Books read October 2019

Giorgio Bassani: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, translated by Jamie McKendrick, introduction by Simon Mawer, Illustrated by Laura Carlin, London, The Folio Society, 2014 [In Italian, 1962; McKendrick translation, Penguin 2007]

Italian Jewish  author and literary editor Giorgio Bassani won the Viareggio prize with this first novel which was also made into a major movie.  Partly autobiographical, the narrative deals with the lives of Jews living in Ferrara as Mussolini’s Fascist grip on Italy tightened and Hitler’s expansionist policy in Europe in the Czech Republic and Poland rapidly gained ground. Bassani himself was imprisoned under Mussolini and later married and lived in Florence and Rome under an assumed name until the end of the war. Bassani’s other claim to fame was his publishing of Giuseppi Tomasode Lampedusa”s novel Il Gattopardo, (The Leopard) in 1958.

The novel is a beautifully written and consuming tale of unrequited love with Giorgio falling in love with the beautiful but cold, enigmatic and deceptive Micòl, the daughter of an aristocratic Sephardic Jewish family the Finzi-Continis. The story proceeds under the ever darkening clouds of the restrictive Fascist Jewish restrictive freedom rules which eventually expanded to a full -scale pogrom which engulfed  the whole Finzi-Continis family, arrested and dispatched to a German concentration camp, never to return. Much of the action of the novel centres around the aristocratic house and extraordinary gardens of the Finzi-Continis which includes a tennis court that becomes a focal point of the novel’s life. 

Novelist  Simon Mawer who writes the introduction to the Folio edition of the novel notes that there is a Jewish cemetery in Ferrara which includes a “Mura degli Angeli (The Wall of the Angels) and there was a large house and garden with a tennis court owned by a Jewish Professor Silvio Magrini with a son Uberto who died young of  lumphogranuloma like Michòl’s brother Alberto in the novel. The Magrani  family were indeed deported to Germany in 1943 and perished in a German concentration camp. There was, however, no Michòl in the Margrani family, so the thwarted love affair is fictional. 

Jamie McKendrick’s sensitive translation adds greatly to the readability of this sensuous and delicate novel and helpfully includes translations of the  excerpts from various Italian poets included in the text.  A thought provoking and oblique look at the darkest period of C20th history and its impact on “normal” Jewish family life.  5 stars.

Jane Smiley:  A Thousand Acres, London,  Flamingo 1992 (1991).

An epic family drama reminiscent of the Forsyte Saga in which a farming family of just two generations manages to both gain and lose one thousand acres of top quality arable crop and pig farming land in Iowa. The novel throws a glance at Shakespeare’s “King Lear” with the three sisters in the narrative paying out big time (with some justification in this case) on their father. Along the way Smiley manages to include incestuous parental upbringing of children alongside cruelty and domination of women, adultery, sexual promiscuity and unfaithfulness in marriage, attempted murder, religious, marital and sisterly jealousy,  legal and financial manipulation, small town bigotry,  anti-Vietnam War conscription sympathy, ecologically based farming vs large scale long term crop production for profit and if I think long enough several other themes. The story is told through Ginny, one of three daughters of the overbearing and morally unpleasant and ambitious father whose wife had died while the children were young and vulnerable.

 I found the weight of all these very unsatisfactory people and circumstances hard work and struggled to maintain interest in the novel. The novel does build to a quite tensing climax but then fades away to a benign and rather hopeless drab and somewhat meaningless life for the key narrator. The truth is that there is not even a glimpse of a morally good or strong person in this narrative or even someone with a burning ideal.  I found myself asking..what is the point of this novel? What is it trying to tell us. Is it “trust absolutely no-one?”. In which case it is a highly successful novel! 3 stars.

Paul Gallico, The Snow Goose: A Story of Dunkirk, Melbourne, Wyatt & Watts, 1947 (1941)

Paul Gallico

American novelist Paul Gallico wrote this little World War 11 Dunkirk story loosely based on English ornithologist , conservationist and painter Peter Scott. The hero Philip Rhayader is a crippled painter and sea-bird lover who builds a sea-bird sanctuary on the English southern coast near Chelmbury. A young Saxon girl Frith brings him an injured North American snow goose blown off course by a major storm. Rhayader heals the bird and a friendship develops between the painter, the bird and Frith. During the Dunkirk evacuation, Rhayader plays a major role with his row boat ferrying British soldiers from the beach to waiting ships in the Channel with the snow goose flying above dodging bullets like an omen of safety. It is a touching story designed to encourage heroic bravery during the war and still carries an emotional power.   4 stars.

Lady Sarashina: As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, translated with notes by Ivan Morris, Ringwood, Penguin, 1983

Lady Sarashina is the author’s invented name for the unknown author of this amazing C11th Japanese narrative and set of poems which takes in the whole life of a woman frustrated by the tension between her father and her career as a lady in court, later her husband and her career in court and her own desire to deepen her spirtual life with courageous pilgrimages to remote Buddhist temples as well as the poems with which she records her life and interactions with others.
Ivan Morris..outstanding translator of many significant early Japanese works otherwise unavailable in readable English. Morris’s detailed notes and historical background are extraordinary in their depth and scholarship.

Eleventh Century Japanese prose and poetic recollections of a woman whose true name is not known , spent largely in Kyoto but also some time in an eastern province where her father was the governor.  Her story includes beautifully detailed descriptions of natural scenery especially in her travels to far-flung monasteries to which she made pilgrimages.  The narrative includes her frustration when both her father and eventually her husband were posted to positions far away while she remained in the capital. She was intermittently a lady-in-waiting to the princess as well as caring for her father and eventually her husband and children. Translator Morris notes that the poems in Lady Sarashrina’s book are all “thiry-one syllable tanka constructed in five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. The narrative contains over one hundred poems of which three quarters were written by Lady Sarashina.  Although her life is un-exceptional and somewhat frustrating I found the poems restful and soothing. The book makes several references to the much more well known Tale of Genji from a similar period.   The introduction, maps and detailed notes by Ivan Morris are impressive indeed and give a fascinating insight into C11th  upper middle class Japanese life. 4 stars.

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