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.