When Giorgio Bassani published his most commercially successful novel, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, in 1962, he had already won the prestigious Strega Prize for his collection Five Stories of Ferrara (1956), and served as an editor at two multilingual and far-reaching literary magazines as well as the legendary publishing house Feltrinelli. He could rightly place himself among the great Italian realist writers—Alberto Moravia, Cesare Pavese, Elsa Morante, and others—and was slowly achieving his life’s ambition: transmuting the vanished world of his youth, the intermingled Jewish and gentile communities in and around the northeast Italian town of Ferrara, into a literary monument.
At the time, realism was going out of fashion, as writers a half-generation younger such as Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco shifted toward fabulism or other forms inspired by theory or politics. The “Group of ’63” would soon make an appeal for a politically and artistically radical avant-garde; Renato Barilli, a critic aligned with the group, called Bassani’s work “thin and empty,” exhausted by “its own sense of grayness and smallness,” and the poet Edoardo Sanguineti called Bassani a new Liala, referring to the tremendously popular romance novelist whose books were considered socially reactionary. Bassani’s reputation was declining, but not his royalties from The Garden, which sold 100,000 copies within the first five months of its publication. This dichotomy between public success and critical underestimation would confound him for the rest of his life.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is the best known of Bassani’s novels, still assigned in Italian high schools and to Americans studying Italian; the new US edition of The Novel of Ferrara, a collection of his fiction published in 1980, assures readers that The Garden will be found within. (The book’s thick spine even bears a film still from Vittorio De Sica’s 1970 movie adaptation of The Garden—doubly confusing, since the male figure in the photo is neither Bassani nor the actor who played Bassani’s novelistic alter ego.) The Garden recounts, from the distance of the late 1950s, the narrator’s unrequited love for a vivacious, emotionally elusive young woman named Micòl (both are Jewish), and the lavish domestic space that her old-money family provides to bored and slighted young Jewish people excluded from their usual activities by Italy’s 1938 Racial Laws.
It reads like a novel of adolescence, not unlike Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline, Robert Musil’s The Confusions of Young Törless, or Gregor von Rezzori’s Memoirs of an Anti-Semite: the common teenage encounter with another person’s sexual unknowability serves as a metaphor for the individual’s life within history, which can feel as inscrutable as a frustrating beloved. But Micòl is already twenty-two when the narrator, slightly older, begins hanging around her estate, and twenty-seven when her family is deported to a concentration camp. The novel is in part about arrested time, with the years of anti-Semitic exclusion from schools and careers yielding a prolonged adolescence, at once a welcome reprieve from adulthood and a horrifying waste. Micòl, who quotes Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” behaves as though she has intentionally opted out of adulthood, but the book’s dark irony is our slow realization—which the narrator never seems fully to apprehend—that she has no choice, that this elegant stoicism is another of her marvelous poses.
But it’s also about beautiful and lightly clad people having sex and playing tennis, which perhaps explains part of its immediate success. Upon its initial release, Bassani said, rather piously, “The silence and disinterest of the public would never have…diverted me from contemplation of my truth, and so I believe that no outcry in the future will ever distract me from testifying what I have to testify.” Such things, of course, are easier to say after a hit.
Bassani, the eldest son of a prosperous Jewish family, was born in 1916 and raised in Ferrara, in the region of Emilia-Romagna, less than seventy miles from Benito Mussolini’s birthplace. While Jews predated Christians on the Italian peninsula by several centuries, Ferrara’s Jewish population reached its height during the Italian Renaissance under those famous patrons of the arts, the House of Este. When Jews were expelled from the Iberian peninsula in the fifteenth century, the Estes actively courted emigrant families, hoping to attract the talent and economic power of these refugees. The Jewish Ferrarese formed an important mercantile class and could worship openly and seek redress in courts for acts of persecution as well as everyday violations of the law.
After the Este line died out in 1597, a process of ghettoization began, abruptly circumscribing Jewish life. The ghetto gates were not destroyed until 1848, and only the establishment of Victor Emmanuel II’s constitutional monarchy in 1859 restored basic rights such as citizenship and allowed Jews to be admitted into the public schools. During Bassani’s youth, Ferrara was home to about 1,500 Jews, some of whom were attracted to fascism. Bassani’s own father, a doctor, had upon its inception joined the Fascist party, which remained open to Jews until the Racial Laws were passed.
Bassani studied literature at the University of Bologna until 1939. (The earliest iterations of the Racial Laws permitted Jews who had already begun their studies to complete their degrees.) As the political situation worsened, however, he was forced to publish his first book, A City of the Plain, semi-privately and pseudonymously in 1940. Imprisoned in May 1943 for anti-Fascist activities, Bassani was released three months later, after the Allies’ invasion of Sicily and their imminent plans for the rest of the peninsula prompted the Grand Council of Fascism to order Mussolini’s arrest in July.
That September, however, Nazi paratroopers landed in gliders at the ski resort in Abruzzo where Il Duce was being detained, extracting him without a shot being fired. Mussolini became the largely nominal head of state in the German-occupied zone of north and central Italy, officially known as the Italian Social Republic but better known as the Republic of Salò.
For Bassani, as for countless other Jews, anti-Fascists, and other racial and political “undesirables,” these rapid changes led to a frantic search for papers, real or false, safe passage elsewhere, or, at a minimum, plausible places to hide. Bassani and his new wife moved to Florence, then Rome, under assumed names. Bassani’s parents and sister hid in a wardrobe in Ferrara while the rest of their relatives were sent to Buchenwald. Bassani never lived in Ferrara again.
Compared to the piecemeal and sometimes bungling anti-Semitic policies of the Italian Fascist dictatorship, policy during the Salò period was ruthlessly effective. Most of the eight thousand Italian Jews who are estimated to have died during the Holocaust were murdered under Salò. Yet the regime lasted only twenty months—well under a year in many areas south of Italy’s so-called Gothic Line—before the Allied reinvasion, meaning that these deaths occurred during a short but furious acceleration toward genocide.
Prison for Bassani in mid-1943, prior to Salò, was dour but not intolerable; judging by his thank-you letters, his family could bring him supplementary nightshirts, delicacies like cuttlefish and cheese, and, more importantly, copies of Dante, Tolstoy, and Manzoni. He still had enough youthful amour-propre to write superciliously to his sister, Jenny, informing her that her current taste in art was bad and that she should travel to Milan as soon as possible to see real masters like Carlo Carrà and Giorgio Morandi. (By 1943 the Futurist Carrà was an ultra-Fascist, whereas Morandi remained politically unaffiliated while benefiting from his contact with the Fascist elite; neither connection seems to have tempered Bassani’s esteem for them. Bassani, though staunchly anti-Fascist well before the Racial Laws were passed, appreciated his fellow artists almost always on the basis of talent or affection alone.)
Bassani’s letters from prison also urge Jenny to start reading his copies of Balzac, Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, and others, though he frets that she’ll damage them or loan them out to friends. His tastes and exhortations, his distrust of new fashions (he seems to have had a lifelong animus against beards, which he saw as fashionable appropriations of partigiani rough living that few wearers had truly earned), suggest someone who was avuncular from a young age, though this did not hamper his enthusiasm. In a 1959 interview, he spoke of his ambition to match the greatness of The Scarlet Letter, “a book that I cannot reread without feeling, each time, the most violent upheaval.”
His phlegmatic streak, his anti-bohemianism, and the saturnine cast of much of his work can make it difficult to detect the rich vein of anger woven through his fiction. Yet it is there. Cynthia Ozick has written of Primo Levi, the Italian writer and Holocaust survivor three years younger than Bassani, that in life he was drastically misunderstood, refashioned into a saint of equanimity and a champion of the “celebration of life,” and that only in his ultimate suicide, and in the “convulsions of rage” that mark his final book, The Drowned and the Saved (1986), was his true nature made known—to readers and, perhaps, even to Levi himself. In less dramatic but equally unmistakable ways, Bassani’s anger could erupt onto the page, most notably in the short story “A Memorial Tablet in Via Mazzini” and in the novel The Heron.
Bassani’s impulse to gather what he deemed his best fictions into a single book—to insist that they were, all along, a single book—took hold shortly after he completed The Smell of Hay, a story collection about 1930s Ferrara, in 1972. After revising furiously, he published the first version of The Novel of Ferrara in 1973; still unhappy with it, he worked for another seven years on the project. One can read this impulse as a way of removing the edges from the works and making their individuality recede, as they are repurposed into a kind of chorus.
Absent from the Novel are the stories from A City of the Plain—much of whose material had already been stripped and plundered for reuse in Five Stories of Ferrara—while other stories and novels had been rewritten, lightly in the case of newer works, profoundly in the case of the earlier ones. Some of Bassani’s more superficial edits are gestures toward the roman fleuve: a main character’s name is changed in one story so that he is now the same young man, Bruno Lattes, at both the beginning and the end of the collection; elsewhere, new dialogue is written so that characters in one story gossip about characters in another. More important, however, are the many minute changes in style that Bassani made attempting to eliminate the “troppo detto”—the too-much-said—and to find what he called “a common language” as opposed to merely “beautiful writing.”
In practice, this often means cutting romantic imagery to make room for a more encyclopedic catalog of the real. For example, the first published version of “The Boundary Wall” depicts a Jewish cemetery in which “the hot summer air trembled around the broad green cupolas” of “ancient trees, limes and chestnuts.” In The Novel, the story is retitled “Further News of Bruno Lattes,” and the cemetery now has “big trees—limes, elms, chestnuts, also some oaks.” The hot, trembling air has disappeared, as have the cupolas: to the late Bassani, what matters most is that we learn exactly what trees were growing in this very real cemetery in Ferrara in 1938. Economics and class come into sharper focus, too, as in the revised version we learn who was hired by the Jewish community to cut the grass.
Taken together, the many revisions begin to turn the work into a kind of almanac or chronicle. The effect of this endless historical detail—must I know where the agency that provided lawnmowing services in Ferrara in the 1930s was based?—can be dulling and frustrating in the “fully revised” version of the Novel of 1980, compared to the lovelier originals that provided the Novel’s constitutive parts. At the same time, these revisions signal Bassani’s increasingly desperate fear that the cruelly obliterated world of his youth would be truly destroyed if he could not preserve every detail in prose.
By this measure, his early story “A Memorial Tablet in Via Mazzini”—by far the most overtly damning of his fictions—would seem to serve as the key to all the work that followed, giving full expression to the dread and indignation of those on the brink of being forgotten (or misremembered). It is the central story in Five Stories of Ferrara (which together became the section “Within the Walls” when incorporated later into The Novel), and opens:
When, in August 1945, Geo Josz reappeared in Ferrara, the only survivor of the 183 members of the Jewish community whom the Germans had deported to Germany in the autumn of 1943, and all of whom were generally believed to have ended up in the gas chambers, no one in the city at first recognized him.
His former neighbors fail to recognize him in part because his name is already inscribed on a plaque dedicated to the Jewish dead—he has been commemorated, and thus has begun to be forgotten—and in part because, unexpectedly for a prisoner of Buchenwald, “he’d become so fat.” Some decide that reports of the camps have been exaggerated all along, or else that Josz must have engaged in any number of unseemly compromises to remain well fed in such a place.
In fact he’s suffering from kwashiorkor, a protein deficiency that causes the limbs and belly to swell. Like a prefigurement of Levi’s final indictment of fascism in The Drowned and the Saved, he is “a kind of drowned man,” “pallid and swollen, as if he had emerged from the depths of the sea.” In spite of his half-dead state, he musters the strength to go around jeering at the proliferation of faux-partisan beards, telling his increasingly uneasy audience exactly what went on at Buchenwald, and even visiting and embracing an elderly Fascist uncle (perhaps finding the man’s sincere intractability more congenial, in its way, than the superficial pieties of the rest of Ferrara). Encountering a former Fascist informer—double-dealing in a way his uncle never was—Josz slaps him in public, a slap “more worthy of a Fascist trooper,” simultaneously violating small-town propriety and the comportment considered becoming to a melancholic and pitiable Jew.
In time Josz begins to recover, his edema diminishes, and his emaciated frame reappears, looking even worse now that his watery paunch no longer holds up his clothes. This too the townspeople take as a piece of rudeness, a deliberate assault on their efforts to welcome and reassimilate him. His persistent refusal to please his neighbors provokes them to a near frenzy, till the reader feels that some kind of lynching is surely just another perceived slight away. In Bassani’s masterstroke, he has Josz simply vanish—perhaps departing for Palestine or South America, as his neighbors speculate—leaving us to wonder whether the locals would have killed him if he had insisted on remaining in Ferrara.
In The Heron (1968), Bassani’s final novel, the middle-aged landowner Edgardo Limentani goes out for a day of duck hunting, neatly accoutered with American military boots and Swiss timepieces—objects of privilege but also relics of his past as a Jewish refugee from the post-1943 camp deportations. He hires a peasant as factotum for the day and, almost as an afterthought, offers him the use of a spare gun. The result is two crushingly needless deaths: the peasant shoots and maims a heron, knowing that its meat is inedible and forcing Limentani to finish it off at close range. Limentani is so disgusted by the barbarism he sees in himself and others that he goes home and kills himself.
The novel’s rare moments of consolation are themselves a form of injury to Limentani’s sensibilities: reflecting on the swaggering attractiveness of another group of Sunday hunters, Limentani realizes that
it was money, cash, that conferred such assurance, such good health and made the one provided with more than a certain quantity appear as if of a different race, stronger, more full of life, more attractive, more likeable! Money, cash, dough: in the vicinity of those who had it, everything but everything—Fascism, Nazism, Communism, religion, family quarrels or affections, agricultural disputes, bank loans and so on and so forth—everything else suddenly became of no concern or importance.
To the reader’s dismay, Limentani begins to suspect that there is a master race, after all—just not the one favored by the Third Reich.
Before writing The Heron, Bassani had fallen into a deep depression, partly owing to the repeated attacks on his work by those who found his style and subject politically and aesthetically too conservative. He later said that completing The Heron pulled him out of it, though one wonders if the recovery was merely performed. After The Heron he published only a slim short story collection, The Smell of Hay, and a volume of verse, Epitaphs (1974), in which each poem is centered on the page to look like a tombstone. Most of his time until his death in 2000 was spent either outside Italy or else absorbed in his other obsession, the creation and preservation of Italian national parks.
Isabel Quigly and William Weaver produced fine translations of Bassani soon after his initial publications in the 1960s and 1970s, but neither assembled The Novel of Ferrara in full. Jamie McKendrick, a British poet, has published his translations of each of the Novel’s six books over the past dozen years, so it makes sense that he would translate this edition of the entire volume.
McKendrick is alert to Bassani’s cosmopolitanism and deep affinity for the English literary tradition, and doesn’t obscure the allusions Bassani certainly intended. For example, here is McKendrick’s rendering of the Finzi-Contini family tomb:
half drowned in wild green, with its many-hued marble surfaces, originally polished and shining, dulled with drifts of grey dust, the roof and outer steps cracked by baking sunlight and frosts, even then it seemed changed, as every long-submerged object is, into something rich and strange.
English-language readers will immediately spot Ariel’s song from The Tempest, and would not be wrong—Bassani’s “trasformata in quell’alcunché di ricco e di meraviglioso” preserves intact the translation of midcentury Italy’s preeminent Shakespeare scholar, G.S. Gargano, who rendered “a sea-change into something rich and strange” as “trasformazione in qualche cosa di ricco e de meraviglioso.” This would have been lost if McKendrick had chosen—as Weaver and Quigly did—any of the dozen other options for meraviglioso, including its closest cognate, “marvelous.”
McKendrick is also, in his own right, an excellent poet on the human apprehension of animals, which comes through in extraordinary passages of The Heron; the heron itself, for example, is described as “restless, unceasingly swivelling its smooth, fatuous head, which had the look of a pleasure seeker’s.” He is also good when characters are seen in their most creaturely, physical states. In “Further News of Bruno Lattes,” the unhappy Bruno watches his sometime lover, whose family has begun to wear Nazi paraphernalia (thus indicating the imminent end of their relationship), go swimming. Bassani writes, “Era grande, l’Adriana, abbronzata, pacifica, potente.” Weaver makes a rare gaffe: “She was a big girl, Adriana, tanned, tranquil, strong.” “Big girl,” in English, can only sound infantilizing, disparaging, or euphemistic. But McKendrick gets the sense and also the poetry: “She, Adriana, was large-limbed, sun-tanned, peaceful, potent.” The spondees and trochees pile one atop the other like a swimmer’s relentless stroke.
But when people speak or think, occasionally McKendrick runs into difficulties. Limentani in The Heron recalls that “drinking had never really been his thing,” a weird piece of contemporary slang for a man who already feels himself too ancient for the 1960s. Of an especially compliant man courting a woman in the 1930s: “He was always in search of further kudos,” an unnecessary and jarring choice of word when there are plenty of unobtrusive translations of the Italian prestigio. A Communist under informal house arrest speaks of her “invigilated freedom”—oddly Latinate for conversation.
In Bassani’s most perfectly executed fiction, the novella The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles (1958), a closeted gay doctor, well advanced into middle age, develops a self-destructive passion for a cruel undergraduate boy who parades him around the beach town to which all of middle-class Ferrara decamps in high summer. Anyone familiar with Mann or Proust knows about how well this will go. Yet what makes Doctor Fadigati a far more heartbreaking, if less transcendently written, figure than Aschenbach or Charlus is his effortful, backbreaking congeniality. From his very marrow he wants to be appealing, not just as a lover, but as a beloved figure of the conservative middle class. He is not a bit revolutionary; he is nice. And he is predictably destroyed. The story makes plain his metaphorical connection to the assimilated, sometimes Fascist Jews of Ferrara, but it also seems to be an expression of Bassani’s own helpless self-knowledge that he too was a man torn between passion and propriety. His attention—one cannot quite call it love—to Ferrara seems to have both exhausted and finally extinguished his ability to write much else.