The Nov­el of Ferrara

Gior­gio Bas­sani; Jamie McK­endrick, trans.; André Aci­man, fwd.

  • Review
By – March 11, 2019

Fer­rara is one of the many small, charm­ing cities that dot north­ern Italy. Devel­oped in the Renais­sance under the ducal fam­i­ly of Este, Fer­rara was home to notable writ­ers and artists before pass­ing into a long decline in the eigh­teenth and nine­teenth cen­turies. The city had a small but vibrant Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty and among its ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry denizens was Gior­gio Bas­sani, who would put Fer­rara on the map of the lit­er­ary imag­i­na­tion. The Nov­el of Fer­rara is the com­pi­la­tion of Bassani’s major writ­ings about the city, includ­ing The Gar­den of the Finzi-Con­ti­nis (his best-known work thanks to the tit­u­lar 1970 film by Vit­to­rio De Sica). The anthol­o­gy focus­es main­ly, although not exclu­sive­ly, on Ferrara’s Jew­ish inhab­i­tants in the peri­od of the 1930s and ear­ly 40s. Bas­sani first pub­lished the four nov­els, five sto­ries, and hand­ful of sketch­es includ­ed here as sep­a­rate works in the 1950s and 60s and then as a sin­gle vol­ume in the 70s in Italy; the present vol­ume is the first com­plete Eng­lish-lan­guage trans­la­tion of this major mile­stone in twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Ital­ian let­ters. It also stands as a memo­r­i­al to the loss of a vital Jew­ish community.

Bas­sani was born in 1916 to an upper-mid­dle class Ital­ian Jew­ish fam­i­ly (like his anony­mous nar­ra­tor in The Gar­den of the Finzi-Con­ti­nis). He came of age just as the Fas­cist regime in pre­war Italy moved to align more close­ly with the anti­se­mit­ic poli­cies of its Nazi allies in Ger­many. Since the Ital­ian Risorg­i­men­to in the 1860s and 70s, Jews in Italy had, to a large extent, assim­i­lat­ed into the major­i­ty cul­ture and had achieved con­sid­er­able suc­cess in a num­ber of pro­fes­sions, as well as social accep­tance (or at least tol­er­ance). Many were sup­port­ers of Mus­soli­ni and his Fas­cist par­ty. The Ital­ian racial law of 1938 that restrict­ed the rights of Ital­ian Jews changed all that; Jews were expelled from schools and uni­ver­si­ties, and social and polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions, barred from mar­ry­ing non-Jews, forced to sell their busi­ness­es, and banned from employ­ing Aryans.”

At least until the out­break of the Sec­ond World War in Europe, the indig­ni­ties faced by Ital­ian Jews, while sig­nif­i­cant and humil­i­at­ing, were less threat­en­ing than those faced by Jews in Ger­many. There were no sig­nif­i­cant out­breaks of state-spon­sored ter­ror­ism like Kristall­nacht (although a few syn­a­gogues were van­dal­ized or worse), and no mass roundups and deten­tions. The arrest and depor­ta­tion of Jews to Ger­man death camps did not take place until after 1943, when, fol­low­ing the Allied inva­sion of Italy, Ger­man troops occu­pied north­ern Italy and put Mus­soli­ni back into pow­er in the so-called Social Repub­lic of Italy. Some 89,000 of Italy’s near­ly 50,000 Jews were deport­ed and killed in Ger­man camps. Many of Ferrara’s Jews escaped the city before the roundup and Bas­sani him­self suc­ceed­ed in avoid­ing cap­ture. About a quar­ter of the remain­ing pop­u­la­tion was deported.

Oth­er than one sto­ry, A Night in 43,” which cen­ters on the pub­lic exe­cu­tion of a num­ber of anti-Fas­cists, both Jews and gen­tiles, Bassani’s fic­tion avoids direct depic­tions of the bru­tal actions of the Fas­cist regime. Nonethe­less, the fact of the Fas­cist government’s per­se­cu­tion of Jews and its lat­er com­plic­i­ty with Nazi-engi­neered depor­ta­tions echoes through­out Bassani’s work as a leit­mo­tif under­pin­ning the lives of the cit­i­zens of Fer­rara. The Gar­den of the Finzi-Con­ti­nis is suf­fused with the atmos­phere of impend­ing doom sur­round­ing the char­ac­ters but bare­ly touch­es on the con­se­quences. (De Sica’s film is far more explic­it on this theme, a por­tray­al about which Bas­sani was unhap­py.) The nov­el pro­vides a mov­ing por­trait of sev­er­al fam­i­lies – the narrator’s and the Finzi-Con­ti­nis – attempt­ing to retain some sem­blance of their way of life as that way of life is threat­ened. Their fate is told only indi­rect­ly in one scene, in which the nar­ra­tor looks at his rel­a­tives gath­ered for the Passover seder and sees them as already dead. The iso­la­tion of the Finzi-Con­ti­nis in their man­sion set behind high walls is a pow­er­ful sym­bol of the fate of Ferrara’s Jews, as is the lin­ger­ing ill­ness of Alber­to Finzi-Contini.

The Gar­den of the Finzi-Con­ti­nis remains Bassani’s strongest work, with its mul­ti­di­men­sion­al sym­bol­ism, its ambi­gu­i­ties, and its evo­ca­tion of medieval romance (also evoked by the Ital­ian title of this vol­ume, Il Roman­zo di Fer­rara); but it achieves new res­o­nance sur­round­ed in this vol­ume by the oth­er pieces, in which char­ac­ters and sit­u­a­tions allud­ed to in The Gar­den echo and rever­ber­ate. Fer­rara, with its wide boule­vards and long city walls, its cafes and amuse­ment parks, emerges as a liv­ing enti­ty out of Bassani’s words. Sev­er­al oth­er sto­ries also deal with the con­se­quences of the plight of Ferrara’s Jews. A Memo­r­i­al Tablet in Via Mazz­i­ni” is a tale of one depor­tee from Fer­rara who returns to find his name includ­ed on the epony­mous memo­r­i­al tablet. This young man becomes a memen­to mori and a source of dis­com­fort to his fel­low Fer­raresi (Bas­sani sug­gests that he is the only sur­vivor, while most sources indi­cate that there were more than one). The Heron, set in the post­war peri­od, chron­i­cles a day trip tak­en by a well-to-do Jew­ish sur­vivor as he con­tem­plates his life and whether he will have a future.Unlike oth­er of Bassani’s fic­tions, The Heron is a third-per­son nar­ra­tive and is a tour-de-force of minute-to-minute nar­ra­tive and inte­ri­or probing.

There are oth­er themes at stake for Bas­sani in these sto­ries, chief among them the com­ing of age of his alter ego nar­ra­tor, and his strug­gles with his Jew­ish and sex­u­al iden­ti­ties. These themes, latent in The Gar­den of the Finzi-Con­ti­nis, are fore­ground­ed in The Gold-Rimmed Spec­ta­cles and Behind the Door.

With the recent pub­li­ca­tion of Pri­mo Levi’s com­plete works and the great pop­u­lar­i­ty of Ele­na Ferrante’s Neapoli­tan tetral­o­gy, post­war Ital­ian writ­ing, nev­er total­ly neglect­ed in the Unit­ed States, is hav­ing its cul­tur­al moment. With this vol­ume, Bassani’s major work once more takes its place in the spotlight.

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

Discussion Questions