Giorgio Bassani’s Literary Memorial to the Jews of Ferrara under Fascist Rule

Best known for his novella The Garden of the Finzi-Continis—which was turned into a film of the same name in 1970—the Italian Jewish writer Giorgio Bassani (1916-2000) wrote three other novellas as well several short stories. In 1974, he combined his six previous books of fiction into a single volume titled The Novel of Ferrara, after the city of his youth, where most of his work is set. The Novel of Ferrara has now been published in English. Adam Kirsch writes in his review:

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis gains in meaning and resonance as part of The Novel of Ferrara, where it forms one panel in a tapestry representing the lost world of Ferrara’s Jewry. This was a small world—before World War II, Bassani writes, there were just 400 Jews in the city. But he evokes it in richly realistic detail, filling his pages with descriptions of streets and cafés and churches, encircled by the old city walls. Characters who appear as passing names in one story return as protagonists in another, creating a sense of intimate community. And certain events—above all, a massacre in late 1943, in which Ferrara’s Fascists killed eleven people—serve as landmarks, visible in the background of many different tales. In these ways, The Novel of Ferrara can be compared with Joyce’s Dubliners or Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine; but a more fitting parallel is the yizkor books that were produced after the Holocaust to commemorate so many vanished Jewish towns.

Because Bassani’s fiction is intensely local, it assumes a reader familiar with the twists and turns of Italian history in the 20th century. The key event in Bassani’s life took place in October 1938, . . . when Italy introduced its Racial Laws, a package of anti-Semitic legislation modeled on Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws. At a stroke, Italy’s Jewish community—whose roots in the country went back to ancient times, and which had been highly assimilated for almost a century—was expelled from public life. . . .

This development was a profound shock to Italy’s Jews. . . . In The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, the Racial Laws take effect at first in trivial ways. A tennis tournament at the local country club is canceled midgame, when it seems likely that a Jewish player is going to win. Jewish businessmen are asked to leave their social clubs; Jewish housewives have to let their Gentile servants go. But as Bassani shows, the effect on young people—he himself was twenty-two years old at the time of the Racial Laws—was catastrophic. [But], Bassani suggests, even in 1939 the Holocaust was unimaginable.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Benito Mussolini, Fascism, Holocaust, Italian Jewry, Italy, Jewish literature


What Egypt’s Withdrawal from the “Arab NATO” Signifies for U.S. Strategy

A few weeks ago, Egypt quietly announced its withdrawal from the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), a coalition—which also includes Jordan, the Gulf states, and the U.S.—founded at President Trump’s urging to serve as an “Arab NATO” that could work to contain Iran. Jonathan Ariel notes three major factors that most likely contributed to Egyptian President Sisi’s abandonment of MESA: his distrust of Donald Trump (and concern that Trump might lose the 2020 election) and of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman; Cairo’s perception that Iran does not pose a major threat to its security; and the current situation in Gaza:

Gaza . . . is ruled by Hamas, defined by its covenant as “one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.” Sisi has ruthlessly persecuted the Brotherhood in Egypt. [But] Egypt, despite its dependence on Saudi largesse, has continued to maintain its ties with Qatar, which is under Saudi blockade over its unwillingness to toe the Saudi line regarding Iran. . . . Qatar is also supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, . . . and of course Hamas.

[Qatar’s ruler] Sheikh Tamim is one of the key “go-to guys” when the situation in Gaza gets out of hand. Qatar has provided the cash that keeps Hamas solvent, and therefore at least somewhat restrained. . . . In return, Hamas listens to Qatar, which does not want it to help the Islamic State-affiliated factions involved in an armed insurrection against Egyptian forces in northern Sinai. Egypt’s military is having a hard enough time coping with the insurgency as it is. The last thing it needs is for Hamas to be given a green light to cooperate with Islamic State forces in Sinai. . . .

Over the past decade, ever since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power, Israel has also been gradually placing more and more chips in its still covert but growing alliance with Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s decision to pull out of MESA should give it cause to reconsider. Without Egypt, MESA has zero viability unless it is to include either U.S. forces or Israeli ones. [But] one’s chances of winning the lottery seem infinitely higher than those of MESA’s including the IDF. . . . Given that Egypt, the Arab world’s biggest and militarily most powerful state and its traditional leader, has clearly indicated its lack of confidence in the Saudi leadership, Israel should urgently reexamine its strategy in this regard.

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More about: Egypt, Gaza Strip, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy