February 27, 2009

Giorgio Bassani: All the life lived

Someone asked me about the line in my last post about sitting next to Giorgio Bassani, the author of The garden of the Finzi-Continis, on a bus. It wasn't meant to be cryptic. It was a conscious effort to avoid one of those infinite tangents that calculus and I am prone to. But having resisted once, I am happy now to share the story.

We were on our way to a conference about the need to defend European culture against American hegemony. He was one of the great names (another was Anthony Burgess, whom I remember circling in an apparently alcohol-induced buzz, a head taller than everyone else, with a red face and eyes that really were "like infected buttonholes I dare not meet in dreams" as Gore Vidal had viciously but funnily described them) and I was just a hostess - as in glorified secretary, not as in geisha - and an interloper as well, being American, but it seemed clear to me that the air of distance which he wore about him like a wisp of Po River valley fog was not from snobbery.

Years later, I opened the paper one day to find a terrible story about how his wife, with whom he hadn't lived for 30 years, was suing in court to take over his financial affairs because, she said, he had Alzheimer's and his companion was squandering his money. For her the defining moment of this financial mismanagement was when he and his companion -- an American professor with whom he had been living in Rome for 20 odd years – had sold his family home in Ferrara.

Me, I prefer to think that they were simply turning the stones into something which at that point he needed more. Care, perhaps, or concert tickets (he was a fine pianist who, like Anthony Burgess, had considered music as a career before literature), maybe out of season fruit or even fine whiskey, of which, according to his companion, he enjoyed "one or two fingers" every night before dinner, always bringing it to the table when it was two. Dementia sufferers travel light.

And anyway those stones of Ferrara will always be his, because of his books, all set among them, all in the same pre-World War II era, that is to say, under the shadow of fascism. In The Garden of the Finzi-Continis there is the stone wall which the narrator, who is pretty much Bassani, remembers climbing over as a boy to see the object of his desire, the beautiful, rich, sophisticated Micol, for whom none of these attributes will be of any use when one more attribute, Jewish, turns out to be enough for the Fascist racial laws. Neither of course is the wall around what they thought was their enchanted garden of any use. One out of three people in the Jewish community Bassani grew up in were deported under Nazifascism, about 100 people, and of those, 5 came back.

Giorgio Bassani liked this entry in Henry James's Notebooks: "Why does my pen not drop from my hand on approaching the infinite pity and tragedy of all the past? It does, poor helpless pen, with what it meets of the ineffable, what it meets of the cold Medusa-face of life, of all the life lived, on every side.”

A Dutch photographer named Susanne Stoop has made a beautiful book of photos called "The Ferrara streetbook: a walk in Giorgio Bassani's footsteps" with the creative publishing company "Blurb". Follow this link to leaf through a digital copy of the book. www.blurb.com/books/471228

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 05:30


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