Giorgio Bassani

Anthony Gardner

Filed under: Fiction

Paul Bailey and Jamie McKendrick discuss Giorgio Bassani, chaired by Peter Parker.

For Giorgio Bassani, one of the attractions of poetry was that it went so well with another of his passions: bicycling. On a bike, it was easy to stop and scribble down a poem, whereas a chapter of a novel was harder to manage. It was not until his mid-thirties, with thousands of dusty kilometres behind him, that he committed himself to prose.

This was one of the more peculiar insights to emerge from a joint European Commission/Royal Society of Literature event at Somerset House devoted to Bassani. Introduced by the RSL’s President Colin Thubron, who described Bassani’s reputation as ‘unfairly overshadowed’ by those of Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Umbert Eco and Italo Calvino, it was the first in a series of four talks on European writers to be held by the two organisations over the course of the spring and summer – the other subjects being Tove Jansson, Cees Nooteboom and Bernardo Atxaga.

The biographer Peter Parker, who chaired the Bassani evening, began by giving a short overview of a varied and perilous life. Bassani was not only a poet, novelist and short-story writer, but an essayist, magazine editor and translator; he wrote screenplays for Antonioni, De Sica and Visconti, and as a publisher helped to bring Lampedusa’s The Leopard to the world.

Born into a Jewish family in Bologna in 1916, and brought up in Ferrara, he found his life violently disrupted in 1938 with Mussolini’s introduction of anti-Semitic race laws. Five years later Bassani was jailed as an anti-Fascist partisan; his release after Mussolini’s overthrow proved only a temporary reprieve, for with the Nazis’ assumption of power he and his wife were forced to go underground, living in Florence under false identities. At last, with the end of the War, his literary career began to take shape; he moved to Rome, and in 1962 published the novel for which he is best known, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

Peter Parker was joined by the novelist Paul Bailey and the poet Jamie McKendrick, who has undertaken a translation of Bassani’s entire works for Penguin Modern Classics. (He has so far completed The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles.) McKendrick read his version of ‘Verso Ferrara’ (‘Towards Ferrara’), one of a hundred poems written by Bassani in 1942, when – despite the terrible events going on around him – he felt that life had never been more beautiful. The train journey described in the poem would later become the starting point for The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles – Bassani often expanded images from his poetry into his prose.

Ferrara plays a crucial part in Bassani’s work: when he collected his novels and short stories into a single volume in 1974, he called it Il Romanzo di Ferrara. Paul Bailey remembered first visiting the city in the 1970s and finding it ‘dark, mediaeval and suburban’ after Florence. Bassani, he explained, is a very naturalistic writer who uses the actual names of streets and cafés – and even tells the reader where to find the brothels – but nevertheless creates ‘a Ferrara of the imagination’. His books are remarkable because he sees history ‘through dull, eccentric and ordinary people’, and he has an extraordinary lightness of touch.

Paul Bailey read the opening passage of Behind the Door, a tale of schoolboy betrayal which he rated – along with The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles – as his favourite among Bassani’s works: it was ‘a reminder that certain things we do in life remain with us for ever, yet seem trivial to others’. Jamie McKendrick, though, was less enthusiastic about the novel, arguing that it lacked the ‘largeness of spirit’ of Bassani’s best writing.

Peter Parker described Bassani’s tone as elegiac and lyrical but not sentimental, and remarked that some considered him cold and detached. He raised the question of whether the sympathy shown for the gay Dr Fadigati in The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles was related to the shared plight of Jews and homosexuals under Nazism. Jamie McKendrick thought that although there was a parallel, it was a very subtle one which emerged without being imposed by the author.

The influence of Proust was also discussed: Peter Parker observed that it was most obvious in Bassani’s use of parentheses and asides, and Jamie McKendrick commented that his sentences went on for ever – The Garden of the Finzi-Continis was ‘a very luxuriant book, trying to prolong the golden era of his youth’. Paul Bailey commented that whereas Proust was like a terrier, trying to shake every last detail out of his characters, Bassani’s principal strength lay in asking ‘questions which can never be answered’. People who like everything explained might consider this a failing, ‘but for me open spaces where the readers do the work are much more enticing’.

As Colin Thubron remarked at the end of the discussion, ‘The test of a good literary talk is how much we want to read the books afterwards.’ The level of applause suggested that every library should be stockpiling Bassani’s works.

The speakers at the remaining European Commission/Royal Society of Literature events have a hard act to follow – but on paper they promise to be just as good. On 21st May, the centenary of Tove Jansson’s birth is celebrated with a discussion of her adult and children’s books by Thomas Teal (the translator of six of them) and the novelist Ali Smith, chaired by Kate Kellaway. On 26th May, at the Hay Festival, Rosie Goldsmith interviews Cees Nooteboom about his novels, poetry and travel writing, with particular reference to his latest book, Roads to Berlin. And finally, as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Bernardo Atxaga talks about his plays, novels and short stories to his English translator Margaret Jull Costa – who will not need reminding that, as the Basque saying goes, ‘Aditzaile onari, hitz gutxi’: ‘A good listener needs few words.’

Related RSL Fellows

Paul Bailey 1999