Bassani’s Etruscans

Language, writes Christopher Hitchens, is the magical key to prose, as much as to poetry. From the magic of the recent English translations of the Ferrara sequence of novels by Giorgio Bassani,* I can only assume that there was a great deal of enchantment in Bassani’s original Italian prose. Certainly, the haunting (haunted?) prologue of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which was first published in 1962, has stayed etched in my thoughts since the day I read it a couple of months ago.

Partly, I think, this is because it touches upon some of the ancient historical scenery around the city of Rome, including – for instance – the Etruscan archaeological remains at Cerveteri (remains about which I know very little). But the passage has mainly stayed with me for a different reason: the luminous way in which it combines topographical description with philosophical reflection about the historical longue durée.

By doing this, Bassani manages to place a subtle melancholy frame around the harrowing events he goes on to describe. He uses historical memory, then, as a way to achieve perspective and to infuse sadness – but also (beautifully) to demonstrate the continuing possibility of an innocent kind of hope, as we witness the exuberance of a young girl’s attempts to grapple with moral questions while engaging in serious historical thinking for what seems like the first time.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis follows the fortunes of some young, upper crust members of the Jewish community of Ferrara in the late 1930s. The youngsters in question have a fondness for literature and discussion, for food, wine and tobacco, and for game after game of summer tennis (singles, doubles, whatever). Against this background, the marginalisation of the Jewish community that is going on in Ferrara over the course of this period, particularly as a consequence of Mussolini’s Racial Laws, gradually impinges in various ways on the characters.

Despite this descent, Bassani wants to show that the atmosphere among his characters of tender young love, carefree innocence, and coming of age discussion had not (yet) been destroyed during this time. He does this by revealing a tremendous level of poignancy, sensitivity and intimacy of feeling among his characters, the effect of which is to keep the reader focussed mainly on the contours of the personal relationships being described: the gathering political clouds which cast their increasingly ominous shadow over the ‘big picture’ landscape of the period are for their part kept mostly out of focus.

In the prologue of the story, Bassani’s characters experience the Italian landscape as a theatre of memory while out on a family day-trip. Driving toward the Etruscan necropolis at Cerveteri, not far from Rome, a discussion ensues among the passengers, the youngest of whom – Giannina – asks: ‘In the history book, the Etruscans are at the beginning, next to the Egyptians and the Jews. But Papa, who do you think were the oldest, the Etruscans or the Jews?’ A tricky question for poor Dad, who understandably deflects it – and fortunately for him an attractive double row of cypresses provides a welcome temporary distraction through the window.

Etruscan tombs at Cerveteri

The conversation lulls. Before long, though, another question breaks the silence: ‘Papa, why are old tombs less sad than new ones?’ This time Dad feels confident enough to offer what seems like a competent enough answer: ‘Well’, he says, ‘the recent dead are closer to us, and so it makes sense that we care more about them. The Etruscans, they’ve been dead such a long time – it’s as though they’d never lived, as though they were always dead’.

A pause. ‘But now you say that’, young Giannina gently responds, ‘it makes me think the opposite, that the Etruscans really did live, and that I care about them just as much as about the others’.

This remark, it turns out, sets the tone for the family’s whole visit to the Etruscan necropolis. It allows them to wonder with open minds not just about the Etruscans’ tombs and burial practices, but about the passage of time, and about the fate of this archaeological site which had survived ever since the time when ‘Etruria, with its coalition of free, aristocratic city-states, dominated almost the entire Italian peninsula’. In time, ‘new civilisations, cruder and less aristocratic, but also stronger and more warlike’ had held the field and the Etruscans slid into insignificance.

In the end, the narrator asks, what does this all matter? No direct answer to this question – which turns out to be rhetorical – is ventured. Instead, we are whisked away (not by car, but in our narrator’s imagination), from Etruscan Cerveteri, all the way back to his childhood Ferrara, to its grand old Jewish cemetery – and to the scenes of his youth which unfolded there.

Bassani’s juxtaposition of the Etruscan and Jewish burial grounds enables him to suggest an implicit if ever so slightly unnerving parallel between the two. Both burial grounds – if imaginatively engaged with – present a silent face of Italian history. And whereas his own memories in one of them are fresh, so that he can give voice to them, much in that old world has now gone.

In recalling memories of the recent Jewish past, even while doing so in glorious and complex richness and colour, it seems to make sense to this narrator to set them somewhat in context against the grand and merciless sweep of the peninsula’s wider history. In this way, Bassani hints with gentle knowing that he would like us to broach  the tragedy of the Jews of Ferrara in this story with the unforgiving laboratory of history as our backdrop.

  • The novels have been translated into English (beautifully) by Jamie McKendrick.

Tears for things

Poetry offers many things to its readers and listeners. One thing I have thought a lot about recently is how it offers an important emotional resource in times of hardship. When there is a felt need for reflection, for contemplation, for grief, or – perhaps in response to these – for renewal, as of course there will be in most human lives at some point or other, recourse to a poet’s voice represents a certain kind of therapeutic possibility, a way to heal (or at least to accompany) the troubled or weary spirit.

I have found in my adult life that accessing poetry as a source of consolation can be less a question of painstaking analytical reading (which I seem to recall was the chief characteristic of my experience of dealing with poems while growing up) and more a matter of soothing contemplation. Just a few short verses or phrases, for whatever reason, can resonate, opening the way for meditation. A poignant line can reappear, as if from nowhere, in my (as in others’) consciousness. When it does, I have found, it can help illuminate one’s approach to an area of concern (if one does not become aware that it has already long *been* illuminating said area), or even to the business of life and its vicissitudes more generally.

When Virgil’s hero Aeneas contemplates the destruction of his home city and the terrible deaths of so many of his countrymen and relatives, including the tragic death of his wife Creusa, he understandably experiences – and sometimes attempts to articulate – tremendous sadness. Reflecting in just this fashion midway through book 1 of the Aeneid, Aeneas utters the following plaintive phrase: ‘sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’.

The phrase is awkward to render literally, though the translation of Robert Fagles is pretty good. He has it as follows: ‘the world is a world of tears, and the burdens of mortality touch the heart’. To capture the essence of what I take to be the meaning of these words a little more closely, I would depart (still) further from their literal sense. My version of a loose but hopefully not unfaithful translation is: ‘there are tears to be shed for worldly things, and the realities of mortal existence touch me in my depths’.

Any reader of Virgil will know that a melancholy mood suffuses much of his writing. But, for me, the Latin phrase ‘sunt lacrimae rerum’ captures more than any other that I can call to mind something important not just about Virgil’s depiction of the psychology of Aeneas, but about Virgil’s own poetic temperament. For this is a phrase, I think, in which Virgil tries to tell his readers about something more than just how Aeneas, his lead protagonist, is feeling.

The tone of his words also suggests that he wants to intimate to his readers that their/our own contemplation of human affairs may engender a tearful response. A cautious interpretation of such a sentiment might be that Virgil is pointing toward the sad presence of unfortunate realities (such as death, misfortune and injustice) in the world, and suggesting that tears are indeed a fitting response to these. A bolder interpretation than this, though, would be that Virgil is hinting that there is something to lament and mourn in the very nature of human affairs per se. From this perspective, he can be taken to be suggesting that tearfulness must lie at the heart of any genuine response to our human predicament itself, and that this is so particularly in relation to the awful brutality of the military and political realities we may find ourselves confronting.

One does not need to find in the phrase ‘sunt lacrimae rerum’ a precursor to Christ’s tears in the Garden of Gethsemane (as did the German critic Haecker)* to identify an area of possible commonality between Virgil and Christianity here. If (for Virgil) a tearful response to human affairs may be a fitting one, then how far are we from the Biblical world of the Book of Lamentations? And how far from the notion (one that is of course fundamental to the doctrine of original sin) that there is something utterly broken and flawed (and, thus, presumably lamentable) in our all-too-human world? Having said this, however, it ought still to be conceded that the Christian tropes that Virgil’s readers in the Middle ages purported to identify in his pre-Christian poetry appeared most clearly in other areas of his writing.**

The subjects of melancholy and lamentation are broached in literature in many ways I have yet to discover. One author I have come across recently who handles them with considerable tenderness and depth of feeling is Giorgio Bassani, in his beautiful series of novels about the Jewish community in Ferrara in the run-up to the second World War. I intend to write something soon about this writer and the heartrending ways in which he deals with sadness and tragedy (amongst other themes) in his novels.

For the time being, though, I will conclude with the admission that, if there is a single short phrase more gently expressive of the simple reality and sorry experience of human melancholy than that of Virgil, I have not yet found it. For this reason, the phrase which offers the go-to point of contact for what melancholy means to me remains ‘sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’.

*As described by Philip Hardie, The Last Trojan Hero: A Cultural History of Virgil’s Aeneid, pp. 143-4.

**As identified by P. Hardie, op cit. I recommend Hardie’s book, which I read and greatly enjoyed a few months back, to anyone interested in this topic.

***The featured image is from Ingres’s Virgil Reading the Aeneid.