Giorgio Bassani’s critically acclaimed masterpiece, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, was published in 1962, in the immediate post–Eichmann trial era, in which interest in the Shoah had grown markedly. The novel became widely known for its story of the narrator’s frustrated love for the ever-elusive, beautiful Micòl, yet it also engages deeply with the painful fate of Italian Jews under Fascism. Even today, cinephiles of a certain age remember the award-winning 1970 film adaptation fondly, and Bassani’s name is familiar to them because of it.
But Bassani deserves to be known for other, more pertinent reasons as well: for his bold look at the Jewish community in Ferrara and their response to the racial laws of 1938 that deprived Italian Jews of their civil rights, for his blunt honesty about the role of Fascists in the persecution of Italian Jews, and for his exploration of Italian Jewish identity in relation to the Fascist patria, or fatherland.
In the novels and short stories about Ferrara that he published in the 1950s and ’60s, Bassani uncovered the Fascist side of his hometown that many would have preferred to forget. His works speak directly against the postwar mythmaking that characterized cruel discrimination against Italian Jews as an effort by Mussolini to placate Hitler (it was not: antisemitic propaganda began in earnest in Italy in the early 1930s) and suggested that Italians helped Jews whenever they could (some did, some didn’t). The subsequent myth of Italiani brava gente (Italians are a good people) has endured, despite the efforts of contemporary historians to paint a more accurate picture.
Bassani had a habit of rewriting his six major works, and republishing them, up until 1980, when the definitive editions were published collectively as Il romanzo di Ferrara (The Novel of Ferrara). Now, this unified work has been newly translated by the poet Jamie McKendrick and published in a single volume, making it easier for English-speaking readers to visit their favorites again, or encounter them for the first time.
The city of Ferrara is the focal point of Bassani’s fictions. Although he was born in Bologna, in 1916, his family moved back to Ferrara shortly afterward and he was raised there during the Fascist regime’s two decades in power. Bassani was in his early 20s when Italian Jews were definitively betrayed by the racial laws of 1938–39, which stripped them of their civil rights. (They, for the most part, did not see this coming: Italy for them represented freedom, and they had enjoyed rapid acculturation after national unification, in the early 1860s, which had opened the ghettos and made them full citizens in the new Italy.) After the war, Bassani moved to Rome, where he spent most of his life, yet Ferrara never seemed to leave his mind for long.
The Novel of Ferrara includes not only his best-known work, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, but several others no less important to an understanding of this author: Within the Walls, The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, Behind the Door, The Heron, and The Smell of Hay.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis opens with a stunning prologue that raises the question of how we think about cultural memory and mourning. The narrator visits ancient Etruscan tombs, as part of a carefree Sunday excursion. With the passage of time, the tombs have become cenotaphs, empty monuments to what should or could lie within. Does anyone still mourn the Etruscans? On his way home, the narrator returns in his memory to the fate of the deported Finzi-Contini family, and wonders what kind of burial they had, if any. The family’s fate is contrasted to that of those whose remains once lay within these tombs, which no longer provoke mourning in visitors.
The concepts of remembering, forgetting, and commemorating are developed in provocative and unique ways in Bassani’s work, often demonstrating how cultural memory can fail despite ongoing engagement with the past. To emphasize the repeated nature of his memory work, Bassani frequently uses the imperfect tense in Italian, difficult to express in English (although akin to “I used to” or “I would”), indicating either an action repeated in the past or one that is indeterminate in time. The repetitive quality of the verbs found in the prologue, evident in “io riandavo con la memoria” (“I went over in my memory”), for example, and “mi si stringeva come non mai il cuore” (“my heartstrings tightened as never before”), establishes that this exercise in memory is an oft-repeated moment, at the center of an intense commemorative mode in which the notion of an active, repetitive memory is indispensable.
The Novel of Ferrara begins with Within the Walls, a collection of stories written during the 1950s, and revised in the ’60s, that represent some of Bassani’s best work. In “A Night in ’43,” he examines the murder of 11 townspeople in Ferrara by the Fascists and the cover-up of this crime, in the process looking carefully at what an Italian Fascist identity might mean: Is that identity made up of opportunism, actual belief in Fascist ideology, fear of the Fascists and Nazis?
In this tale, the reader must patiently wade through long sections about one character who develops syphilis, and consequently becomes paralyzed, after being made to visit a brothel in Bologna following the 1922 March on Rome. He is forced to lie with a prostitute by one of the Fascists, who points a gun to his throat and threatens to shoot him if he does not comply. Just as the reader thinks that the plot will never arrive at the date of the story’s recounting, some 21 years later, we learn of the capitulation of the Fascist government to the Germans, and the killing, by Ferrarese Fascists, of 11 of their fellow townspeople.
What were the motivations for this slaughter of innocent civilians? To please the Fascists or the Germans, to avenge a colleague killed by anti-occupation partisans, an expression of their own blood rage? Bassani leaves the incident open to interpretation, even while he explores the politics of the tensions between groups. Complicity, both active and passive, with the Fascists and with the Nazis, following the German invasion of 1943, was a salient feature of the civil war in Italy during this period. The experience of this intracommunal violence profoundly changed the townspeople of Ferrara, even those not guilty of supporting the Nazis.
“Forgetting the extermination is part of the extermination itself,” Jean Baudrillard has said—Bassani explores that sentiment.
Another story in this collection, “A Memorial Tablet in Via Mazzini,” examines the tense relations between a Holocaust survivor who returns to Ferrara and the townspeople who remained there throughout the war. The latter utterly lack empathy for the survivor’s situation, and refuse to take responsibility for their Fascist sympathies and/or collaboration. Here, Bassani boldly explores a painful topic that other authors largely avoided for decades after the war.
Bassani’s intense novella The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles takes place primarily in the mid-1930s, just before the racial laws were enacted in Italy. It recounts the story of a lonely, prominent doctor in Ferrara and the gradual discovery by the Ferrarese community that he is gay. The intolerant times required that the doctor hide his sexual orientation as best he could, but rumors fly. Finally, once he realizes that his secret is out, he has an open affair with a much younger man at the seashore, during a late-summer vacation.
Bassani tells the tale from the perspective of another liminal figure, a Jewish Ferrarese boy, who slowly begins to understand the ramifications of increasingly antisemitic government policies, and the way in which these policies are linked to the fate of the doctor, who is ostracized by local society. One of the narrator’s neighbors admires both Hitler and Mussolini, and openly expresses her disdain for Jews. Bassani is careful not to marginalize the antisemitism by suggesting that it is only a German import, as post-Fascist myths would have it. Illustrating the concept of intersectionality, a term only coined in 1989, he links the fates of the marginalized characters in this novella.
Any evaluation of Bassani’s significance would be incomplete without some discussion of The Smell of Hay. Even though it is a collection of short stories, it includes a fascinating essay, “Down There, at the End of the Corridor,” which talks about his (long and laborious) writing process, as well as the personal significance of his transition from a poetry-focused young writer, between 1942 and 1947, to a mature writer of prose.
According to his daughter, Paola Bassani, he would sometimes produce only one paragraph in an entire morning of labor, because he strove for perfection. Bassani, in fact, said in an interview given in 1972 that his entire opus was a rewrite and an elaboration of a story he wrote when he was 20 years old. The author’s single-minded focus on the exact turn of phrase, to the point of obsessively rewriting and republishing many of his works, is both intimidating and inspirational.
The new translation’s short foreword, by André Aciman, supplies some much-needed historical context with which to approach Bassani’s work and mentions some of his recurrent themes, such as the liminality of the figure who is unable to fully create a different life away from his hometown, who never really fits in anywhere, and who eventually returns. The introduction, by McKendrick, is a sensitive and detailed, yet concise, appreciation of the literary quality of Bassani’s writings, and a cogent exploration of the meaning of Ferrara for Bassani. These two preludes to the work function together to orient the reader to major concerns that form the backbone of Bassani’s fiction.
While lauding this project overall, and extolling the importance of the foreword and introduction, I also find it necessary to point out some curious moments in the translation. In his introduction, McKendrick particularly notes the significance of one of Bassani’s early stories, “Una lapide in Via Mazzini,” which he translates as “A Memorial Tablet in Via Mazzini.” The Italian original does not specifically include the word “memorial”—it is, rather, left up to the reader to slowly deduce the importance of this plaque, as it becomes a symbol of forgetting rather than remembering.
The story is in part about the search for appropriate Holocaust commemoration, and the ensuing heartbreak when such commemoration remains elusive. The crucial notion of commemoration—to remember with others, with the community—is challenged by Bassani in this tale, as Ferrara refuses to engage in meaningful commemoration of its deported and murdered Jews (or, for that matter, in an honest look at its Fascist past). “Forgetting the extermination is part of the extermination itself,” Jean Baudrillard has said; Bassani explores that sentiment in this story. The generic notion of a lapide (plaque), with no indication as to its meaning or purpose, is precisely the point, yet the translation fills in this important blank.
Bassani was in his early 20s when Italian Jews were definitively betrayed by the racial laws of 1938–39.
The end of the prologue to The Garden of the Finzi-Continis also closes a lacuna that the Italian text left to readers’ imaginations. The very last line is a question: “Chissà se hanno trovato una sepoltura qualsiasi?” (“Who knows if they found any burial at all?”), in reference to the Finzi-Contini family, jointly deported by the Fascists and the Germans and presumed killed. In this poignant question, we get a sense of the frustration of the speaker over the failure to appropriately commemorate victims of the Holocaust, and an indication of the many gaps in knowledge that remain following the war. The translation, however, reduces that question to a statement: “And no one knows whether they have any grave at all.”
The subtle difference between the question posed by “who knows?” and the assertion of “no one knows” points to crucial themes in Bassani’s work about the relation among knowledge, uncertainty, and skepticism. His characters are often cast as either possibly or actually complicit with the regime, either through declared allegiances or through lack of action, what we would today call bystander complicity. Claiming a lack of knowledge, these characters affect neutrality—and it is this “neutrality” that Bassani challenges.
McKendrick reminds us at the end of his introduction about Bassani’s insistence on factuality in his writing, a focus that lends the work, although it is fiction, the urgency of political engagement. His character Geo Josz, for example, from “A Memorial Tablet in Via Mazzini,” is based on one of his cousins, Eugenio Ravenna, whose entire immediate family was deported and killed. Historical events form the bedrock of his fiction and are therefore not negotiable; Bassani withdrew his name from Vittorio De Sica’s film version of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, because the director, among other changes, added an ending that was not in the novel, making the love affair between Micòl and another character explicit rather than allusive.
In a 1972 interview, Bassani said that by writing he wanted to understand himself, perhaps even to heal himself. The possibility of healing, however, needs to be seen in the larger context of postwar Italy and the trauma that was done to the Jewish community: Bassani is not only interested in healing himself, but also in healing the community, to the extent that this is possible, through his exploration of the legacy of postwar myths about Fascism.
What is the relevance of Bassani to contemporary readers? In our world of increasing antisemitism and hate acts against many minorities, Bassani’s exploration of the consequences of bigotry, the relationship between state-generated prejudice and the behavior of society, and the aftermath of the Shoah in Italy—in which no one wanted to take responsibility for the betrayal of Italy’s Jews—appears more pertinent than ever. Will we, too, attempt to ignore the rising tide of racism? What are the warning signs that Bassani delineates in his works, and could we find these useful now?
This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley.