Giorgio Bassani: the Dialectic Between Prose and Poetry

Written by  Claudio Varese

A tribute to one of Italy's most celebrated contemporary writers.

Bassani has always maintained that he did not invent his themes, topics, and characters but that they came to him asking to be heard and represented. And although he never wasted time on the production of a mere chronicle, he nevertheless has left us his own historical interpretation of the world of Ferrara's Jews during and after the dark days of the Fascist race laws.

The identities of Bassani's characters - both those who speak in the first person and those who use the third - form an integral part of the historical tissue of the city in which they live. In his work the theme of the solitude of the outcast, threatened Jew is elaborated through a variety of diverse situations, each of which gives rise to a specific individual reality.

Bassani passes from the marginalization of the Jew Geo Losz (La lapide di via Mazzini) who, amid general indifference, finds his own name among the victims of the Shoah, to the pharmacist who, having witnessed the killing of the anti-Fascists in La Lunga notte del '43, denies the evidence even before the court. In Occhiali d'Oro, instead, the isolation of the Jewish narrator is reflected in that of the doctor and pederast Athos Fatigati, who commits suicide.
In each of these cases, as well as serving as a backcloth against which events are played out, the Ferrara described by Bassani rises to the stature of a character. The construction of The Garden of the Finzi Continis is deliberately different to all the other stories, thanks to a wider time span and an intricately woven plot, which hinges upon that fascination exerted by death and destruction announced right from the prologue.

Malnate, the non-Jewish communist and father of the narrator, is emblematic of the painful consternation of the Jews, until then an integral part of the regime and the social structure. But once the worst has occurred there is nothing else to do except "guarantee the memory" since, according to Bassani, it is not possible to accept a humanity capable of forgetting Buchenwald, Auschwitz, and Mauthausen.
The Heron rounds off Bassani's narrative oeuvre. Here, the themes of solitude and the threat of death find a different technical solution, in the form of a classical respect for the unity of time: the account of the Jew Limentani's suicide unfolds in a time span of twenty hours.

In Bassani's work prose and poetry are inextricably intermingled.
The writer says that, without a poetic commitment, he would not have written either short stories or novels. His more specifically poetic works - In Rima and Senza - had important repercussions on his novels, insofar as they exclude the possibility of the time span required for a long and convoluted narration, which is replaced with an expanded moment, as is evidenced by the negative message of The Heron.