It’s a weekend in 1957 and a middle-aged Italian man is enjoying a car excursion with a group of friends. On a whim, they visit some Etruscan tombs. The man, who is also our narrator, notes that the grass is “greener, thicker and darker colored than that of the plain below … proof that the eternal sirocco, which blows from across the sea, arrives up here having shed en route a great part of its salty freight.” At one point the car passes young girls out on a Sunday passeggiata. They have “laughing eyes, in which curiosity wasmingled with a bizarre pride, a barely concealed disdain.”
“How sad,” sighs a little girl in the car at the thought of the dead Etruscans. Her father, “with the tone of someone who is about to tell a fairy tale,” explains to her that the Etruscans died so long ago that “it’s as though they’d never lived, as though they were always dead.” After a moment, the girl replies: “But now that you say that…it makes me think the opposite, that the Etruscans really did live, and that I care about them just as much as about the others.”
The entire visit to the necropolis, the narrator tells us, “was infused by the extraordinary tenderness of this remark,” and it becomes the catalyst for him to tell the story of the Finzi-Continis, a wealthy, eccentric erudite Jewish family that lived in splendid isolation in the Ferrara of his youth. The patriarch of the clan had built an extravagant mausoleum in the lovely Jewish cemetery of Ferrara.
My heartstrings tightened as never before at the thought that in that tomb, established, it seemed, to guarantee the perpetual repose of its first occupant—of him, and his descendants—only one, of all the Finzi-Continis I had known and loved, had actually achieved this repose. Only Alberto had been buried there, the oldest, who died in 1942 of a lymphogranuloma, while Micòl, the daughter, born second, and their father Ermanno, and their mother Signora Olga, and Signora Regina, her ancient paralytic mother,were all deported to Germany in the autumn of 1943, and no one knows whether they have any grave at all.
This is how Giorgio Bassani ends the prologue to The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, his most acclaimed work of fiction, published in 1962. The prologue’s five pages are a distillation of his method: abrupt shifts in time and place; digressions that reveal themselves to be following a thread all along; scenes of natural, unforced vividness; and supple, complex sentences, like that final one, which as translator Jamie McKendrick says, “have a way of slowing up time.”
“The past is not dead,” Bassani once wrote. “It never dies. Although it moves further away: at every passing moment. To recover the past is thus possible. What’s required, however, if one really has the desire to recover it, is to travel down a kind of corridor which grows longer at every instant.”
Though born in Bologna in 1916, Bassani was raised in Ferrara, in the small, well-established world of the Jewish bourgeoisie that he would later depict in The Garden and his other autobiographical novels. Ferrara was so integral to Bassani’s writing that in 1974 he re-edited six of his works into a single collection under the title The Novel of Ferrara, which has been translated into English by McKendrick. It was this world that Fascism poisoned and from which the Holocaust sundered Bassani.
He would find a way back to it through his art. In The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Bassani offers his fictional Jewish family the peace denied to them in Ferrara. At times his book-memorial really does seem, through the power of its intoxicating descriptions, to overcome and collapse time. Like those Etruscan tombs, it is a place of beauty where the living can commune with the dead.
But Bassani does not shrink from the ugliness of the past either. Complicity with Fascism was widespread in Ferrara and elsewhere in the country, which is why after the war Italy never really reckoned with its crimes; why so many Fascists were able to continue their careers as high officials and politicians, and to hatch plots for decades, more or less openly, to destabilize the country and precipitate a new right-wing turn. It is also why today right-wing Italian politicians can so shamelessly invoke their own distorted version of the country’s past. Their story is that Fascism wasn’t all bad, and its many early accomplishments have been unfairly overshadowed by mistakes and excesses imposed upon Italy by the true bad guys, the Nazis. In the end, all of Italy was a pawn, a victim, maligned by history and not really responsible for what happened during the war.
Bassani’s novels document the crimes of Italian fascism, yet they refuse to reduce their vision of the past to them. Bassani’s backward glance embraces a complex personal truth, a mix of the best and worst times of his life. And the belief that the past is never actually lost undergirds the writer’s politics as well as his art. To insist that the dead are still with us, as Bassani does, is both an indictment and a consolation.
Ferrara sits on the Po River in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna. The city reached its heights in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the Este Family built a moat-encircled castle in the city center and patronized Renaissance artists such as Piero della Francesca and Michelangelo. In 1492, the Duke Ercole D’Este welcomed to the city Jews who had been exiled from Spain.
Between the two world wars, Ferrara’s population was around 100,000; the city was provincial, conservative and proud of its history. It was also a Fascist stronghold, something that did not necessarily trouble its Jewish population, most of whom, until the 1930s, were members of the Fascist party—Bassani’s own father included. That would change with the introduction of the Racial Laws in 1938. The laws decreed that Jews could not marry or employ gentiles; could not attend public schools nor teach at universities; and could not work in public administrations nor practice many professions. Jews were also barred from membership in social and sporting clubs to which their families had long belonged.
By 1939, Bassani was fully engaged in clandestine anti-Fascist activities. His years in the Resistance, he wrote, “were among the most beautiful and intense of my entire existence.” They saved him “from the desperation faced by so many Italian Jews, including my father, with the comfort of knowing I was entirely on the side of truth and justice, and above all by persuading me not to emigrate. Without those fundamental years, I don’t believe I would have ever become a writer.”
Bassani was arrested in 1943 and freed when Mussolini was overthrown later that year. He and his wife Valeria went into hiding when the Germans occupied northern Italy and restored the Duce to power, creating the puppet Republic of Salò, which lasted for nineteen months.
By the end of the war, of the seven hundred or so Jewish citizens of Ferrara, 183 had been murdered in Nazi concentration camps. Bassani’s mother, father and sister narrowly escaped being deported to Buchenwald by hiding in a closet and then fleeing the city. Many of his comrades in the anti-Fascist resistance were assassinated.
In 1943, Bassani settled in Rome, where he spent the rest of his life and had a distinguished career as a poet, novelist, editor and leading cultural figure within the Socialist party. In 1958, it was Bassani who, at Feltrinelli, chose to publish The Leopard, Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s masterpiece about the end of an aristocratic Sicilian family’s way of life in the nineteenth century. Italy’s other major publishing houses had rejected it.
Bassani himself was concerned with chronicling a disappearance of a particularly irreparable kind. His autobiographical narrator is usually a young Jewish boy from a bourgeois family, studious, self-absorbed and sensitive. He is consumed with school rivalries; exasperated by his kind and, to him, clueless parents. He lives in an elegant apartment in the center of town, near the synagogue. He goes out at all hours with male friends, visiting carnivals and brothels, discussing politics with a passion that masks his doubts. He vacations in towns on the Adriatic where much of Ferrara’s middle class seasonally congregates; he goes on long bike rides through his beloved city.
Nostalgia for the world of his youth and bitterness over its betrayal are the two strands of feeling that link Bassani to his hometown. In much of his fiction, Bassani celebrates youthful motion through the city. In The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, as the narrator prepares for a nighttime bike ride, he finds the intersection of Corso Ercole and Corso Giovecca “smooth, empty and of an almost salt-like whiteness, opened up in front me like two huge ski-tracks.” In The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, the narrator describes early morning commutes: “From the tram, which rattled along at a breakneck speed in the direction of the Customs barrier of Viale Cavour, we would hear the repeated whistle of the train, far off and out of sight. It seemed as though it was warning us: ‘Hurry up! I’m leaving!’” When you are at home somewhere, everything speaks to you.
Although Bassani left Ferrara, he could never turn his back on it. He returns often in his fiction to Ferrara’s medieval walls, which encircle the historic city, and are topped by a wide path that can be walked or biked. More than once, the narrator circles these walls on his bicycle, riding the edge of the city. Towards the end of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, he does so again:
There was a magnificent full moon: so clear and bright in the perfectly serene sky as to render the front light unnecessary. I pedalled along briskly. I kept passing new lovers stretched out on the grass. Some were half-naked, one moving on top of the others. Others, already disentangled, remained close, holding each other by the hand. Others still, embraced but motionless, seemed to sleep. Along the way I counted more than thirty couples. And though I passed so close to some of them as to almost brush them with my wheels, no one ever gave any sign of noticing my silent presence. I felt like, and was, a kind of strange driven ghost, full of both life and death, of passion and compassion.
An unnoticed presence (but who notices everything—those precisely counted lovers!); driven but empathetic, in the moment but anticipating its demise: this is the description of a writer, of course.
But walls that shelter can also divide. A wall figures prominently in the relationship between the narrator and the dazzling, endearing, unattainable Micòl Finzi-Contini. When they first meet as children she invites him to climb over the wall into her estate’s garden, which he regrets not daring to do; later, as a young man, excluded from the sport club because of the Racial Laws, he finds refuge in the estate’s grounds, playing long games of tennis and falling in love during an autumn in which the weather “remained perfect, held in that state of magical suspension.” At the end of the novel he does finally clamber, at night, into the garden, seizing his opportunity much too late—revisiting an Eden that before he had entered it for the first time was already doomed.
The Finzi-Continis are themselves outsiders: a wealthy family that lives far from the city center and the traditional Jewish quarter, nearly entombed in a palatial house and garden. They tutor their children at home, restore their own small synagogue and even speak their own family dialect, “finzi-continico.” Micòl’s father is one of the few Jews to have declined membership in the Fascist party, but the family also doesn’t mingle with other Jewish families, provoking the narrator’s father, a believer in integration and patriotism, to criticize their “aloofness and seclusion.”
The conundrum of Italian society—so communal, so defined by bonds of family and neighborhood and city—is not just the threat of being cast out but also the price of belonging, which includes the awful people one has to put up, the terrible accommodations demanded by the collective will (and often possible to accept only through cynicism, submission, denial). In The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, the narrator’s father, on vacation with his family at the beach in Riccione, must make polite conversation with the clever and malicious Signora Lavezzoli, a force to be reckoned with in Ferrara’s bourgeoisie. It is about a year before the passage of the Racial Laws, and the Signora is aware that she is speaking to a Jew troubled by the Fascist party’s rising anti-Semitism. But she insists on singing the praises of Mussolini: “so straightforward, so very human,” a devoted husband, “so wonderfully polite.”
In several of Bassani’s works, we encounter the figure of Carlo Aretusi, nicknamed Sciagura (“Catastrophe”), a Fascist Blackshirt and squad member since the earliest days, and a fixture of the central Caffèdella Borsa, where he sits surrounded by his sidekicks. His nickname is telling. It speaks of awe as much as opprobrium, a calamity that must be patiently born.
In the novella A Night in 1943, it becomes clear that it was Sciagura who led the expedition that assassinated eleven people at dawn in Ferrara on December 15, 1943, as retaliation for the assassination of a Fascist official. Yet even as the city’s middle classes are horrified by the violence, they acquiesce to it.
When, after the war, Sciagura is put on trial, he defends himself vigorously.
“I was the foot soldier of an Idea,” he kept repeating in a self-pleased way, “not the system’s hired assassin nor the servant of foreign powers!”
Or in a maudlin tone: “Everyone now speaks ill of me!”
He didn’t need to add anything more. But each time it was as though he hinted that his persecutors of today shouldn’t fool themselves that condemning him would draw a veil over what they themselves had been yesterday. Everyone of them had been just as much a Fascist as him, and no court verdict was going to wipe away that fact.
The witness to his crime happens to be someone Sciagura injured deeply in their youth, a man who one imagines might take his revenge. But the victim exonerates the bully. “I was sleeping,” he testifies. Just before he makes this statement, many in the courthouse notice that Sciagura had given him “a rapid, propitiating look. And a wink of shared understanding, an almost imperceptible wink.”
Sciagura is a scoundrel, but his behavior is easier to understand than that of his victims. His insinuation of shared culpability is not wrong. Growing up in Italy in the 1990s, I remember some schoolteachers and the fathers of friends making offhand remarks about how “at least, under Mussolini” there was no crime or no Communists in government. “Mussolini never killed anyone,” Silvio Berlusconi could say in 2003. The internal exile of political dissidents and homosexuals was a “holiday.”
Matteo Salvini is the head of the Lega Nord party, current Minister of Interior and a seemingly unstoppable force in Italian politics today. He has reprised Mussolini’s maxims—“Many enemies, much honor”—and given a speech to his supporters from the same balcony where the Duce observed the hanging of four partisans. Salvini is a baby-faced tough guy with a terrifying gift for communication. He likes to speak directly to his millions of followers through social-media videos. He talks knowingly, caustically, about all the criminals and liars invading Italy from Africa and the Middle East, while carefully avoiding any reference to Italy’s own invasions of Libya and Ethiopia in the early twentieth century, which were incredibly bloody, with hundreds of thousands of people dying from chemical weapons and in concentration camps. An aggressor who always casts himself as a victim, Salvini has engaged in several stand-offs with boats that have rescued migrants from the Mediterranean, trying to criminalize and punish such assistance.
Salvini enjoys the open support of fascist groups and movements. When asked about this, he always denies being a fascist, but he is about as eager to condemn fascism outright as Donald Trump is to denounce white nationalism. When he is put on the spot, Salvini often pivots, comparing fascism to communism as two equivalent extremes (as if we didn’t know where his sympathies lie). Anyway, he insists, it is all in the past—a distraction from the pressing threats of the present.
Like all of today’s new authoritarians, Salvini wants to wink at the country’s past but bristles at being reminded of it; he wants to invoke it but only on his own disingenuous terms. Like Sciagura, like all bullies, he dismisses the concerns of others with a shrug and a joke; he insists that he isn’t really doing all that he clearly does in plain sight.
In the novella A Memorial Tablet in Viale Mazzini, a young survivor of the camps returns to Ferrara. He is the only member of his family to have survived, yet he finds his name already affixed to a memorial tablet for the victims of the Holocaust. That Geo Josz has survived terrifies many Fascists—they are “so fearful they might unexpectedly be called to account for their actions, that when Geo Josz, too, asked no more than to live, to start living again, even in such a simple, such a basic request, they found something personally threatening.” Even those who are initially sympathetic quickly turn uneasy, impatient with the young man, who insists on wearing his tattered deportee’s uniform everywhere and recounting to anyone who sits down next to him at the cafe his final memories of his father, mother and little brother in the camps.
“So what after all did Geo Josz really want?” Bassani asks, channeling the equivocating, self-interested collective voice of the town’s middle classes:
A great many people once again began to ask, all of them in agreement that the period right after the war, which was so propitious for an examination of both the private and collective conscience, was now over, and this was a luxury that could no longer be afforded. It was the same old question, but framed with the brutal impatience that life, imperious in its demands, at this point unambiguously reasserted.
The blind, self-serving optimism of sympathetic characters can be as painful to the young Jewish narrator as the open enmity of those denouncing “Israelites.” Nino Bottechiari, the lawyer who prosecutes Sciagura, is an intellectual and scion of a leading political family. He appears in several of Bassani’s stories, portrayed at different times in his life, that is to say from strikingly different angles, which fundamentally alter our view of his character. It is a technique Bassani uses more than once, and shares with Proust.
In The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, written after but set several years before A Night in 1943, Bottechiari is one of the narrator’s friends. “It will all burst like a soap bubble in the end,” he assures the narrator, in the months leading up to the promulgation of the Racial Laws. “Oh, we Italians are too buffoonish for that,” he argues—“that” being the Nazi extermination of the Jews. In this same conversation, Bottechiari fishes for reassurance from the narrator regarding his own temptation to join the Party, to “change things from within.”
By the end of The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, the narrator feels pained by an “atrocious feeling of exclusion.” At the outset, he speaks in the voice of an amateur historian, channeling the views and conventional wisdom of the city; in the middle section he is still part of a cohort, a member of his class and generation. Later, however, he speaks only for himself, and what began as the sympathetic portrait of the homosexual Doctor Fadigati’s falling out of Ferrarese society has become a story of the narrator’s own complete alienation, most poignantly from his family. He can’t stand the way his father holds onto the belief that Mussolini will countermand the anti-Semitic campaign, the way he is “so anxious to be happy again.”
For the young narrator, that is no longer possible. “The sense of solitude that during the last two months had never left me, at that very moment became, if that were possible, even more acute: absolute and definitive. From my exile, I would never return. Never.”
And yet Bassani does. If The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles is a chronicle of growing estrangement, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is an act of reclamation. In the later novel there is very little of the bitterness one might come to expect. Instead, there’s tenderness of the sort invoked in the novel’s opening as well as humor, especially in the dialogues (which are perhaps all that falls a bit flat in McKendrick’s otherwise very good translation). To the “brutal impatience” of Fascists with the very existence of others, Bassani opposes the sympathetic, subtle patience of his fiction.
Late in the novel the narrator opens up to his father, who has been exasperating him throughout, staying up late at night to question him on his whereabouts and to try to inveigle him into conversations about life and politics. For once the young man feels no need to shield himself from his father’s delusions of authority and from his intrusive love. “While I looked at him, so white, so frail, so old, it was as if something inside me, a kind of knot, an age-old secret tangle, was rapidly unraveling.” At the end of their honest conversation, the father advises him: “In life, if you want to understand, seriously understand how things are in the world, at least once you must die. And so, given that this is the law, it’s better to die when you’re young, when you still have so much time before you in which to pick up yourself up and recover.”
I’m not sure you can recover from some deaths. I’m not as sure as Bassani that the past is always retrievable. His work seems to attest to those moments that shift and sharpen one’s perspective precisely because after them everything is truly lost: lives, youth, principles, love, one’s hometown. For this reason, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis stands out from the rest of Bassani’s novels—his earlier works are angrier and more overtly political, the later ones drier and darker. The power of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, I think, is that its regret over what has been lost is so gentle, so long-sighted, so forgiving. As the narrator recalls of his first childhood meeting with Micòl: “Above her head the sky was a compact blue, a warm already-summer sky without the slightest cloud. Nothing, it seemed, would be able to alter it, and nothing indeed has altered it, at least in memory.”
In the 1970s, when Bassani was already an acclaimed writer and a member of both the Socialist party and the country’s political-cultural elite, he appeared on a TV program with leftist students who criticized his work. It was too bourgeois for them, insufficiently anti-Fascist. Theirs was an intransigent misreading of Bassani’s hard-won generosity. He condemned Fascism not only by showing what it destroyed but also by celebrating everything that it didn’t manage to ruin. With The Novel of Ferrara, Bassani gave the city, and Italy, a gift it has shied away from: its own true history.
Photo credit: RCS Archives