Giorgio Bassani’s masterwork has Vittorio de Sica’s 1971 film adaptation to thank for its dual success and obscurity. Not enough people know that this tale of a middle-class Jewish youth’s obsession with the far more aristocratic Micol Finzi-Contini stems from a novel, not a novelization. Bassani’s doom- and tomb-ridden examination of one-sided love is far more complex–about individuals’ inability to contend with personal and political annihilation. Events call for heroism, yet it seems “downright absurd that now, all of a sudden, exceptional behavior was demanded of us.” The narrator writes in retrospect, 13 years after World War II’s end, and reveals the Finzi-Continis’ 1943 deportation to Germany right from the start: “Who could say if they found any sort of burial at all?”
As Fascist racial laws go from strength to strength, the family, which had long isolated itself from the other inhabitants of Ferrara, opens its walled grounds and tennis court to other young Jews and even returns to the local temple. Unfortunately, the situation encourages the narrator’s dream that Micol will return his love, and she is forced into cruel honesty. “She looked into my eyes, and her gaze entered me, straight, sure, hard: with the limpid inexorability of a sword.”
The author has re-created a tragic era in which even nobility could not outrun events, let alone admit they needed to. (For a nonfiction account of the fates of five Italian Jewish families under fascism, see Alexander Stille’s Benevolence and Betrayal.) Bassani’s elision of historical and personal agony is furthermore superbly translated by William Weaver. All is foretold in the novel’s Manzonian epigraph, “The heart, to be sure, always has something to say about what is to come, to him who heeds it. But what does the heart know? Only a little of what has already happened.”
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