The Novel of Ferrara

Giorgio Bassani, trans. from the Italian by Jamie McKendrick. Norton, $39.95 (800p) ISBN 978-0-393-08015-5
This momentous volume from Bassani (1916–2000), set during, before, and after WWII, is not quite a novel: it’s built from four short novels (the most famous is The Garden of the Finzi-Continis) as well as a story collection (Within the Walls), and a series of short stories that were initially published separately (The Smell of Hay). It all hangs together, though bound less by plot or characters than by focus, milieu, time period, and atmosphere. All are set in and around the Jewish community of the northeastern Italian city of Ferrara. All are suffused with grief, dread, and a desperate ambivalence, as the characters try to work out whether war is coming; how to respond to the 1938 racial laws that stripped Jews of their civil rights; and, later, whether post-war life in fascist hotbed Ferrara is possible. Bassani masterfully conveys a creeping moral rot—in the story “A Memorial Tablet in Via Mazzini,” the sole surviving deportee returns after the war and becomes a scandal of reminder; in the novella “The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles,” the town’s beloved doctor, a homosexual, is driven to suicide. In “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” the town’s richest Jews, the Finzi-Continis, abandon public life, while the narrator is tormented by his crush on their daughter; the protagonist of the novel The Heron spends a lugubrious day hunting, beset by worries. Many of the characters evade the Nazi death machine, but all feel their separateness and powerlessness (despite being middle- or upper-class), along with the failure of their neighbors not just to save them, but to admit their complicity. Bassani uses his intimate knowledge of Ferrara to build a memorial composed of equal parts grief, affection, frustration, and muted but palpable fury. (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 08/27/2018
Release date: 10/16/2018
Genre: Fiction
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