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Giorgio Bassani

Giorgio Bassani Essay - Critical Essays

Bassani, Giorgio

Bassani, Giorgio 1916–

Bassani is an Italian novelist, short story writer, poet, and critic. He writes in a subtle, controlled style about alienation, loss of innocence, and brutality hidden behind a guise of respectability. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is a striking example of his lyrical prose and of his most vital themes. Depicting the lives of a Jewish-Italian family during the 1930s in Ferrara, Bassani's childhood home, the novel became popular with the release of Vittorio De Sica's film version. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)

The best in Italian literature, particularly that of the twentieth century, tends to be regional rather than national in character. Sometimes against a particular background, at a precise moment in time, something universal is enacted by one individual, or by a group bound together by the events of that moment. When the background is authentic, when it has life and colour and the event is a commonplace of everyday life recorded with art, when the people are recognisable, then the story, however restricted the setting, has a more than limited significance. So it is with Bassani's novel [The Garden of Finzi-Continis].

Bassani writes of Ferrara, and its Jewish community, as Faulkner and Tennessee Williams write of the Deep South, or more truly, since he has a strongly poetic streak, a tendency to linger on and repeat certain words, a feeling for the trees and the stones of his birthplace, as Robert Frost writes of New England. Within the cadre of Ferrara, then, Bassani leaves history simply to exist and trains his lens on one small unit and on one family within that unit of Ferrarese society during the years immediately preceding the second world war—a Jewish family of the haute bourgeoisie called Finzi-Contini. Within that family, apparently secure and proud in their almost aristocratic isolation, misunderstood and misjudged for this even by some of their co-religionists, Bassani summarises the mystery and tragedy surrounding each human being in his portrayal of the heroine, Micòl. (pp. 64-5)

Without the underlying sense of tragedy, and the serious social criticism (which is never laboured, but speaks for itself), this book might remain part of a vast literature of nostalgia; a series of reminiscences, an idyll of childhood, adolescence and early manhood. The pace is unhurried, especially in the beginning, as if the author—appropriately enough—were wandering in a garden now overgrown, but once familiar. Bassani captures very well that sense of unlimited time that stretches before the mind of a child. The big events and personalities in that lost world are highlighted like a holiday: school triumphs and disappointments, the maths mistress who prayed for the conversion of the Finzi-Contini, the benign master who dreamed of being able to see and use, for a work that would make him famous, some unpublished letters of Carducci which were kept in the great house, the old coachman-chauffeur and general factotum Perotti, who maintained the family coach in gleaming good order long after it had been replaced by a motor-car.

Later, when the Fascist race laws are being enforced, and Jews are banned from the clubs, when there are examinations to be studied for in between the tennis parties, friendships thrive in a hothouse atmosphere and it seems for a while, that such vigour and effort, such consolidation—on the tennis court in the garden of the Finzi-Contini, the outcast minorities, not only the Jewish minority, congregate—might keep at bay the forces gradually closing in. The young people, the friends of Alberto and Micòl, are aware of their own problems and of those of the outside world which forces them to remain isolated. They discuss and argue with the energy and enthusiasm of young people anywhere. What moves one, is their courage and their optimism; the fact that they are more flippant than bitter in the face of evil.

The story is beautifully and simply told: there is no outright condemnation, no mawkish sentimentality or conscious seeking after pity. It is at once an epilogue and a pilgrimage into the past, a record of childhood and the painful evolution of child to adult accelerated by the swift events immediately prior to the war. It is also a commentary on the state of affairs in Italy and throughout Europe that not only led up to and permitted the worst excesses of Fascism (among them the extermination of six million Jews) but apparently allowed people to forget that holocaust so quickly afterwards. Not least, it is a fine love story in which the individuals are left to speak for themselves. There is no attempt at any arbitrary character analysis. Life is a mystery, and love too, and so are people. There is no certain answer, only conjectures and memories. The character of Micòl, beautiful and full of joy, around whom the story revolves, symbolises this mystery.

Many questions are indirectly posed in this novel, and they have to be answered personally; one doesn't have to be a Jew or an Italian for the story to have relevance and poignancy. Questions themselves vary according to the reader. The isolated, the uncommitted—even if they are uncommitted through no fault of their own—shall not be allowed to live in peace. (pp. 66-8)

Elizabeth de Charmant, "Bassani 'Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini,'" in European Patterns: Contemporary Patterns in European Writing, edited by T. B. Harward (© The Dolmen Press 1964), Dolmen Press, 1964, pp. 64-8.

Quite soon in "The Heron" you will recall the brilliant opening scenes in "Across the River and Into the Trees." In Hemingway's novel the boats moved slowly in the Venetian lagoon, the beat-up colonel took aim at the ducks and hunting became an occasion for personal fulfillment. As the middle-aged protagonist in Giorgio Bassani's new novel sits along one of the branches of the Po not far from Venice, the duck-blind becomes a symbol of his personal futility. Observing two artists at work in the same landscape, one creating from the outside in and the other from the inside out, you rediscover the infinite human possibilities that only the novelist can convey.

Because of the churning self-doubts of middle age that flow through the lifestream of this exquisite short novel, you may perhaps recall Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice," too. Reading that novella written over a half-century ago for echoes of character and style in "The Heron," there is an awareness that melancholy about one man's sexual identity plays a role in both stories….

"The Heron" creates one day in the slipping life of Edgardo Limentani, a man of forty-five who is "dead inside."… [The] sounds of outside political forces are distant in the novel. The disappointments are built up by an accretion of domestic incidents that reveal Limentani as a victim of a loveless marriage…. The author conveys the personal problem indirectly—Bassani is an architect of indirection—by describing the sequence of bedrooms in their apartment: his mother, his young child and his wife rank this way in importance to him….

Readers unfamiliar with Bassani's writing might well start with "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" to deepen their understanding of "The Heron." The new novel is a complete work in itself…. From his boyhood Ferrara and the families he knew, Bassani has carved out a corner of Italy that rises above regionalism with fiction that can stand alongside the most lingering written in Europe today. (p. 39)

Herbert Mitgang, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 12, 1970.

[The] hero of The Heron [is] artistically dead and deadly…. Bassani offers something so softly vulnerable to parody as almost to tempt one's kindness. Just as the poor heron itself, flapping with ungainly sadness, fraught with significance, is too open a target for the lugubrious hero Edgardo to shoot at, so The Heron in its ungainly sadness and fraught significance makes its appeal, not altogether scrupulously.

But the heron gets shot, and Edgardo needless to say goes in for a characteristically morose and constipated (that too is literal) act of self-identification…. (pp. 39-40)

Poor old Edgardo so luxuriates in his humiliations, real and imagined, that one wants old-fashionedly to shake him. He spends most of his novel trying to rouse himself, being late, yawning, looking at his watch, groaning….

The Heron only looks distinguished, and it doesn't manage more than a quivering "Nothing, any longer, appeared real to him." But a novelist had better first be justifiably confident that it will all be real to us; otherwise the distinction evaporates. "You had only to look at the affairs of life from a certain distance to conclude that they were worth, all of them, only what they were worth: namely nothing, or almost nothing." All very well for Edgardo, but his creator hasn't grounds enough for believing that "the affairs of life" are indeed present in his attenuated fictional preciosity. Bassani's favorite poetic locution is "as if" ("as if he were seeing it for the first time"); fifty times he deploys it, in company with an insistence on how strange, odd, mysterious, and absurd everything seemed; and it all just lies there. Yet all this hypersensitivity, radiated from Edgardo's every pore, is apparently asking our respect, and even, it seems, our interest. (p. 40)

Christopher Ricks, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1970 NYREV, Inc.), April 23, 1970.

Anyone who has been in Italy on the first day of the shooting season will recognise the experience of deep-rooted disgust on which Giorgio Bassani's The Heron rests. The mad blood-lust of the Italian hunter is unparalleled: no sparrow or tit could be so insignificant as to escape his attentions….

Of course the hunting expedition that commands our attention in The Heron is a less enthusiastic affair. The central character [Limentani] is from the very start of the day somewhat alienated from the pursuit of this sport…. There is also a lack of the hideous male preening and display which characterises most of such expeditions, though this is all cleverly and economically suggested in the scene at the small-town hotel catering for the rich businessmen down from Milan. But throughout the description the ritual and class elements of the enterprise are accurately underlined and this gives the book its chief strength and interest. For this is not simply a symbolic novel: it probes deeply into the political and social conditions in the Italy of the immediate post-war era….

It is not simply a question of Limentani's attitude to hunting, but rather of the realisation of his personal achievement up to now and his consciousness of his historical role. Both the booty as it begins to mount up and the uselessly wounded heron as it dies provide a point of reference for his examination of his past and an image of his personal crisis….

Finally what we learn about the hero's past friendships and subsequent estrangements work together with the account of his love life to complete the picture: the shooting scene is clearly also to be seen as a test of sexual prowess…. Bassani's book is well worth reading both as a novel about personal crisis and as a political and social analysis. (p. 28)

James Fenton, in New Statesman (© 1970 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), July 10, 1970.

Behind the Door … corrects some possible misconceptions of [Bassani's] talent. [His] best-known work, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, aspired to portray an aristocratic Jewish family in Ferrara during the years before 1943…. These events lent the book an ominousness sweetened by an elegiac quality, for the narrator, his own family undistinguished, had somehow survived, and after the war could look back upon the Finzi-Continis with a desire to preserve at least his memories from the general destruction.

But in fact the family chronicle in the book was rather discursive. Much of the narrative was an attempt to represent the Finzi-Continis as archetypal, yet it was overloaded with details that seemed to go nowhere….

One of Bassani's Five Stories of Ferrara may serve as paradigm for his novels. In this the main character, a doctor, is brought because of certain incidents to see the people around him in a peculiarly undeceived way. The experience happens quite suddenly. At a similar moment in his other books, the central characters are likely to attain sudden realization of what up to now they have misunderstood. The doubletake is Bassani's basic fictional maneuver….

In Bassani to see at all is usually to see too much. The truth in his novels is painful and mortifying. In The Heron, Bassani has written a Ferrarese version of Lampedusa's The Leopard, a book which as a publisher's reader he discovered, and which has had a considerable influence on him. Here there is a literal mortification. In its first pages, this novel might seem to belong more to the Hemingway tradition; its unnerved hero is off for a day's hunting, which in Hemingway would herald regeneration through the ritual of bird-killing. But Bassani's hunter quickly disavows this resemblance. He cannot bring himself to shoot…. Bassani's strength is less in the symbolism, which does not escape a slight portentousness, than in the particular incidents of disgust.

Behind the Door returns to the period of adolescence, where Bassani is most convincing. His best book, it presents innocence on its way to being corrupted. The central character is a Jewish sixteen-year-old, anxious for that esteem of his fellows which alone can bring him esteem for himself. He is emulous of the best student, Cattolica, who is not only a Catholic, but is also well-heeled and self-possessed. Yet an alliance forms between the hero and a new boy, Luciano Pulga, also desperate to find a place for himself but much tougher. Pulga ingratiates himself by sycophancy, by malicious gossip, and by a knowledge of sexual mysteries undreamed of by his friend. The hero feels that the association is somehow degrading, but there is no shaking Pulga off, and he even develops a kind of loyalty to the new boy.

Then Cattolica unbends enough to indicate that Pulga is carrying tales about the unnamed hero. A scene is arranged so that Pulga will repeat his slanders, not knowing that their victim is listening behind the door. It is to conclude with his being beaten. But Pulga proves surprisingly eloquent, and while what he says about the homosexuality of the hero and the sexual promiscuity of the hero's mother is not true, it has a plausibility. Instead of confronting Pulga and having it out with him, the hero slips out the back door….

The besmirching images are not easily dismissed, and in his new awkwardness with his mother, whom he too now begins to see for the first time as a sexual being, he cannot keep from scorning his family a little through the other boy's eyes…. Childhood is over, but innocence leads not to experience but only to a warped innocence. All this Bassani manages not to spoil.

Richard Ellmann, "Warped Innocence," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1973 NYREV, Inc.), November 15, 1973, p. 23.

[The Smell of Hay, a] beautiful and lacerating collection of stories by the author of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is set, as was that novel, in Fascist Italy and is peopled by the citizens of Ferrara. Its classical restraint and evocative power confirm what Bassani's earlier works have already made abundantly clear: he is a writer of rare powers, both as a novelist in the old tradition, committed to settings, ambience, and the idiosyncrasy of character, and as a modern with a taste for the ironic thrust. No other novelist in recent memory has better succeeded in conveying the growing encroachment of political climate on the nerves and bones of protagonists and in making the invisible palpable…. There are reminiscences of other sorts here as well—elegiac, sharp-honed sketches of Ferrarese citizens who loved, married, begot children, and disappeared, having left their indelible traces on a portion of the earth. A literary event. (p. 39)

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in Saturday Review (© 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), September 20, 1975.

In his relaxed but fastidious manner, Bassani [in The Smell of Hay] evokes the vulnerabilities, fears and self-deceit of the Jewish community in Ferrara during the fascist period and immediately after—the terrain he mapped out so memorably in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. He is subtle, leisurely and cool-minded on a subject from which we expect less comfortable writing. In a sense it is a cruel technique, but it is punishingly effective. It is like looking at family snapshots of victims taken when everything was ordinary, before. You find yourself waiting, looking for suggestions to remind you of the horrors lurking in the characters' future which you know to be there: they even seem to be looking for that knowledge themselves. That, I think, is the point. They cannot recognise the symbolic figure Bassani puts among them, that of Dr Fadigati. Once a highly respected physician, his homosexuality becomes known and he is faced with ostracism, cruelty and scandal. His dilemmas and possible suicide mirror the self-subdued, almost satisfied disorientation of Ferrara's Jews in a fascist society. The other stories are good, too: Bassani elicits people, time and place in such a scrupulous but easy way you almost forget he is 'writing about' people, time and place. (p. 654)

Douglas Dunn, in New Statesman (© 1976 The Statesmen & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), May 14, 1976.

Giorgio Bassani has a lovely way of moving. His boyish self slides through this collection of autobiographical tales [The Smell of Hay] like a ghostly blade through phantom butter, precise and incorporeal, for while Bassani's memory serves him well, and his pastel pen even better, and his morbid sense of history repeating itself—for him Italian Jewish history—gives the most distinct tone of all, that of menace, a world war and the collapse of European culture separate us completely from these living scenes in their diseased sunlight. Many people will of course remember the 'thirties very clearly and those who do will find a book like this conducive in fact to extreme melancholy, with its regret for lost youth, blighted hopes, delicate depravities and overall atmosphere of waving-off loved ones on steam trains never to see them again, that its net impact is disproportionate to the casual intimacy of its separate parts….

Bassani's fantastic ability to wring tears from a stone, make a petticoat weep, amounts almost to an act of sorcery. It is the detached thoughtfulness of his approach, quite apart from his obvious skills, which is so affecting, the way in which he places himself, between the reader and the events described, as a haunted man. You feel like propping him up in bed with a big brandy, dislodging the photograph album caught so unhappily on his nerve endings, and explaining the horrors of the future in great detail, to draw off some of the dreamy weight….

Unlike American Jewish writers who were never persecuted on their own soil and feel guilty about that, Mr Bassani's intonation is not vainglorious, holocaustal; he is not obsessed by phoenix imagery. His response runs beyond anger and into self-reasoning. In 'The Gold-Rimmed Eyeglasses' which takes up well over half of [The Smell of Hay] he reminds himself of the town doctor whose affair with a tough local apollo leads to social and then physical death. The story resembles Death in Venice in many ways but its vigour is much more modern, its compass wider. Bassani is hardly sentimental and never preaches, allowing the reader to size up obvious parallels between his doctor and the fate of Jews later, satisfied by quoting his father's speculation on the likelihood of anti-Jewish legislation to remind one of the exact circumstances. (p. 23)

Duncan Fallowell, "Gone," in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), May 22, 1976, p. 23.