The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is an elegy about the Finzi-Continis, Ferrara’s richest Jewish family, all of whom died soon after their deportation to Germany in 1943. As seen through the eyes of the narrator, a middle-class Jewish boy, the exclusive Finzi-Continis are the source of much wonder. He is fascinated by their possessions—from their imposing but tasteless family tomb to their stately, ornate carriage and their gloomy, neo-Gothic mansion surrounded by a huge park. He is even more fascinated by the Finzi-Contini children, who are tutored at home instead of attending the Jewish primary school and state high school and who speak in accents like those of no one else. On the other hand, the Finzi-Continis’ self-imposed isolation disgusts the narrator’s father, especially when the family withdraws from the Jewish community by ceasing to worship in the thriving Italian synagogue and by beginning to worship in the tiny Spanish synagogue which had not been used for more than three hundred years. The narrator’s father charges that the Finzi-Continis are guilty of an “aristocratic-type anti-semitism.”
In part 1, the novel traces the history of the Finzi-Contini family from the patriarch, Moise Finzi-Contini, who amassed the huge family fortune, to Moise’s great-grandchildren, who prove to be the end of the Finzi-Contini line. Part 2 begins in October, 1938, two months after the imposition of the first of what was to become a series of racial laws which forbade, among other things, Jews from marrying Gentiles and from employing Gentiles as servants. One result of the racial laws is that all the Jews are forced to resign from Eleonora d’Este, a private tennis club, when a mixed doubles team consisting of a Gentile woman and a Jewish man appear to be winning the club’s doubles championship. As a result, Alberto and Micol Finzi-Contini, who are in their early twenties, invite the ostracized club members to play on the private Finzi-Contini...
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Giorgio Bassani's reputation in Britain has been overshadowed by that of Italo Calvino and, latterly, Umberto Eco. This is a state of literary injustice that ought to be rectified, for the very simple reason that Bassani is one of the great novelists of the last century. He abandoned novel-writing in the 1970s, when he was in his late 50s, to revise his six published works, which reappeared in Italy in 1974 under the collective title Il romanzo di Ferrara (The Novel of Ferrara). He wanted to be read as one reads Proust, with whom he has often been compared. It is virtually impossible to read him in that way in English, since most of his books are out of print.
Since Bassani's death five years ago - in his last decade he was afflicted by the twin horrors of Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's - the comparison with Proust seems even more justified. With the single exception of L'airone (The Heron), the setting of the novels and stories is Ferrara in the 1920s, 30s and early 40s. Although he was born in Bologna in 1916, he grew up in Ferrara, which then had a large Jewish community. Like the Turin Primo Levi knew in his youth, Ferrara was a city without a ghetto. Jews were not noticeable as outsiders; as people from, and with, an alien culture. They were Italians, and accepted as such. But then something began to happen almost imperceptibly at first, that was to break the existing order, the product of three centuries of integration. That something is there, a disturbing and threatening presence, in the exquisitely crafted works he produced in his creative heyday.
Primo Levi recalls in The Periodic Table how he suddenly found himself a second-class citizen with the imposition of Mussolini's racial laws in 1938. It should not be forgotten that, prior to the Duce's liaison with Hitler, many northern Italian Jews had supported the man who had promised to unite Italy. Those laws, and the sinister consequences that soon followed, are at the very centre of Bassani's fiction, most notably in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, in which wealth and privilege become meaningless in a matter of weeks. The Finzi-Continis have a grand house with a huge garden, complete with tennis court, and before 1938 an honoured place in society, but these advantages are as naught when fascism hits its terrible stride.
Just as Proust's all-seeing Marcel rarely reveals his identity, so Bassani's narrator chooses not to tell us his name. It is perfectly clear who he is, however. Bassani is confronting his younger self, reliving the past in a manner untainted by nostalgia. The prevailing tone could be described accurately as elegiac, since what he is composing, in paragraph after elegant paragraph, is nothing less than an elegy for a vanished culture and the vanished human beings who sustained it. Bassani was fond of an entry in Henry James's Notebooks: "Why does my pen not drop from my hand on approaching the infinite pity and tragedy of all the past? It does, poor helpless pen, with what it meets of the ineffable, what it meets of the cold Medusa-face of life, of all the life lived, on every side." Bassani's story-teller is conscious throughout of his "poor helpless pen" and the inadequacy of his efforts to confront the "cold Medusa-face", and it's that state of frustration that gives the narrative its tension.
My own abiding favourite of Bassani's six books is the one that now constitutes Volume Two of The Novel of Ferrara. The Italian title is Gli occhiali d'oro and it has been translated into English twice - by Isabel Quigly as The Gold-rimmed Spectacles and by William Weaver as The Gold rimmed Eyeglasses. Quigly's translation is the better of the two, even though it has been unavailable for a long time. It sounds properly European, whereas Weaver uses Americanisms such as "faggot" and "roommate", which seem oddly out of place in 1930s Ferrara. It is a short novel, running to little more than 100 pages, but it has the resonance usually found in a work on a grander scale. It tells parallel stories, without the slightest suggestion of contrivance. The narrator is the same sensitive youth who visited the garden of the Finzi-Contini family. He is remembering a certain Dr Athos Fadigati, a successful ear, nose and throat specialist with a practice on Ferrara's smart Via Gorgadello. He is the owner of the expensive spectacles. Fadigati has come to the city from Venice, but no one knows quite why. The doctor is portly and immaculately dressed. Everyone notices him in his bowler hat and yellow gloves as he takes his evening stroll along Via Mazzini. Yet his rich clients are embarrassed when they see him in the cinema sitting among the teppa popolare (the rabble) instead of the élite, like themselves, who favour the balcony seats. They do not understand why this cultivated man, who employs a successon of pretty nurses, has never married. He is, after all, middle aged.
With the utmost literary tact, Bassani sets the rumours starting. Is it possible that the fashionable Dr Fadigati is not interested in women as a man ought to be? The narrator and his fellow students observe him keeping male company - with a doorman named Trapolini; with a retired footballer, and with men who are his social inferiors. It is another student, the handsome Eraldo Deliliers, who blurts out the truth - that the doctor is a finocchio ("pansy" in the Quigly version).
Deliliers, it is revealed, is the doctor's paid lover. His brutish behaviour wounds Fadigati and drives him to suicide. In the weeks before the doctor takes his life, he and the boy who will tell his sad story become friends. They are both outsiders, for the youth is now aware that he is Jewish and therefore not wanted in the circles that once favoured him and his prosperous family. The scenes between the doctor and the sensitive student are written with a rare delicacy, with the pair of them reining in feelings that might otherwise explode. Fadigati's death is accounted for with extraordinary understatement. It is recorded in the newspaper "at the bottom of the left-hand page" as an accident. "No one was allowed to do away with himself in those years, not even disgraced old men, with no further reason to stay on in the world."
Behind the Door (Dietro la porta), now Volume Four, goes farther back in time, before "those years". The unnamed chronicler is a schoolboy, in awe of a clever pupil called Cattolica, who is not modest about his scholastic achievements. A course-grained boy, Luciano Pulga, from a lower-class background, comes to study at the exclusive liceo, and is the butt of the other boys' cruel gibes. Luciano is thick-skinned and attempts to impress his persecutors with boasts about his sexual knowledge, among other things. Once again, the book is short and contained and resonant. The "door" of the title is there for the novelist manqué to hide behind. He cannot 'fling it open' and express generous feelings. The narrative positively aches with regret.
It is thanks to Bassani that Lampedusa's imperishable The Leopard came to be published. He was the chief editor at Feltrinelli when the manuscript turned up in his office unannounced. Its author was already dead. Bassani worked on the text with Lampedusa's widow and the rest is satisfying literary history. It is time, long overdue, for Bassani's six-volume masterwork to appear in Britain in the shape and form, and with all the revisions, he chose for its appearance as a complete novel of Ferrara in 1974. The city and its people are immortalised in its luminous pages.
· Paul Bailey's A Dog's Life is published by Penguin.
· The Garden of the Finzi Continis is published by Quartet books.