It is true that all Jewish communities are storied ones. But not all Jewish communities have had their own chronicler to tell their stories.
Ferrara, an industrial city of some 135,000 people in northeast Italy is an exception. It is possible that Jews have lived there since the expulsion from Judea in the second century. But they are certainly known to have lived there in medieval times and to have played a key role in the town’s progress and development. Indeed it is the only Jewish community in that region of Italy to have maintained an unbroken presence since the 11th century. The city’s main synagogue was built in 1485. Although there were never more than a relative handful of Jews in Ferrara, the city became known as a place where Jews lived and were welcomed.
Some 45,000 Jews lived in Italy when the fascist government of Benito Mussolini enacted the infamous 1938 Racial Laws that increasingly restricted and persecuted Jews. Of approximately 300 Jews who lived in Ferrara then, nearly two-thirds were killed in the Nazi genocide.
Although he was actually born in Bologna in 1916, the late gifted writer, translator, poet, essayist and journalist Giorgio Bassani is one of Ferrara’s best-known Jewish sons. Bassani has provided a permanent literary enshrinement of the memory of that community, as he knew it during the tumultuous last century.
The most celebrated of Bassani’s stories is the hauntingly elegiac novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. It was published in 1962 and was subsequently made into a critically acclaimed and Academy Award- winning film.
The story pivots on the profound consequences for Ferrara’s and Italy’s Jews wrought by the 1938 Racial Laws. It is not a Holocaust story per se. Bassani does not depict the unbearable descent into Hitler’s domain head-on. The legislated cruelty and inhumanity hover in the darkening background despite the splendid luminosity of the colours that infuse Bassani’s powerful descriptions of the geography and climate of the Italian peninsula.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is typical of Bassani’s chronicle of Jewish life. On its surface, it is a story of unrequited love. The young narrator contends with his yearning and passion for the beautiful, mysterious Micol, one of two children of the aristocratic Jewish family. The garden of the title becomes a literal and metaphorical meeting place for the narrator and his friends, a haven of inclusion, as all around them, little by little, step by legal step, they are increasingly excluded from Italian society. The heart of the story is not the fate of the narrator’s relationship with Micol for he discloses it at the outset of the story.
The essence of the story, rather, is the meticulous depiction of personal and collective struggles to maintain a sense of purpose – if not optimism – as the castle walls of the city change from representations of abiding beauty to warnings of encroaching confinement.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is the centerpiece of Il Romanzo di Ferrara, an anthology Bassani created in 1974 by combining six discrete works set in or about people from Ferrara. The six books were published between 1956 and 1972. With the exception of the last of the six stories, “The Smell of Hay,” each “is free-standing and self-sufficient.” Bassani further revised Il Romanzo in 1980. The Novel of Ferrara is the first English translation of the final work.
Many of the characters in the anthology reappear in the different stories, their lives interwoven and revealed to the reader in overlapping time sequences. They are a diverse roster of memorable individuals whose natures and idiosyncrasies, strengths and weakness, points of pride and flecks of shame are thoroughly displayed and developed through constant layering and fine literary nuance. And yet, the main protagonist of the anthology is the city of Ferrara itself and the countless ways it gave rise to the infinite celebratory, heartbreaking and mundane manifestations of the Jewish lives lived there. Ferrara is the connective tissue of the human dramas that ties one to all.
Bassani’s writing demands diligent reading. He is a master of description, scene setting, and of establishing the atmospherics of place and the turmoil of soul. Very often, Bassani uses complex sentence structure, with adjacent subordinate clauses lining up against each other to provide a plethora of detail. His tone is conversational as if he is talking with the reader, an espresso coffee at hand, sharing every particular he recalls in the moment.
One can only imagine the powerful properties of Bassani’s original writing, for the translation by Jamie McKendrick is stunning and affecting. His scholarship and workmanship are to be greatly admired. In addition, McKendrick has added a biographical essay about Bassani that helps the reader place the stories as part of a larger context.
The anthology ends very poignantly with an unusual autobiographical essay in which Bassani provides personal information about the stories and his intentions in writing them. His aim, he quite clearly tells us, was to “recover the past.” Thankfully, he does not do so as a sorrowful lament for the lives that were lost. “To recover the past”, Bassani explains, “is to travel down a kind of corridor which grows longer at every instant. Down there at the very end of the corridor – at the sunlit point where its blackened walls converge – is life, vivid and throbbing as it once was when if first took form.”
Bassani has lovingly painted a portrait of the Jews who once lived in Ferrara. We mourn their loss. But Bassani reminds us that we mourn for actual human beings – brave, cowardly, defiant, vulnerable, superb and flawed – who once existed.