Fiction in Review: The Novel of Ferrara

Marta Figlerowicz


As Giorgio Bassani (1916–2000) began writing in the late 1940s, Europe was reeling from World War II. Among those most confused and stricken by it were writers and artists, for whom the Nazis’ defeat and their gradually uncovered atrocities spelled an intellectual crisis. For many of them, those obsessed with strength, speed, and vitality, this crisis involved shame over affinities with fascism that now dishonored them. Soon after the Allied victory, Martin Heidegger was banned from teaching. Louis-Ferdinand de Celine was officially declared a “national disgrace.” Ezra Pound was caged and then institutionalized.

            Staunchly antifascist authors were perhaps even more devastated in the war’s aftermath, in spite of their moral and political victory. Art’s capacity to heal postwar Europe, or even to persist within it, came under extreme doubt. “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz,” Theodor Adorno declared in 1949, as photographs from death camps trickled into America and Western Europe. Thomas Mann’s last finished novel, Doktor Faustus, described a modernist composer’s descent into madness and damnation. Hermann Broch’s last novel, written while he was in a concentration camp, reimagined the death of the Roman poet Virgil and the tradition that he represented.        

            Amid this sense of dread, novelists of Bassani’s age tapped into their modernist forebears’ preoccupation with decadence. Bassani and his now-canonical contemporaries–Giuseppe di Lampedusa (whose Leopard Bassani himself rescued from oblivion), the Turkish writer Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, the exiled Soviet novelist and essayist Vasily Grossman, the French novelist Marguerite Yourcenar-often sound like Marcel Proust, T. S. Eliot, or Italo Svevo. Like Proust’s and Svevo’s characters or Eliot’s speakers, their protagonists are androgynous, obsessive, and enervated. Their social life is plagued with embarrassment and failure. The men and women they love don’t want them, or aren’t good for them; they leave behind few works and no progeny. Modernity itself, as they chase after its promises, seems ever more like a sham.

            These postwar characters’ main difference from the earlier figures they echo lies in the vaguely comic, unheroic quality of their downward spirals. In Proust or Eliot, the specter of cultural collapse is omnipresent, but its aftermath remains unimaginable. The early period after World War II gives rise to narratives about people who have survived its great calamity, against long odds and without clear justification for why they had been spared from among a sea of casualties. Apparently unsinkable, they are cast into a world they are not sure they wanted to see, and which they can no longer trust will hold much value. Two decades later, in the late 1960s, this postwar ennui will be channeled into a more euphoric, playful relativism. For the time being, the pervasive mood of narrative fiction is darkly ironic, pessimistic, and tired.

            In his novels, Bassani meditates on this historical context of his writing quite frequently:

Once again, in the quiet and torpor … I went over in my memory the years of my early youth, both in Ferrara and in the Jewish cemetery at the end of Via Montebello. I saw once more the large fields scattered with trees, the gravestones and trunks of columns bunched up more densely along the surrounding and dividing walls, and as if again before my eyes, the monumental tomb of the Finzi-Continis. True, it was an ugly tomb–as I’d always heard it described from my earliest childhood–but never less than imposing, and full of significance if for no other reason than the prestige of the family itself.

            And 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, whilst Micòl, the daughter, born second, and their ancient 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 a strange, mournful place from which to begin what turns out to be the story of a bittersweet infatuation with which the narrator importunes Micòl when they are teenagers. The narrator’s acquaintance with this young woman is juvenile and passing. It seems important to his budding sense of himself but merely annoying as an episode in Micòl’s life. Yet after her deportation, his becomes an unexpectedly important voice of recollection in place of the partner and family Micòl would never have, or of the economic safety nets that were supposed to at least guarantee her a known and prominent resting place. Pervaded with a sense of meaningless loss, the narrative that follows is offered as a placeholder for a life that was not allowed properly to unravel; a life whose end should not have so closely matched what the narrator also describes as the end of his own and his beloved’s pubescent immaturity.

Born in Ferrara, in northern Italy, in 1916, toward the end of World War I, Bassani belonged to an affluent Jewish family whose fortunes began to change with the rise of fascism. After becoming involved in the antifascist movement, Bassani was imprisoned in 1943 until the end of the war. His early attempts at writing–poetry as well as fiction–date to the forties. However, he did not fully hit his stride until the 1950s, when he embarked on the series of novels that made him famous: Within the Walls, The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Behind the Door, The Heron, and The Smell of Hay. All of these novels are now collected, under the shared name of The Novel of Ferrara, in a new translation by Jamie McKendrick.

            The singular Novel of this volume’s title is powerful if somewhat misleading. It suggests that the narratives collected here form a continuity; that the city of Ferrara, rather than any individual person, is its main focus and real protagonist. In effect, Bassani’s cast is heavily weighted toward one first-person narrator. The social circles amid which he travels are confined to a relatively small, middle-class stratum of the city. The novel cycle has the air of a fragmented, meandering, achronological bildungsroman in which the threat and then the aftermath of war are always ambiguously present, but its actual ravages are unmentionable. At times, the bildungsroman pauses to consider other characters whose fates capture this narrator’s imagination; but especially when one reads the sequence from beginning to end, the point of view continues to gravitate toward him. In telling this narrator’s story, the Novel proceeds backward and then forward: from vignettes of early postwar life, we move back through the narrator’s young adulthood and adolescence to his preteen years. Then we jump forward into third-person visions of despondent postwar adulthood with which he seems ambiguously to associate himself.

            Closely aligned with Bassani–especially in the middle three books, The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, and Behind the Door–this central narrator is upper-middle-class and Jewish, an aspiring intellectual and writer, who makes it through the local school system during the rise of fascism in Italy. The political situation around him is unarticulated and tense: the region seems caught between embracing the national fascist movement and holding on to familiar local hierarchies and compromises. Amid these tensions, the narrator inhabits a number of liminal positions. His family wealth puts him above the average town folk but below the refined, quasi-aristocratic milieu of the Finzi-Continis that fascinates him. His giftedness puts him in contact with budding Catholic intellectuals, but his religion also puts up partial barriers between them. Sensitive and apparently somewhat effeminate, he is drawn to local homosexual men and empathizes with them, even while remaining emphatically (if unsuccessfully) heterosexual.

            These qualities at once tie Bassani’s narrator to many communities and set him apart from all of them. They make him feel invisible to others, even as it often turns out that these others experience his presence as a burden. “Bit by bit, [you] have become unbearable,” Micòl tells him devastatingly, after he has pursued her for months with what he thought was ardor but also tact. “Did I think people would somehow not notice that she was the cause, albeit the innocent one, of all my crazy antics?” As it turns out, to the narrator’s intense embarrassment, emotional alienation does not imply expressive invisibility; in a way that the impending war will soon render horrific, outsiders tend to register to their communities as importunely excessive, even when they do their best to find and know their place.

            Such many-sided otherness and strategies of social survival within it are Bassani’s main aesthetic preoccupation. Even as this narrator frequently dreams of closer experiences of belonging, and of acting on collective behalf, for the most part he remains a passive witness of what others do or of what happens to them. He is, moreover, a witness who rarely dares to articulate his thoughts in real time: fearing lest they might definitively mark him as an outsider, solidifying social divisions that he spends so much time trying to will away. “And what if, instead, I’d spoken my mind to Luciano?” the narrator of Behind the Door wonders, staring at Luciano’s “thin, lonely back, a little reddened by the sun above his shoulder blades.” Luciano is a less affluent fellow middle schooler who used to benefit from the narrator’s help with schoolwork while calling him a spoiled bourgeois homosexual behind his back. Other rich schoolmates had arranged for the narrator to listen in on this abuse from behind the narrative’s titular door. Upon doing so, the shell-shocked narrator could no longer remain friends with Luciano, but also could not bring himself to confront him.

            Why? “Something was telling me,” he confesses, “that if Luciano Pulga might be able to accept this truth, I would not.” The “truth” the narrator cannot face is his friend’s uncensored opinion of him; but it is also, just as troublingly, the social hierarchy their friendship had seemed to temporarily equalize, a hierarchy within which the narrator must look down on Luciano and Luciano must resent him. The silence he keeps before this open secret bears out both the narrator’s idealism and his quietism. It helps explain, with bitter self-incrimination, how much his fracturing world pained him and by what means he might have managed to outlive so many of its other inhabitants.

            The Novel of Ferrara is at its best in exploring such experiences of bending to social pressure. It also highlights the violence with which communities defend their norms against anyone who wittingly or unwittingly challenges them. In The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, the narrator observes an aging homosexual doctor, Athos Fadigati, whom his neighbors accept while he remains closeted but whom they then condemn and drive to suicide after he openly takes a young male lover. The Heron is told from the perspective of a middle-aged man who struggles to admit to himself how little he cares for the life he has settled into, amid friends and acquaintances in whose interest it is to keep his unappealing life going. Within the Walls depicts suspicious locals–some of whom, at least, must have been fascist collaborators–who refuse to welcome back the neighbors who had been sent off to prisons and concentration camps.

Having been present in silence when the sixteen-year-old survivor made a display of his hands, he immediately made his way through the small crowd to kiss him noisily on the cheeks, the latter, however, with his hands and forearms still nakedly extended before him, merely exclaimed in a noticeably cold tone, “With that ridiculous little beard, my dear Uncle Daniele, I didn’t recognize you.” A phrase which should have been at once considered very telling indeed. And not only about his identity.

Clinically precise about the residents’ mixture of politeness and distance, Bassani shows how easily these words of welcome will turn into hostility. They rapidly might be able to re-eject these survivors from their communities, which will be almost successful in convincing themselves that these survivors have decided to leave on their own. The moral distaste the narrator expresses is directed not at individuals but at nameless “crowds” and what people become within them. His novels’ pessimistic climaxes tend to come when such a crowd gathers around a scapegoat, insisting on its inner unity and separateness from him.

            Frequently fearful of becoming such a scapegoat, Bassani’s narrator is not an existentialist hero pulling himself up from his corrupt world by the bootstraps. With distinct melancholy, he suggests that his survival of the war–unvictimized and relatively guilt-free–might hinge on social contingencies at least as much as on the inner force of his character. “A conscience is not something you invent,” he comments in the last of the narratives collected in the Novel. “If it’s there, it’s there. If it isn’t, one can’t just make it up.” How one comes by such a firm moral sense–by education, social training, or accidents of birth–remains, within Bassani’s novels, an open question, and one on which most people, the narrator included, would prefer not to be tested.

            Throughout, Bassani’s narratives are also riddled with broader mimetic doubts about their own capacity to make sense of the history his characters live through. Dancing around the horrors of the war but always remaining merely at their doorstep–in the lead-up to the war, or its immediate aftermath–his narrator marvels equally at how inevitable and how unimaginable its violence seems. At times, the stance he takes appears to mirror Hannah Arendt’s roughly contemporaneous Eichmann in Jerusalem. Bassani shows how easily good bourgeois and bureaucratic principles breed moral quietism and a passive acceptance of authority. Middle-class rules of social politeness fade into fascist norms of social purity and then fade back into liberalism, with a logic that is almost boringly continuous. At other times, the war looms over the narrator as a fracture in his everyday existence that he cannot make any sense of. Unspeakable and incomprehensible, it can only be assimilated to what he knows of the people around him in forced and unconvincing ways. The narrator’s refusal to talk about this period–preferring, instead, to treat it as an abyss within which the world he knew was put on hold and perhaps simply ended–reinforces this second mimetic tendency. It counters the Novel’s occasional suggestions of the inevitability of Ferrara’s moral downfall with an insistence on how little its inhabitants, the narrator included, were prepared for the dilemmas and choices suddenly placed before them.

            Out of this rhetorical ambivalence, Bassani’s work forges paradoxical ties between a capacity to empathize with persecuted others and a willingness to be honest about the contingency and incomplete knowability of one’s moral compass. We never make our moral choices in solitude, Bassani insists. From these choices’ never quite rational, unpredictable entanglement with the choices, feelings, and lives of other people come both our social strengths and our collective weaknesses. As the communities he depicts occasionally rally to a sense of solidarity with their margins–but mostly fall into the violent excesses of mob rule and prejudice–he depicts these sudden contingencies as the condition within which our moral decisions always end up taking place, no matter how much we might also theorize about our values outside them. As a mirror held up to Bassani’s generation, The Novel of Ferrara embodies a cautious optimism about how much this generation–and the ones to follow–might learn from its forebears’ mistakes. In its clear-eyed realism about the limits to such learning, as well as in the empathy with which it insists on pursuing it, Bassani’s Novel is a remarkable achievement.

The Novel of Ferrara, by Giorgio Bassani, translated by Jamie McKendrick (Norton, 800 pp., $39.95)

MARTA FIGLEROWICZ is author of Flat Protagonists: A Theory of Novel Character (Oxford) and Spaces of Feeling: Affect and Awareness in Modernist Literature (Cornell). She writes literary and cultural criticism for publications such as n+1, Jacobin, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Post45 (Contemporaries), MAKE Literary Magazine, and Boston Review. She teaches in the department of comparative literature at Yale.