- The Drama of the Assimilated Jew: Giorgio Bassani’s Romanzo di Ferrara by Lucienne Kroha
As someone who has written about Giorgio Bassani (1916–2000)5 and who believes that he is an important literary figure who has been neglected in North America, I welcome Lucienne Kroha’s erudite, insightful, and readable study. Bassani’s major work includes Five Stories of Ferrara (1956; reissued in 1973 as Inside the Wall), for which he won the prestigious Strega Prize; The Gold-Rimmed Eyeglasses (1958); The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1962); Behind the Door (1964); The Heron (1968); and The Smell of Hay (1972) (which includes The Gold-Rimmed Eyeglasses). Bassani brought all his fiction together under the title Romanzo di Ferrara, which translates as “Novel of Ferrara.” Interlocking characters and events make his oeuvre one coherent text.
Bassani created a unique imagined world that crystallized important ingredients of twentieth-century Italian history. Understanding Bassani means understanding Jewish history in Italy and most especially in the provincial city of Ferrara. Until the 1938 racial laws, many Jews (including Bassani’s own family)—very proud of their citizenship and integrated into society—supported Benito Mussolini and his Fascism. This had begun to change a few years earlier, after Adolf Hitler and Mussolini became allies in 1936 and Jews began to be attacked in the press.
Bassani was quite proud that he joined the Resistance before the racial laws were passed. After the war he refused to forget what had happened to the Jews or to join those Jews who thought it was best to reintegrate into society as if the past were the past. By contrast, Bassani had a passionate desire to investigate and relate what happened to the Jews of Ferrara from the perspective of an insider who was one of them.
A Jewish Italianist who lost family in the Holocaust, Kroha stresses Bassani’s fiction as an expression of his psyche and zeitgeist. Kroha examines his fictional chronological order to establish themes and patterns. [End Page 411] Despite Kroha’s chronological approach, she is something of a phenomenologist in her search for essential recurring themes underlying the work.
Kroha’s most compelling sources are often Bassani’s own comments—in letters, interviews, and essays—that put his fiction into context. That she quotes sources in both Italian and English is very helpful for the English reader, although she might also have provided English titles for the fiction, perhaps in the “Preface and Note on Translations.”
Bassani is an ironist. Whether identified by name or anonymous, Bassani’s Jewish narrators and characters are often surrogates and metaphors for himself, as much in replicating feelings and attitudes—especially detachment, estrangement, shame, guilt, and embarrassment—as in referring to actual facts. Whether in the guise of first-person or third-person narrators, Bassani creates a world-weary voice that is often distant and clinically detached, as if he would be surprised at nothing; he is skeptical, if not cynical about human motives and the possibility of self-knowledge. He is under few illusions about the mediocre nature of most humankind, although his disdain for the lies we tell our selves and his for contempt for bullies are mitigated by pity for victims.
While Kroha claims to stress Bassani’s Jewish contexts, she often narrows that focus to what it is to be Jewish in a Christian world. Thus, we really don’t learn much about Bassani’s Jewishness—his education, sense of tradition, and beliefs—and the ways the Jewish milieu in Ferrara shaped him.
Given Bassani’s Italian-Jewish background and focus, I question Kroha’s stress on the German-Jewish experience that is so different, as Primo Levi reminds us in the first chapter of The Periodic Table, from that of various strands of Sephardic and Italian Jewry. Kroha argues that Bassani draws on Friedrich Nietzsche, for “self-overcoming … finding one’s own voice” and for regarding Jews as weak and feminine; Sigmund Freud, for regarding Bassani as an emasculated Jewish male suffering...