The Italian Jewish writer Giorgio Bassani lived to be 84 years old, and he spent most of his adult life in Rome, where he was a prominent editor and man of letters. But almost all of his fiction takes place in Ferrara, the small provincial city where he grew up, during the years just before and after World War II, when he was in his early 20s. Clearly, a rupture opened in Bassani’s life in that time and place which he spent a lifetime trying to understand. Indeed, Bassani came to see all six of his books of fiction as parts of a single story, and they were collected in Italian under the title The Novel of Ferrara in 1974.
Now, for the first time, The Novel of Ferrara has been published in English in one volume, in a translation by Jamie McKendrick. The book includes a number of short stories, but at its heart are four novellas, including Bassani’s best-known work, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which was made into a film by the director Vittorio de Sica. Garden is Bassani’s masterpiece—a classic tale of first love, under the gathering shadow of the Holocaust.
But Garden gains in meaning and resonance as part of The Novel of Ferrara, where it forms one panel in a tapestry representing the lost world of Ferrara’s Jewry. This was a small world—before WWII, Bassani writes, there were just 400 Jews in the city. But he evokes it in richly realistic detail, filling his pages with descriptions of streets and cafes and churches, encircled by the old city walls. Characters who appear as passing names in one story return as protagonists in another, creating a sense of intimate community. And certain events—above all, a massacre in late 1943, in which Ferrara’s Fascists killed 11 people—serve as landmarks, visible in the background of many different tales. In these ways, The Novel of Ferrara can be compared to Joyce’s Dubliners or Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine; but a more fitting parallel is the yizkor books that were produced after the Holocaust to commemorate so many vanished Jewish towns.
Because Bassani’s fiction is intensely local, it assumes a reader familiar with the twists and turns of Italian history in the 20th century. The key event in Bassani’s life took place in October 1938—80 years ago last month—when Italy introduced its Racial Laws, a package of anti-Semitic legislation modeled on Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws. At a stroke, Italy’s Jewish community—whose roots in the country went back to ancient times, and which had been highly assimilated for almost a century—was expelled from public life.
This development was a profound shock to Italy’s Jews. The country had fallen under the rule of Fascism in 1922, when Benito Mussolini became the country’s Duce or “leader”; but initially, Fascism (unlike Nazism) was not an anti-Semitic movement. On the contrary, many Italian Jews were strong supporters of Mussolini, for the same reasons that other Italians were: He promised national greatness and renewal, if at the expense of minor considerations like democracy and civil rights.
In 1938, however, Mussolini decided to ingratiate himself with Hitler, his most important ally, by turning against the Jews. Italian anti-Semitism was never exterminationist, but it did succeed in largely segregating Italy’s small Jewish community from its neighbors—prohibiting Jews from attending universities, earning professional qualifications, hiring non-Jewish employees, and attending movie theaters, among other humiliations.
In The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, these Racial Laws take effect at first in trivial ways. A tennis tournament at the local country club is canceled midgame, when it seems likely that a Jewish player is going to win. Jewish businessmen are asked to leave their social clubs; Jewish housewives have to let their gentile servants go. But as Bassani shows, the effect on young people—he himself was 22 years old at the time of the Racial Laws—was catastrophic. With Europe on the verge of war, there was nowhere to escape and no future to look forward to. Education, marriage, starting a family—all seemed impossible. This despair colors the narrator’s budding obsession with a young woman, Micol Finzi-Contini, who belongs to the town’s wealthiest and most exclusive Jewish clan. His unreciprocated passion feels as doomed as Ferrara’s Jews themselves. Bassani evokes their mood in his description of a Passover Seder in 1939:
I looked around, one by one, at uncles and aunts and cousins, a great number of whom, within a few years, would be swallowed up by German crematoria ovens, and never would they have dreamed of ending up like that, nor would I myself have dreamed it, but all the same, then, that evening, already … they seemed swathed in the same aura of statue-like, mysterious fate that still, in memory, encircles them today.
As Bassani suggests, even in 1939 the Holocaust was unimaginable. It was not until four years later that the lives of Italy’s Jews were put in danger. After the Allied invasion of Italy, Mussolini was ejected from power, prompting the Germans to invade and reinstall him as a puppet dictator. With the Germans effectively in charge of northern Italy for the next 18 months, Italian Jews began to be sent to Auschwitz, most often by way of the detention center at Fossoli. Primo Levi was among the 10,000 deportees, and one of the very few who survived.
Bassani escaped deportation: Arrested as a partisan in 1943, he was freed after Mussolini’s downfall and managed to survive under an assumed name until the Liberation in 1945. But many of his relatives died in Buchenwald, and his entire sense of his place in the world was transformed. It is this transformation that is the real subject of The Novel of Ferrara. Whether these stories take place in the early 1930s or the late 1940s, whether politics takes center stage or keeps to the background, Bassani is always drawn to the war and the Racial Laws, like a planet to a black hole.
Bassani’s first book, Within the Walls, is a collection of stories that takes a cautious, oblique approach to its subject. You can see this already in the first story Bassani ever wrote, “Lida Mantovani,” which is named for the jilted, pregnant girl at its center. It unfolds in two time periods: In the present, Lida raises her son as she is courted by a prosaic but well-meaning neighbor. Her real emotional life, however, belongs to the past, to her affair with the wealthy Jewish boy, David, who got her pregnant. Divisions of class and religion make David almost incomprehensible to the working-class Lida, and she is heartbroken by her inability to grasp his motives or predict his actions. Jewishness, already in this apolitical story, represents alienation from the “real” Italian people—a condition that can be seductive, but that makes real understanding impossible.
That alienation returns with a vengeance later in the story “A Memorial Tablet in Via Mazzini.” This tablet is the one erected by Ferrara’s main synagogue after the war, bearing the names of 183 Ferrarese Jews killed In the Holocaust. But a stone memorial is far more acceptable to the town than the presence of Geo Josz, the sole survivor to return to Ferrara. Swollen by edema—which his neighbors think is merely fat, leading them to doubt his tales of starvation in a concentration camp—Josz becomes a living ghost, a symbol of the bad conscience of a city that conspired with Fascism. No one knows how to respond when he buttonholes people to tell his story: “Letting him speak … meant that, sure enough, he’d again start telling about Fossoli, Germany, Buchenwald, the fate of his whole family, and so on, so that it was impossible to know how to extract themselves.”
As his talent developed, Bassani continued to pose uncomfortable questions about the place of Jews in Italy, though his manner of asking them grew more subtle. In The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, a novella, the young narrator is Jewish but the main character is not. The titular glasses belong to Dr. Fadigati, a surgeon in Ferrara and a figure of local renown. Not until the narrator becomes a teenager does he discover that Dr. Fadigati is gay—something all the adults know and that bothers no one, until he falls under the spell of a handsome teenage boy named Delillers.
Their summer affair, which unfolds very publicly at a beach resort near Ferrara—a bourgeois version of Thomas Mann’s high-romantic Death in Venice—ends with Fadigati being both jilted and ostracized. But because this scandal happens to coincide with the promulgation of the Racial Laws, the narrator cannot share in the conventional indignation of the Ferrarese. Instead, he recognizes in Fadigati a fellow outsider, another target of the city’s mindless cruelty.
For Fadigati, in turn, the narrator’s Jewishness is not something to be ashamed of, but the key to his humanity: “My dear friend, if being what you are is what makes you so much more human—you wouldn’t be here keeping me company otherwise—why reject it, why rebel against it?” he asks. Yet the narrator can’t help rebelling—Jewishness feels more like a curse than a privilege, and in the end he disappoints Fadigati in a crucial, life-changing moment. Often, in these tales, Jews fail to live up to the moral demand that their martyrdom seems to impose on them.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.