Elysium Lost

Written by  Gianni Venturi
On the fortieth anniversary of the Giardino dei Finzi-Contini.
1962-2002: forty years have passed since the publication of Bassani's Giardino dei Finzi-Contini, and for forty years Ferrara has been, in the world's imagination, the city of the story. For decades tourists have been arriving in Ferrara asking to see the garden which the author's imagination created in Corso Ercole I d'Este.

The origins of the garden, however, lie in a real, not simply an imaginary, landscape. Bassani appears to have drawn his garden from Ninfa, the very lovely garden near Rome owned by Princess Marguerite Caetani. But with that name, Bassani projects into a world more real than that of the story and the events he narrates, a space which belongs exclusively to the artist's invention. Ferrara, and the garden itself, will be regained only when they have been lost, only when the maturing process, the writer's éducation sentimentale, has achieved completion, with the departure for other places and experiences, and after memory has transformed the tale into an invention which is not just a testimony, but also a revelation and discovery of the narrative wealth.

Thus the city becomes more real, and the people and places which form it become characters. And among these characters, the most famous, best loved and perhaps the most heroic is that of Micòl. The author himself admitted that the Giardino could have been called The Story of Micòl. So why did he choose to emphasise the place, rather than the main protagonist? The key with which the reader can open the gate of Micòl's secret garden is an interpretation which retraces the theories of myth which Bassani may have known well from his familiarity with the works of Thomas Mann.
Mann, first in Death in Venice, but above all in his quartet Joseph and his brothers had, as it were, experimented with the dangers and grandeurs of the myth as a reservoir of knowledge and state of mind to explain the world, reality; but the myth itself escapes all attempts at rationalisation, existing outside time, and can be revealed only through legends which act as a vehicle for the truths about the world (and ourselves).

For many reasons modern man is no longer able to draw knowledge from myth or legend, and he is in a sense prevented from reaching the great spiritual realities. It is the mythical tale which provides a guarantee of that which we cannot reach - spiritual reality - assuring us that what we are prevented from attaining does exist.

"The mythical tale," says Kerény, who was a close friend of both Thomas Mann and Carl Gustav Jung, "has a great quality: it IS figurative, AND often expressed through poetry AND literary forms". The Giardino dei Finzi Contini can be read in this light. In his explanation of the unconscious, Jung hypothesises the existence of psychological types - the Mother, Father, Child, Maiden etc. common to everybody: the archetypes. As well as peopling the unconscious, they reveal their reality in dreams: they are voices, presences in which we recognise ourselves because in myth the Archetypes are the basis of being.
More than other men, poets are able to "move WITH OPEN eyes" in this world of archetypical images, recognising and interpreting them. One stands out with the force of innocence and predestiny: the figure of Kore, the innocent maiden represented in Greek myth by Proserpine, daughter of Demeter, abducted by Pluto, the king of the underworld, who leads her into the world of the dead.

Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, seeks out her daughter, and the natural order is only restored when she returns to the earth: the harvest ripens, the seasons return, the spring bears its fruits once again. However, Proserpine, or Persephone, to give her her Greek name, will return for half of the year to the Underworld, to her appointed place, Elysium, where she is appointed goddess of death and the dead.

Micòl is thus the divine maiden Kore who brings life back to the earth and Persephone the goddess of death who lives in Elysium, the garden of the dead. On their first meeting Micòl invites the narrator, still a boy, to come into her forbidden garden, but entry is prohibited to those who do not yet realise that the world in which they live is falling, not towards life, but towards death. Micòl is already an expert in separation from life; the aristocratic lifestyle of the Finzi-Contini does not tolerate mingling with "others" except perhaps in the synagogue.
Micòl invites the boy to follow her through the hole in the walls in which the bicycle is hidden to climb the garden wall, an obvious symbol of entry into the world of the dead.

To enter the world of the dead is to enter an Elysium which protects from history and the atrocities of the world: possible to live even with the prospect of death; but Micòl instinctively understands that the fate of the narrator neither can nor should fall in step with her own. And love, which could have flowered in the garden of Elysium, where echoes of the world's tragedy arrived in deadened form, is rejected in the name of a different destiny to which the boy and the young Jew who understands the atrocity of history will be directed, to bear witness through memory and writing.

If the goddess of the garden rejects love, this is because it is impossible for one who has chosen the past as the only place of safety to return to the world. So Micòl chooses the past for herself, but the boy who loves her is offered the transformation from character to author.
Orpheus - represented by the narrator, who has loved her within the garden - wants to lead her back to the world of the living, but Ariadne-Micòl refuses to leave the world of the dead and knows that he will become a writer, and must leave the world of the gods to bear witness to reality and achieve maturity: Shakespeare in King Lear writes: "Ripeness IS ALL", a concept which many writers have tried to achieve, even choosing death as the final goal of fulfilment.

Thus it is for Micòl, not for Bassani, who emerges from the character to find his path as an author. Paragraph 10 of the fourth chapter opens with an epigraph which acknowledges this process of maturation: "AND thus I gave up Micòl". Giving up Micòl means finding his own place in the world. During the time of his love for Micòl the narrator saw the world as through a glass, a metaphor for the separation from reality; now, becoming aware of himself as a protagonist, the narrator's vision returns to the reality beyond the glass.

Bassani writes: "AND what do poets do, if NOT die AND return TO tell their story?" The narrator has died and has lived in the protection of Elysium, but the goddess of the dead and guardian of the past, Micòl has forced him to return to tell the story. In an interview, Bassani asserted: "AT a certain point, you have TO recover FROM childhood"; and to achieve maturity, the divine maiden must be lost.