When Giorgio Bassani published his most commercially successful novel, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, in 1962, he had already won the prestigious Strega Prize for his collection Five Stories of Ferrara (1956), and served as an editor at two multilingual and far-reaching literary magazines as well as the legendary publishing house Feltrinelli. He could rightly place himself among the great Italian realist writers—Alberto Moravia, Cesare Pavese, Elsa Morante, and others—and was slowly achieving his life’s ambition: transmuting the vanished world of his youth, the intermingled Jewish and gentile communities in and around the northeast Italian town of Ferrara, into a literary monument.
At the time, realism was going out of fashion, as writers a half-generation younger such as Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco shifted toward fabulism or other forms inspired by theory or politics. The “Group of ’63” would soon make an appeal for a politically and artistically radical avant-garde; Renato Barilli, a critic aligned with the group, called Bassani’s work “thin and empty,” exhausted by “its own sense of grayness and smallness,” and the poet Edoardo Sanguineti called Bassani a new Liala, referring to the tremendously popular romance novelist whose books were considered socially reactionary. Bassani’s reputation was declining, but not his royalties from The Garden, which sold 100,000 copies within the first five months of its publication. This dichotomy between public success and critical underestimation would confound him for the rest of his life.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is the best known of Bassani’s novels, still assigned in Italian high schools and to Americans studying Italian; the new US edition of The Novel of Ferrara, a collection of his fiction published in 1980, assures readers that The Garden will be found within. (The book’s thick spine even bears a film still from Vittorio De Sica’s 1970 movie adaptation of The Garden—doubly confusing, since the male figure in the photo is neither Bassani nor the actor who played Bassani’s novelistic alter ego.) The Garden recounts, from the distance of the late 1950s, the narrator’s unrequited love for a vivacious, emotionally elusive young woman named Micòl (both are Jewish), and the lavish domestic space that her old-money family provides to bored and slighted young Jewish people excluded from their usual activities by Italy’s 1938 Racial Laws.
It reads like a novel of adolescence, not unlike Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline, Robert Musil’s The Confusions of Young Törless, or Gregor von Rezzori’s Memoirs of an Anti-Semite: the common teenage encounter with another person’s sexual unknowability serves as a metaphor for the individual’s life within history, which can feel as inscrutable as a frustrating beloved. But Micòl is already twenty-two when the narrator, slightly older, begins hanging around her estate, and twenty-seven when her family is deported to a concentration…
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