The Novel of Ferrara

Introduction by Jamie McKendrick to his translation of The Novel of Ferrara (W.W. Norton & Co., 2019)

In short stories, novels, poems, and essays, Giorgio Bassani has composed perhaps the most compelling and lyrical portrait of Jewish life in Ferrara from the early twentieth century to the postwar years. And by extension, an insightful meditation of the condition of the Jewish minority in Italy and its complex relationship with the Catholic majority. 

In 1974 (and then in a revised form, in 1980), Bassani, edited and assembled all the stories and novels (some 700 pages) he had published up to 1972 into a cycle called Il Romanzo di Ferrara. This prose cycle has at its center The Garden Of The Finzi Contini, which in turn has at its center the homonymous garden, with at its heart, Micol—one of the most elusive and fascinating characters in 20th Century Italian literature—.

Bassani's  individual works began to appear in English translation in 1960; finally, in  2018, W.W. Norton published The Novel Of Ferrara as a single volume in the insightful, luminous translation by Jamie McKendrick (currently working on the translation of Bassani's poems). The Norton edition of Novel of Ferrara allows the English reader to savor Bassani's timeless, politically bold, and literarily sophisticated prose.

We are grateful to W.W. Norton for allowing us to present Jamie McKendrick's introduction.

Taking a break from the 2016 centenary conference on Giorgio Bassani in Ferrara, where scholars, editors, and translators from all over Europe had gathered to celebrate his work, I found myself in Via Vittoria in front of a disused, derelict building. Its sombre facade of ancient brickwork was undistinguished in appearance from the other neighbouring houses, except for a white marble plaque next to the arched doorway. Erected by the Jewish Community of Ferrara on 20 November 1992, that, too, was commemorating a centenary: a quincentenary of the same date in 1492, when Duke Ercole I d’Este had welcomed the Jews exiled from Spain to the city. It also recorded how the Sephardic synagogue on this site had been destroyed by the Nazis in 1944. Its twelve lines spanned five hundred years of history, asserted the place of Sephardic culture in Italy, and recorded these acts of welcome and persecution.

   Was this then, I wondered, the site of the third synagogue mentioned in Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis as the place of worship for a small section of the Jewish community, the “Fanese,” somewhat shadowy and intriguing to the narrator, whose family attended the main temple in nearby Via Mazzini? The inscription immediately recalled the use Bassani makes—throughout his work, but especially in Within the Walls— of the city’s public memorials, its plaques, statues, and funerary inscriptions, and of his impulse to flesh out the history hidden behind the public print with the story of the complex private lives of those who witnessed the recorded events. 

   In that book of short stories alone, apart from the commemorative plaque of General Diaz’s 1918 victory speech in the school where Clelia Trotti teaches, two other public memorials take center stage in the narrative. “A Memorial Tablet in Via Mazzini” begins with a peasant boy affixing to the temple facade a tablet listing the names of the 183 Jews deported to the camps and murdered by the Nazis. His work is interrupted by the hesitant protest of a certain Geo Josz, a survivor erroneously listed among the dead. The second is a plaque erected on the wall of the Estense Castle moat that commemorates the eleven citizens rounded up by a Blackshirt squad and shot at dawn on November 15, 1943. These are crucial dates in Ferrara’s history, and Bassani’s stories explore their significance in the most unexpected ways.

   Giorgio Bassani and Ferrara are as inseparable as James Joyce and Dublin or Italo Svevo and Trieste. Like Joyce, Bassani spent only a small but crucial portion of his life in the city of his major work. Though he was born— “accidentally,” he claimed— in Bologna, his whole youth was spent in Ferrara, and though he studied at the University of Bologna, under the tuition of the eminent art historian Roberto Longhi, he commuted by train. Those journeys in third class are memorably evoked in several chapters of The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles as well as in “Verso Ferrara,” one of the high points of his first collection of poems:

               At this hour when through the hot endless grasslands

               the last trains make their way toward Ferrara,

               their languid whistles fade as sleep engulfs them

               along with the lingering red on village towers.

   Despite the Racial Laws, he graduated in 1939 and taught in the city’s Jewish school until he was arrested, in May 1943, for the anti-Fascist activities in which he’d been engaged since his student days. He was released in July, the day after Mussolini was removed from power by the Grand Fascist Council and Victor Emmanuel III. Immediately after his release, Bassani married Valeria Sinigallia, whom he had met in Ferrara’s Marfisa tennis club— the model for his Eleanora D’Este Tennis Club, which in the early chapters of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis excluded Ferrara’s Jews. Two months later, as the Allied forces pushed northward through Italy, the Germans reinstalled Mussolini in the puppet Social Republic of Salò, which, with their military assistance, controlled northern and central Italy and, therefore, Ferrara as well. With Mussolini back in power, the couple had to live under assumed names, first in Florence, then in Rome. After the war, Bassani never returned to live in Ferrara but remained in the capital, where among other jobs he worked as the editor of the prominent literary magazine Botteghe Oscure and later in the publishing house Feltrinelli, for whom he had the discernment to accept Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard after it had been rejected by all of Italy’s other major publishing houses. Bassani died in 2000 and was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Ferrara, which he describes so vividly in the first chapter of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

   Situated in the Po Valley in Emilia-Romagna in the northeast of Italy, Ferrara was a potent and flourishing city during the Renaissance. Since that time, it had gradually declined in power and influence, but it remained relatively prosperous. During Bassani’s youth, the city’s population grew from around 110,000 to 120,000. A small though civically prominent community of some seven hundred Jews lived mainly in the triangle formed by the streets Via Vignatagliata, Via Vittoria, and Via Mazzini— the last being the site of the Jewish Temple, which included two active synagogues, one referred to as the “German School,” the other as the “Italian School.” The presence of three distinct places of worship within such a small area already signals how diverse this community was. The diversity is also reflected in Bassani’s warmly inclusive diction, which employs words, phrases, and sentences from Greek, Latin, Hebrew, German, French, English, and Ferrarese, Veneto and Hispano-Jewish dialects, not to mention the peculiar family idiolect of Micòl and Alberto, referred to as finzi-continico. During the 1930s, Ferrara was a stronghold of Fascist adhesion; and notorious squads of Blackshirts controlled the city. In its earlier phase, many Jews, like their Catholic neighbours, were supporters of Fascism; by the latter part of the decade, however, with what became known as “la svolta al razzismo”— the turn toward racism— the well-integrated Jewish community found itself utterly isolated. 

   The six books that make up The Novel of Ferrara were published separately between 1956 and 1972, and each, with the possible exception of The Smell of Hay, is free-standing and self-sufficient. Yet Bassani chose to extensively and rigorously revise them in order to unite them under the title Il romanzo di Ferrara, published in Italy in 1974 and republished after further revisions in 1980. That complete Novel of Ferrara in its definitive, final revision now appears in English translation for the first time. At some stage in the writing, it became clear to Bassani that the six books shared not only time and place and a cast of characters but also an essential aesthetic unity. The seed of the entire work— its nucleus and donnée— is already present and apparent in Within the Walls, first published as Cinque storie ferraresi (Five Stories of Ferrara). In the concluding piece of the whole Romanzo, the author steps forward in prima persona to give an account of the composition of that first book, and its title “Down There, at the End of the Corridor” echoes a phrase stressed in the opening of the very first story, “Lida Mantovani.”

   The nearest English equivalent for the word romanzo is the generic term “novel,” but in Italian it also carries the echo of an older meaning, one that goes back to the medieval “romance”— originally a poem that celebrated the chivalric adventures of a hero or group of protagonists. It’s likely that for Bassani the term held some of these poetic resonances. After all, as he insisted in an interview, he was as much a poet as a novelist. That may help explain why he designated this gathering of four short novels and two collections of short stories by the singular title of Romanzo. But it’s also important to remember that for Bassani the role of the poet is to “return from the realm of the dead and speak of what he saw there,” as he remarked in the same interview— explicitly referring to the character Geo Josz, who becomes a living record of a history that, during the Liberation, was in the process of erasure; Josz is therefore an increasingly uncomfortable reminder of what his Ferrarese neighbors are busily trying to forget.

Bassani’s Romanzo has unforgettably put his city, and the Jewish community he belonged to, on the map of modern consciousness. While Ferrara is present in all its formidable weight throughout, it still had to be rebuilt in his imagination, and the birth of this imaginary city had a slow gestation. (In his first collection of stories, A City of the Plain, published in 1940—with the Racial Laws prohibiting Jewish publications in full effect— under the nom de plume of Giacomo Marchi, Ferrara is referred to merely as “F.”) Aspects of the city’s history are adumbrated throughout the Romanzo, but the central and recurrent historical focus in most of the works is the Fascist era, and most specifically 1938, the year in which the Racial Laws were enacted. These laws followed the German precedent of the Nuremberg Laws and severely curtailed the lives of Italian Jews with regard to employment, education, and intermarriage, making them, hitherto respected citizens, “strangers in their own home,” in the telling phrase of the Portuguese poet Tatiana Faia. This theme emerges again and again for the characters in Bassani’s fiction. Both The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and, even more centrally, The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles observe the process of “eviction” through the eyes of Bassani’s first-person narrator, an unnamed alter ego, the “I” of both these books and also of Behind the Door. Bassani declared that the “I,” which he came to realize was such an essential element in the narrative, was a figure who was not exactly himself, although “very like” in numerous respects.

   In The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, the fate of marginalization that befalls the Jewish narrator is shared by the homosexual doctor Athos Fadigati, and it’s an act of imaginative generosity that allows Bassani to explore the subtle and devastating parallels between the two figures in this compact masterpiece.

   On his return from Buchenwald, Geo Josz finds his house occupied by the partisans and is forced to encamp in the attic, awaiting its delayed repossession. But there are various, less explicit forms of estrangement enacted in these novels. The schoolboy narrator of Behind the Door ends the novel alienated from his family and his own well-being because of the treachery of a school companion— a unique case that, the narrator himself concedes, has for once little to do with his Jewish identity. The fiercely hierarchical and competitive school, however, foreshadows some of the cruelties and divisions that will soon become evident in the political sphere. 

   Perhaps the most profound treatment of eviction occurs in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, where the narrator first experiences the increasingostracism of the Jewish community; but then, in a turn that is even morepsychologically devastating, he is expelled from the Edenic garden itself,which had offered a haven from this trauma. The loss of the garden is alsolinked to the loss of his first love, the radiant, precocious and elusive Micòl. Of the four “novels” within the Novel, The Heron is the most atypical, not sharing the same first-person narrator of the other three, and being mainly set outside the city walls, in the nearby countryside. Yet it offers a particularly extreme and harrowing study of the corrosive effects of exclusion. Edgardo Limentani has returned from his Swiss exile and, in the compass of a single winter day of 1947, comes to know his full estrangement from his time, his city, his family, and finally his own life.

   In his concluding essay, “Down There, at the End of the Corridor,” Bassani describes how, when composing his stories, he would find a geometric image taking shape in his mind. His account is oddly like the dream of the ouroboros that helped Friedrich August Kekulé resolve the chemical structure of the benzene ring. One such image that presides over “A Memorial Tablet in Via Mazzini” is of two spheres circling one another, the two spheres being the irreconcilable entities: the city of Ferrara and Geo Josz. It’s an image that could serve beyond the particular story’s parameters for the entire Romanzo. If we see one orbiting circle as Bassani, or his various narrators, and the wall-encircled city of Ferrara as the other, we might have a simplified vision of the intricate construction and interlocking of these six books.

   The geometrical images that guided Bassani— his visual imagination likely fostered by his study of art history— highlight a significant feature of his fiction. It is an exploration not only of time lost and time preserved but of space— especially architectural and urban spaces: cemeteries, gardens, streets, porticoes, and, foremost among these, the Jewish Temple described with such virtuosity in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. But even domestic interiors in Bassani are laden with significance. The cramped basement flat in “Lida Mantovani,” “Professor” Ermanno Finzi-Contini’s crowded study, Dr. Fadigati’s surgery, with its aspirational elegance, and the storeroom in Dr. Elia Corcos’s mansion are just a few examples of the way space shapes and impinges upon the lives of his characters. Perhaps the most intriguing interior description is of the chemist’s room in “A Night in ’43”— the room from which Pino Barilari witnesses the massacre of Ferrara’s citizens by the squad of Blackshirts and which Bassani approaches with an extraordinary circuitous tact. But none of these instances serve a merely decorative purpose; they are, rather, manifestations of time, or magnetic force fields for history.

   The city walls— the “bastioni,” as Bassani often metonymically refers to them— are both literal and metaphorical, and are not only the traditional place for romantic trysts but offer views out beyond into the flat countryside of the Po Valley; they are also the site of the first real encounter between the narrator and Micòl. The city walls are topped with a broad tree-lined avenue, along which one can walk or cycle almost uninterruptedly the entire nine-kilometre circumference of the city. (And Ferrara is still one of the few Italian cities where bicycles are the main mode of transport.) One frequently mentioned site, just within the walls at the southeast of the city, is Montagnone (“the big mountain”), which is actually a small hill built from the stone left from the construction of the walls and later turned into a garden. These walls, encrusted with history, are the verdant lookouts and the protective but also imprisoning circle for the many lives that Bassani’s fiction illuminates, and there are walls within the walls— the inner walls encircle what was once the ghetto, walled in when Ferrara became one of the Papal States, which leads Bassani to describe his community as “intra muros.”

Time is not only factored into the tenses and structure of the narrative but is integral to the style and syntax. The characteristically long sentences, rich in subclauses and lengthy embedded parentheses— a translator’s challenge, or nightmare— have a way of slowing up time, which is moving toward an ineluctable and fatal conclusion, and resembles those tennis matches played in the idyllic garden of the Finzi-Continis deep into dusk when the ball becomes all but invisible yet the play continues. A more declared sense of the passage of time is perceptible in The Heron, which begins when Limentani awakens to the insistent but discreet alarm of his Jaeger clock, and continues as on almost every page he anxiously consults his Swiss Vacheron-Constantin wristwatch to check the time as it elapses. The whole story takes a day (and Bassani speculated that the experience of reading it might be of the same duration)— a day we assume to be the last day in the protagonist’s life, and so observing an inexorable Aristotelian unity. (The four sections of the novel, each comprising six chapters, amount, aptly enough, to twenty-four.) The only passage where this succession is suspended is during a midafternoon sleep, which disrupts the tedium of clock time with a bright and confusing dream time that accurately tells of the character’s psychic disturbance, the way he is utterly out of step with his times. A well-off, land-owning Jew, he has returned from Swiss exile after the defeat of Fascism to find that he is hated by his tenants and effectively estranged from his home and his Christian wife, while the ex-Fascist Bellagamba, a bullying Blackshirt, has adapted perfectly to the new regime and has set up a prospering hotel restaurant in the neighbouring small town of Codigoro.

   The actual places and factual dates— sometimes, as I’ve mentioned, the two combine on memorial plaques and monuments— are Bassani’s material, and I can think of no other writer of fiction so concerned with factuality. He claimed to be “one of the few, the very few, contemporary writers who places dates in the context of what he writes.” When Vittorio de Sica made his cinematic version of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and had the narrator’s father in the end transported to the death camps, Bassani indignantly withdrew his name from the film. That “it didn’t happen like that” would seem a strange objection from a novelist, but this gives us an idea of how significant historical veracity was to Bassani. Nevertheless— and this is where the overarching title of Romanzo needs to be kept in mind— only through the imaginative liberties he learned how to take, with the material he knew so intimately, could the novelist arrive, as he so convincingly does, at such a fierce and truthful evocation of the reality he, his community, and his city lived through. @Copyright 2018 W.W. Norton and Co.

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