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Behind the High Walls

On Giorgio Bassani’s Novel of Ferrara

Discussed in this essay:

The Novel of Ferrara, by Giorgio Bassani. Translated by Jamie McKendrick. W. W. Norton. 744 pages. $39.95.

The Holocaust must be mentioned, but it will not be talked about. It must be mentioned because it is the single most conditioning fact in Giorgio Bassani’s life and in the life of the Jewish community in Ferrara, the northern Italian town where he grew up: in 1943, 183 of Ferrara’s four hundred or so Jews were rounded up and deported to Germany, whence but one returned. It will not be directly talked about because Bassani himself was not among the 183, and apparently had no inclination to describe the horror itself. “Buchen­wald, Auschwitz, Mauthausen, Dachau, and so on,” reads a line from one story, and leaves it at that.

Considered one of the finest Italian novelists of the twentieth century, Bassani wrote and published four novels and two collections of stories between 1937 and 1972, later editing and combining them into a huge composite work, The Novel of Ferrara (1974), now published for the first time in En­glish as a single book, with a single translator. Reading it, we contemplate the people of Ferrara over some sixty years, Jews and gentiles, rich and poor, before and after the great convulsions of the Holocaust and the Second World War. Each story is self-­contained, but with characters and events that return and call to one another, illuminate one another, so that reading the whole oeuvre together we have the powerful impression of having seen three generations consume their lives, or all too frequently be consumed by violence.

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is the author of many novels, translations, and works of non-fiction, most recently In Extremis and A Literary Tour of Italy.

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