Is Giorgio Bassani undergoing something of a comeback? His most famous novel, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, has largely remained in print, but Penguin released The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles last year and plan to publish The Smell of Hay in January 2014. Meanwhile Quartet’s 1992 edition of Behind the Door, translated by William Weaver, is still in print.
Behind the Door is a classic story of lost innocence, its opening coinciding with the narrator’s move to senior school:
“I felt ill at ease from the very beginning, completely disorientated. I didn’t like the classroom to which we had been assigned, at the end of a grim corridor…I didn’t like the new teachers with their ironic, detached manner…”
Above all he finds himself friendless, a state of loneliness that is emphasised by his lack of a desk-mate. His closest friend from junior school has failed the entrance exam and left town to repeat the previous year elsewhere. He is relieved of the ‘desk of solitude’ when then teacher insists he sit next to Cattolica, an individual who would be described in today’s parlance as ‘popular’. The narrator is too shy to befriend him – friendship being a relationship that seems largely to consist of doing homework together in these more innocent times. His loneliness, however, is alleviated by the arrival of a new pupil, Luciano. Soon they are both desk-mates and homework buddies, Luciano becoming a daily visitor to the narrator’s house (but never vice versa – this unspoken arrangement suggesting an implied superiority).
The turning point in the novel comes when Cattolica reveals that Luciano is bad-mouthing the narrator behind his back and so they arrange a schoolboy Shakespearian sting with the narrator secreted behind a door to overhear his ‘friend’ at Cattolica’s house. Initially our sympathies naturally lie with the narrator, but on sober reflection Luciano’s critique is not without foundation. For example, he tells Cattolica:
“…he wanted not so much to come here as to be invited here. “
We might also suspect that the narrator’s initial approach to Luciano is motivated by sympathy, with its implied sense of superiority, rather than friendship:
“…finally I rose to the poor boy’s aid, since he was guilty of having come to school with only a fountain pen. “
In the background, as with all Bassani’s work (behind another door so to speak) lies the Jewish persecution under fascism. The novel is set in Italy in 1930 and, although Luciano denies any anti-Semitism, the narrator’s Jewish identity is foregrounded by scenes such as a chance meeting with Cattolica in a church, or Luciano’s insistence that they compare penises. This adds a new dimension to the narrator’s failure to immediately challenge Luciano as Cattilca expects him to do. What at first appears a slight, if delightful, novel about growing up has, on reflection, considerable depth.