiac and yet at times ponderous.)

Their Jewishness links the unnamed narrator and the aristocratic Finzi-Continis.  They attend the same synagogue, but do not socialize:  the Finzi-Continis are educated by tutors at home, while he is a middle-class doctor’s son.   One day when he is 12 or 13, he is wretched over a failed math exam.  He bicycles into the country, fantasizing about  never going home, hiding in a cave, and living as a hermit.

A wall surrounds the Finzi-Continis’ “garden”–really an estate–and Micol suddenly pops up on the top of the wall.  She knows all about his failure at school, and asks what’s the big deal about retaking the exam in October.

This is Micol’s attitude toward life–optimistic and practical.  She is bolder than he:  he is afraid to climb the wall into the garden, and by the time she has shown him the footholds, it is time for her to go in.

He and the Finzi-Continis become close friends when he is 23.  Micol and her brother Alberto organize tennis games in their garden after Jews are banned from the tennis club.  The narrator falls in love with Micol, who does not reciprocate his feelings.  (Still, they are best friends, and she tolerates a lot of kissing.)  Her brother Alberto, a homosexual, falls in love with a socialist engineer who is not Jewish or homosexual.

It is a coming-of-age story: the narrator cannot accept that Micol will never love him. Eventually they cease to see each other, after she has made it clear she is tired of him.  And the novel ends tragically, with our knowledge that the bright, lively, brilliant Micol and her family were rounded up and  killed.

I was intrigued by the narrative and read quickly.  But I felt something was missing:  lyricism?  Perhaps it was the time when I read it; perhaps I just did not like William Weaver’s translation.

The German writer Theodore Fontane’s No Way Back is not on the same plane as Bassani’s novel.  Still, it begins well.  In fact, I thought happily, It’s a nineteenth-century Kristin Lavransdatter!  (Turned out I was wrong.)

Set in Schleswig-Holstein and Denmark in the 19th century, it is the story of a marriage gone awry. Count Helmuth Holk is kind and warm-hearted but almost hedonistic in his love of society; his wife Christine is brilliant, pious, responsible, and steady. Seven years ago Holk built a new house on a dune, against her wishes; they have never been happy since, though Christine says she admires the new house. Building represents the crisis in their different viewpoint: he wants to build new cowsheds ; she wants to replace the crumbling family vault in the cemetery.

She says of her husband to her friend, a seminary director.

“…truly he would be the ideal husband, if he had ideals.  Forgive my play on words but I can’t help it, because that’s exactly how it  is, and now I have to say it again: he only thinks of the moment and never of what is to come.  He avoids anything that could remind him of that.  Since we buried our Estrid, he has never once been to the grave in the vault.  So he doesn’t know that the whole thing is in danger of collapse.”

Soon Holk is called to the court of a Danish princess. After that we see little of Christine.  And then we are trapped in the consciousness of the shallow count, who attends parties and forgets his family.  How I disliked being in his world!  He especially resents Christine.  And we readers are shocked by his thoughtlessness when he writes her letters about the beauty of other women.   Eventually his flirtation with a lady at the court destroys Christine.

This novel is based on an actual case:  I will not tell you the details because I don’t want to ruin the book for you.

But this book is so poorly written.  Honestly, if it weren’t so short I would have abandoned it.  And I really hated reading about Holk.  A dull man.  I wanted to get back to Christine.   Is it the translation, or the book?

My husband say, “Some  of these obscure 19th-century German novels are really NOT classics,” and recommended Fontane’s Effi Briest.  (And, yes, he has kept up with his German.  Not I!)

This book has also been published under the title Irretrievable (NYRB).  I do prefer that title.