Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is one of the greatest Italian novels; more so it is one of the greatest holocaust novels, not because it documents or lingers over, as many of them do, the persecution suffered by certain groups of people at the hands of the Nazis or the horror of the camps etc, but because it presents a beautiful, elegiac story of adolescent romance and then points at it and says: this, this is what the Fascists were so hell bent on destroying. Being so impressed by that book [his most well-known] I was eager to read more of Bassani’s work; this one, The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, is not only considered to be one of his very best, if not the best, but is also part of the Ferrara Cycle, a series of loosely inter-linked novels to which The Garden of the Finzi-Continis also belongs.
Without wishing to jump right in with the negatives I can certainly say that The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles is not the equal of Bassani’s most famous novel. It does, however, have much in common with it. First of all, the book has the same wistfully melancholic, nostalgic tone. While The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is centred around the title family, this one is concerned with Doctor Fadigati, a successful man, but a lonely man, and a homosexual. I really liked the opening of the book, which tells of his arrival in Ferrara and early lofty status amongst the locals, and, subsequently, the rumours concerning his private life. I especially enjoyed what Bassani had to say about how the people of Ferrara were none too concerned about his homosexuality, it being at least something, something concrete, after years of speculation. The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles is also like its more renowned bigger brother in that it appears to be about one thing – something local, domestic – but, in the background, there looms a larger, more politically-charged theme, which is its real focus.
It is the point at which Fadigati makes friends with a group of students on a train that the novel starts to go awry for me. To some extent I can understand why the doctor moves from the empty second class carriage to the students’ third class carriage; it speaks, of course, of Fadigati’s loneliness. Here is a man who never got married, who hides his liaisons, if indeed there are any, from the general public and so, the implication is, he lacks company on a regular basis. Yet, I can’t help but find Fadigati’s behaviour creepy, although I am not convinced that is what the author intended. Earlier in the book, Bassani makes a point of explaining how Fadigati keeps himself to himself, so why does he, in effect, impose his company on a group mostly made up of young boys? I imagine some of you might be rolling your eyes, seeing in this some subtle form of homophobia. That is not the case. I have no issue with homosexuality, but I do have issues with anyone, male or female, straight or gay, hanging around a bunch of people half their age. As I said, I’m not sure this creepiness is intentional; you could argue that Bassani simply wanted to find a way to bring together the narrator and the doctor, and this was his solution. In any case, it has, for me, unfortunate consequences for the story, it takes it in a direction that does not sit well with the idea that Fadigati is a sympathetic character.
An even bigger concern, for me, is that Fadigati takes one of the students as a lover. This is a problem in two ways. Firstly, it exacerbates the creepiness I spoke about in the previous paragraph; it makes, again I think unintentionally, Fadigati seem like some kind of sexual predator. Look, I’m not saying that the boy in question did not know his own mind, and he is legally of age, but, still, one cannot overlook the fact that it is Fadigati who forces his company on the group in the beginning [which is, in fact, something that he does more than once throughout the story, always with younger people] and seeks to ingratiate himself with them. The second problem I have with the relationship is that, according to the author, Fadigati was discreet, in terms of his private life, so much so that the locals in Ferrara found no evidence of who he was seeing despite him living amongst them for a decade. And yet we are meant to believe that this man, this paragon of discretion, will suddenly take up with a young boy and flaunt the affair in public, will take him on holiday and buy him a car etc. Fadigati’s character is way too inconsistent for him to be believable, and far too odd to be sympathetic.
Perhaps the most fatal flaw in the work are the parallels the author invites us to draw between homosexuality and being a Jew under a Fascist government. Bassani was both a Jew and a homosexual so it is difficult to accuse him of making light of anti-semitism, and I can certainly understand his point, but for me there is really no comparison. Fadigati is whispered about and subtly ostracised, he is looked upon as something other, something not normal, and you can see how Jews in Ferrara are treated in a similar manner. However, that Fadigati is whispered about, and looked down upon, for dating a boy half his age, for essentially buying his affections, is hardly akin to persecuting someone on the basis of their race or religion. Whether you believe that Fadigati has done something wrong or not, and I think even these days many would find his behaviour distasteful, one cannot complain about being whispered and gossiped about, and even excluded by others, when you do something that is clearly, predictably, going to upset people. You cannot, for me, start an affair with someone significantly younger than yourself and pay for their company and not expect a backlash. I dunno, maybe I am being harsh, but the two situations seem completely different to me, because Fadigati freely chooses his partner [although he doesn’t, of course, choose his sexuality], and he is therefore at least partly responsible for what happens to him [which is not the same as saying he deserves it]. Having said all that, I did enjoy the book. It’s not great by any means, and I would struggle to recommend it, but Bassani was a stylish and evocative writer and I don’t think I will ever tire of reading about his Ferrara.