The City and the Memory

Written by  Gianni Venturi
Of Bassani, Ferrara and art.
I did not meet Giorgio Bassani in Ferrara but in Florence. It was in the Seventies; we had all just emerged from the student protest movement, of which Florence had been one of the centres. Yet that gentleman with the cornflower-blue eyes and the upper middle class air knew that even tragedy could be evoked in the calm serenity of masterful writing. This strikes me as a fundamental point that was rather overlooked in the exciting moments of world recognition. Through Ferrara Bassani tried to defeat the transient: more than a city, Ferrara became a way of being; an interpretation of the world. Since the young writer left the city in search of the world, the world was represented for him by a city, Ferrara. So anyone wishing to understand the poetics of Giorgio Bassani must not so much question the correspondences between the real city and the one he created, as how that city became a myth, a window on the world.

In order to do this first you have to lose the city, then win it back through the poetic memory. Bassani's Ferrara is the product of an extremely difficult operation: to investigate the mysterious reasons of life, or better of reality, using an investigatory tool, writing, which would apparently seem to contradict scientific laws. Giorgio Bassani understood that if we are to understand the reasons for the greatest tragedy of the Twentieth century we need more than history or news reports or legal proofs, we need the truth of the poets, which is a higher, nobler, truer verity. It was necessary therefore to make the comparison by raising a microcosm - the little city of Ferrara - to the level of a metaphor of the world in which this atrocity of death-in-life was mirrored.

This required Bassani to travel a long road, full of struggles and encounters. As a young man, between 1934 and 1943, he frequented a world that had transformed the provinces into the subject of a new literature, a new art.

Ferrara was revisited, written, described and then recognized as a character only after the young writer had completed his sentimental education among the great writers, painters, and artists of his day. The conquest, in other words, of a homeland that was no longer the small provincial town but the crystal globe in which all the world's doings were reflected.

While historic Ferrara provided the family, the places, and the dramatis personae of a personal story, the Ferrara of Bassani's stories and novels and poetry was filtered by his association with Roberto Longhi, the Arcangeli brothers, Morandi, Bertolucci, Bacchelli and later with Montale, Gadda, and the other writers that took part in the conversations at the "Giubbe Rosse" or the Vieusseux, up to the post war period, when Ferrara was already the subject of his stories, and by life in Rome with Pasolini, Moravia, Soldati, and all the culture that counted, to his chairmanship of "Italia Nostra", a job with RAI tv, political militancy, world renown, the discovery of Tomasi di Lampedusa and The Leopard, his notorious and stormy love affairs, and his public image.
That work for which Ferrara, at last the total subject of the narrative, lays claim to and becomes the outright protagonist of Bassani's novels is borne out by a piece contained in the last part of The Smell of Hay (1972), in its turn the sixth book in the final and definitive organization of Bassani's narrative works. In Laggiù, in fondo al corridoio, Ferrara becomes in the artistic creation the object of the memory, that memory that wrests life and reality from the nothingness of death. I think that the choice of Ferrara as the locus of memory and at the same time as the unifying space of a complete human story was not present right from the start but grew up slowly in the poetic awareness and out of the confrontation with the written page. There is a passage that is highly indicative of this decision and of this inclination, in which Bassani, talking of Bacchelli, objectivizes his own social provenance: the great agrarian bourgeoisie of Emilia Romagna in the early Twentieth century.

Yet that common bourgeois destiny led to divergent decisions, because Bacchelli, like all the great non Jewish writers, could also agree to a liberal idea that tolerated Fascism, and the great Jewish bourgeoisie for that matter. And in this lies the difference: to realize that cutting oneself off from the world like Ermanno or Alberto Finzi Contini or tolerating fascist ideology was to choose death.
Giorgio Bassani, like Micòl, instead, chooses life through death and can proudly say, like Flaubert during the trial of his scandalous novel, "Madame Bovary c'est moi". "I am Micòl, Micòl is a part of me" was the claim made countless times by the Bassani of the Romanzo di Ferrara and, like the protagonist of the Garden, in the last pages of the novel the author could also consign to the sweet and devout past the sense of the wound that never healed, but at the same time the victory of life over the ten thousand year scandal, as Elsa Morante would have put it, of which the Holocaust was the monstrous result.

If we reread the splendid pages of the prologue to The Garden of the Finzi Continis or the moving pages that describe Micòl's final decision we can well understand how Ferrara IS located NO longer IN the poetic memory OF the author, but has become an integrating part OF the spatio-temporal ABSOLUTE OF a narrator who has taken the provinces AND drawn FROM them the epiphanic sense OF a writing that goes TO the stones OF Ferrara AND conjures FROM them characters, situations, AND things, entrusting them TO the sense AND the VALUE OF contemporary life.