It is winter 1936. Every weekday morning a group of young people travel by train from Ferrara, their home city, to Bologna where they are studying at the university. Theirs is a six-carriage stopping train, often infuriatingly late because of delays on the line, thus contradicting the famous Fascist boast about improvement of Italian railways. But these youths enjoy their ride, its camaraderie and little rituals.
Only one carriage is not third class, and here, they notice, an eminent member of their own community is sitting: Dr Athos Fadigati. To this ENT specialist’s clinic most of them have, during childhood, been taken. Fadigati is an unmistakable yet paradoxically elusive figure, overweight, fastidiously dressed, with his homburg, yellow gloves and gold-rimmed spectacles which make him conspicuous for all his preference for privacy. And over the years he has acquired a reputation not only for exceptional medical competence. ‘Well, I’ve heard it said that he’s….’ And, as is the way with gossip, corroborations have followed (mostly correct ones).
These Bologna-bound students are aware of stories that he is ‘that way’, and when he elects to leave his superior carriage for theirs, their knowledge subtly permeates the new relationship he is now bestowing on them. In late middle age the doctor is taking a course at Bologna university, but even when he behaves like a student, and treats the group to snacks at a wayside station, they don’t really know how to deal with him. Our narrator thinks he has ‘the air of an old man silently warming his hands in front of a big fire’.
But one of these young Ferraresi, Deliliers, a coarse, conceited Apollo, ambitious to be a boxing champion, is not so generous, suspecting the doctor of finding erotic pleasure in his proximity to them all. So, when after listening to his imaginary complaint, Fadigati offers to look at the youth’s throat, Deliliers crudely suggests he should also look at his genitals. Embarrassment all round, then Fadigati laughs the taunt off. Yet nobody is altogether surprised at later seeing the two sitting together in a Bologna pastry shop favoured by the sporty.
And this incident in its turn reduces the narrator’s shock at the summer scandal which arouses such indignation among the prosperous Ferraresi holidaying in the Adriatic resort of Riccione. Fadigati and Deliliers are staying in a hotel there as a couple, the young man flaunting their relationship as he drives them around in an Alfa Romeo patently bought him for services rendered. It is one thing to indulge a vice secretly, another to go public with sexual preference where fellow citizens are trying to relax. Likewise, it is no hardship in normal circumstances to treat scions of Ferrara’s long-established, well-off Jewish families as equals. But when Mussolini’s Italy decides to emulate Germany’s racist laws, with legislation actually passed by 1938, then distance from them — if at first courteous, regretful — should be maintained.
It is from the Jewish section of Ferrara that our narrator comes. Bassani described him as ‘a part’ of himself, rather than an attempted self-portrait. He is a reliable guide to and commentator on Ferrarese society from the Thirties to the late Fifties, with all his insider information, and thus not dissimilar to Anthony Powell’s Nick Jenkins. He is also an individual on whom experience inflicts painful changes. As both he will continue throughout Il Romanzo di Ferrara, the sequence which this novel in effect opens, though self-standing and preceded by some shorter stories. He cannot conceal his contempt for — later, anger against — those classmates, some his fellow passengers on that Ferrara-Bologna train, who assure him the racial laws are but a gesture to Hitler, not anything to worry about, unappreciative of the vicious, frightening insult to identity they constitute.
In perhaps the novel’s single most moving scene, he encounters, when emerging from a brothel one night, the now ostracised Fadigati being followed by a lost lactating bitch. The doctor takes pity on the dog and encourages kindness in our narrator, despite the legitimised unkindness of the times. But — ‘Fadigati was wrong about me. To hatred I could never respond in any other way than with hatred.’
This is borne out by the sequence’s most powerful — and personal — novel, the agonising Dietro la Porta (Behind the Door, 1964).
Il Romanzo di Ferrara is one of the 20th century’s supreme achievements in fiction, brilliantly convincing on its social surface, but revealing below that depths of response and emotion which only a very few writers dare peer into. The poet Jamie McKendrick has rendered this concise masterpiece, this gateway into Bassani’s world, with a sensitivity that makes his version superior to the standard earlier one. McKendrick’s ear for dialogue is more acute, he copes with Bassani’s long sentences (their parentheses anxiously qualifying any definitive-seeming judgment) most gracefully. His percipient afterword is indispensible. Penguin are doing literature a service by issuing the whole Ferrara sequence in his translations.
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.