The chronicler of Ferrara
By MIKA ROSS-SOUTHALL
“I write about that time . . . only in the hope of understanding and of making others understand.” So ends the opening paragraph of Giorgio Bassani’s novel Dietro la porta (1964; Behind the Door). The narrator, in the depths of despair, speaks of a “secret wound bleeding” – a brief childhood betrayal that’s seared in to his memory and has made the ensuing decades of his life “useless”.
“It’s a powerful reminder”, said the novelist Paul Bailey last night at a Royal Society of Literature talk to celebrate Bassani, “how certain moments, even if trivial, can haunt you.” And this is what the Italian writer does best. Narratives in Bassani’s work are often barely there; it’s the relationships between the characters and his imagery that take centre stage. In the TLS of April 16, 1964, Margaret Bottrall wrote of Bassani's “elegiac feeling for those who suffer . . . [his] prose has always been meditative and lyrical, and his characteristic atmosphere that of twilight”.
We heard snippets of Bassani’s writing in the original Italian followed by their English translations from the poet Jamie McKendrick (who is currently translating Bassani’s collected works, Il romanzo di Ferrara, for Penguin Modern Classics). McKendrick began the discussion, which was chaired by Peter Parker, with one of Bassani’s early poems, “Verso Ferrara” (“Towards Ferrara”). Striking images (“lingering red on city towers”, “bare wood benches”, “fingers of laced lovers”) were the result, Bassani wrote in a postscript, of a train journey to Ferrara (where he grew up) viewed from a third-class compartment. An image of students going back and forth on the same train opens Bassani's book Gli occhiali d'oro (1958; The Gold-rimmed Spectacles). “Here autobiography and fiction overlap”, said Bailey. “Bassani’s books precede what we now call ‘faction’.”
In an interview, Bassani confessed to being a laborious writer obsessed with accuracy. He would write and rewrite every page “with the intention to tell the truth, the whole truth”. But his precise typography of streets, the locations of brothels, the names of cafés and obscure Italian political parties (which now require footnotes) goes beyond historical documentation because he adds his own experience – of Ferrara, and, in particular, of the city’s Jewish community and what happened to it after Mussolini’s Racial Laws were introduced in 1938. As a young Jew during this period, he encountered the social ostracization, fear and confusion that he describes so effectively in his books.
There’s a similarity in Gli occhiali d'oro between the exclusion of the Jews and of the homosexual Dr Fadigati, the novel's protagonist and victim. The crucial difference in this book – McKendrick argued – is that the Jews were initially accepted by society and suddenly found themselves pushed out. But it’s when the community discover Dr Fadigati’s “secret” (his homosexuality) that they decide to isolate him. In one dynamic scene, McKendrick recalled, a mongrel dog follows Dr Fadigati around the streets of the city. They pass a brothel, overhearing a seedy conversation, and witness a Fascist group of kids urinate against a wall, before a mist descends and obscures the view. “There’s a sense that Ferrara is a hellish city of predation”, McKendrick said. The parallel of the treatment of homosexuals and Jews emerges through the author’s intricate subtleties.
“He doesn’t tell you about history. He shows it to you through individual, ordinary lives with a lightness of touch”, continued Bailey. McKendrick, however, pointed out that the description of the synagogue in Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini (1962; The Garden of the Finzi-Continis – Bassani’s most famous novel, which was adapted into a film in 1970 directed by Vittorio de Sica and starring Dominique Sander and Helmut Berger) is a tremendous piece of architectural writing, “like a guide book”. Members of the audience quickly debated whether the Finzi-Contini’s extensive garden exists in real-life Ferrara. One woman claimed it did and that she’d found the wall on which the narrator rests his bicycle; whereas some preferred to think of it as an imaginative amalgamation of gardens.
Parker finished by describing Bassani’s writing style as cinematic. Long sentences (lots of parenthesis, asides and qualifications), pauses and a “detached sympathy”, he argued, show a peculiar respect for the privacy of his characters, as if they’re autonomous. Bassani’s writing is Proustian in flavour but instead of “worrying away at his characters like a terrier, [he] dangles them in the air, doesn’t tie up the ends, leaves spaces”. Perhaps it was his fondness for long cycle rides, to urge on and put off writing, that shaped his work.