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 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. And the basic tenor of his life is set by his chronic constipation. Unable to defecate, or to separate from his wife, or to desire anyone else, or to face his tenants, he sees his emblem in the wounded heron brought down by his hunting guide. Beyond this generalized victimage he embodies the crumbling of large estates and the aftertaste of experiences as a Jew during the war. There is no going on, he turns his gun on himself. Again 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. In subsequent days he will have almost nothing to do with either Pulga or Cattolica.
But basically he feels guilty, not of Pulga’s charges, but of his long acceptance of the association, out of shyness or innocence or just cowardice. 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. Even as he declines, in a final interview with Pulga, to say what has gone wrong in their friendship, he feels himself to be “the same little helpless assassin as always. And as for the door behind which, once again, I was hiding…I would not find in myself, now or ever, the strength and the courage to fling it open.” Childhood is over, but innocence leads not to experience but only to a warped innocence. All this Bassani manages not to spoil.
November 15, 1973