Giorgio Bassani

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Although Giorgio Bassani (bah-SAH-nee) began writing in Italy in the mid-1940’s, his international reputation became established only after the 1962 publication of the novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. The subsequent filming of the novel (directed by Vittorio di Sica) also enhanced his standing as an important novelist. Bassani was born in Bologna on March 4, 1916, but reared in Ferrara, a prosperous mercantile city about thirty miles northeast of Bologna. Bassani focused his fiction on the city of Ferrara, specifically on its large population of Jews; he chronicled their fate during the Fascist rule of Italy, from 1920 to 1944. Bassani’s family was a prosperous middle-class Ferrarese Jewish family, and Bassani himself knew well the milieu of the Finzi-Continis, so keenly described in his novel. Educated at the University of Bologna, he studied journalism and wrote reviews and poetry in the 1930’s. In 1943 he was married to Valeria Sinigallia and left the city, moving to Florence and then to Rome. Up to this point his only publication had been a novel, Una città di pianura (a city on the plains), in 1940, published under the one-time pen name of Giacomo Marchi so as not to reveal its Jewish author.

After the war Bassani took occasional work as a screenwriter and a film dubbing editor, as well as an editor for the avant-garde review Botteghe Oscure in Rome, from 1948 to 1960. He was also coeditor of the art and literature journal Paragone from 1953 to 1955. It was in the 1950’s that Bassani began issuing the short novels later collected in the 1956 book Five Stories of Ferrara. These tales fondly describe the citizens of Ferrara, the environs, and the sufferings of the Ferrarese, particularly the Jews of the city, under Fascism. These early stories range from the bittersweet (“Lida Mantovani”) to the bitter (“A Plaque on Via Mazzini”). In all of them, the fate of the characters is bound with the fate of the city during the 1930’s and 1940’s.

With the publication of this volume, which won him the prestigious Strega Prize, Bassani began to find substantial work as an editor with Feltrinelli, the Milan publisher, and as an instructor in the history of theater at the National Academy of Dramatic Arts in Rome. His novel The Gold-Rimmed Eyeglasses of 1958 placed him in the ranks of new major writers. Then in 1962 The Garden of the Finzi-Continis appeared, which was to become Bassani’s most widely read novel; for it Bassani was awarded the Viareggio Prize.

With Behind the Door, Bassani continued his nostalgic look at the past in fiction. His nonwriting career rose when, in 1964, he assumed the post of vice president of RAI, the Italian national radio and television service. Bassani published only one other major novel, The Heron, in 1968. He issued collections of stories, however, including The Smell of Hay.

Bassani appeared on the Italian literary scene as a writer quite apart from other postwar authors. Instead of producing novels about the partisans or postwar misery, Bassani chose to portray the situation of Jews under Fascism. His characters are not the stock characters of traditional Italian fiction, the peasantry or the struggling lower-class urbanites. Bassani’s characters are average middle-class Ferrarese who are caught up in the whirlwind of history. Both his prose style and his milieu are similar in many ways to those of novelist Henry James, whom Bassani admired. His approach is cool and descriptive, and the buildings and streets of Ferrara are prominent in his stories.

Since Bassani’s output was so small, he almost obsessively revised and reissued many of his books. He was a refined stylist, and his accurate portrayals of social classes, such as the wealthy Finzi-Contini family, marked him as a close observer of society. His focus on Jews in Ferrara was a unique view of Italian society, and his sophisticated portrayal of life under the Fascist tyranny in the 1930’s and 1940’s made him a valuable observer of this nightmarish period in Italy’s history.

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