Behind the Door
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
Five Stories of Ferrara
Behind the Door, the newest novel by one of the ablest of recent Italian novelists, corrects some possible misconceptions of his talent. Giorgio Bassani’s best-known work, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, aspired to portray an aristocratic Jewish family in Ferrara during the years before 1943, when its members were deported to extermination camps in Germany. It offered a historical chronicle redolent of the coming destruction, in which the stages of fascist persecution were clearly marked: first the expulsion from the tennis club, then from the fascist party, then academic anti-Semitism, then more and more direct insult. 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. The real focus of attention—the narrator’s unreturned love for Micol Finzi-Contini—was almost smothered in the novel’s larger ambitions, and yet it was only in the smaller subject that Bassani was in full control. His other novels, and especially the last, demonstrate that, while he rightly keeps to one city and group and historical situation, he is most persuasive when fascism and anti-Semitism are given less emphasis. Awkward situations and painful relationships, usually personal rather than political, sharpen his writing.
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.
Another of the Five Stories, for example, describes a husband paralyzed by locomotor ataxia, who sits always at the window. From this vantage point one night he sees two things, the murder of some Ferrarese by the fascists, and his wife’s return from the latest in a series of assignations which she has concealed from him. Unwilling to upbraid her or even to acknowledge having observed her, he cannot bring himself, after the war, to testify to the other outrage either. “I was asleep,” he says, and the chief fascist assassin goes free. This experience has links with that of the young man who accidentally discovers that, during the months Micol Finzi-Contini has rejected his advances, she has been accepting those of his best friend. The bitterness of this disclosure is cunningly made to exist side by side with his later nostalgia, just as his self-pity at the time is drowned by pity for her.
In Bassani to see at all is usually to see to much. The…
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