An Italian poet, critic, and editor, Bassani is best known for his novels and short stories set in Ferrara, his childhood home. Within the confines of Ferrara, the protagonist typically searches for self-discovery amid various types of prejudice. In the novella Gli occhiali d’oro (1958; The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, 1960; also as The Gold-Rimmed Eyeglasses, 1975), the prejudice is directed against the once-respected physician Dr. Fadigati, whose homosexuality, when revealed, drives him to suicide. The novel Dietro la porta (1964; Behind the Door, 1972) depicts the corruption of a sixteen-year-old Jewish boy who seeks acceptance from his Catholic schoolmates. L’airone (1968; The Heron, 1970) employs a middle-aged protagonist whose hunting expedition becomes a symbolic journey through the political and social conditions of postwar Italy.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which continues the theme of the ostracism of the outsider, is Bassani’s most popular work. It is also his most critically acclaimed novel, having been awarded the Viareggio Prize in 1962. In 1970, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis was adapted for the screen by the highly respected film director Vittorio De Sica and cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri.
Bassani’s fiction is distinguished above all by its realistic treatment of self-discovery. Understanding in Bassani’s Ferrara, as in real life, often does not pave the way to happiness. Further, self-discovery seldom leads to an understanding of the actions of others, even when those actions are particularly vicious. What makes this point palpable and even intriguing is Bassani’s narrative technique, in which the story is not told directly but is filtered through memory. Memory reshapes experience as one forgets important events and overemphasizes ordinary ones. The result is not fact but essence. This technique is reinforced by Bassani’s classical, restrained prose style.