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Chronicle of Loss

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I first came across Gregor von Rezzori’s work at the tail-end of a flirtation with European literature of the interwar period. Nearly twenty years later, I find I have gone back to him in a way that I have not to other writers. Now out of print in English translation, the work of this German-speaking author remains consistently intriguing and provocative. In Anecdotage, his cantankerous late memoir, he states that the novel by which he is best known in the English-speaking world, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, ‘raised some eyebrows’. In Italy ‘my public image is based on my novel An Ermine in Czernopol. In Germany my name is stuck to Maghrebinian Tales.’

There are three other novels, Oedipus at Stalingrad, a hectic and tortuous portrait of pre-war Berlin with echoes of Musil; the long Death of My Brother Abel; the short Orient Express; and a superb earlier memoir first published in 1988 as Blumen Im Schnee and translated into English as The Snows of Yesteryear, which to my ear has a tone of pompous sentimentality utterly at odds with its contents. There is one further volume of memoirs, Mir Auf Der Spur (literally, ‘On My Track’) which was published in the year before his death and concerns his time in Germany. Tantalizingly, it has not yet been translated into English.

Born in 1914 in the province of Bukovina, von Rezzori began life as a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As the Russians advanced on his birthplace of Czernowitz, the family moved to a house near Trieste and then to Vienna. After the First World War and the fragmentation of Emperor Franz Joseph’s fragile empire, von Rezzori was brought up as a Romanian. His education, conducted precariously at home and at school in Brasov, was enlivened by periodic hunting expeditions in the Carpathians with his father, a monomaniac who supervised hunting in Bukovina under both regimes.

As a young man von Rezzori was in Vienna where, between chasing women (successfully – he was extraordinarily handsome), he started a career as a draughtsman in an advertising office; then in
Bucharest, wher

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I first came across Gregor von Rezzori’s work at the tail-end of a flirtation with European literature of the interwar period. Nearly twenty years later, I find I have gone back to him in a way that I have not to other writers. Now out of print in English translation, the work of this German-speaking author remains consistently intriguing and provocative. In Anecdotage, his cantankerous late memoir, he states that the novel by which he is best known in the English-speaking world, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, ‘raised some eyebrows’. In Italy ‘my public image is based on my novel An Ermine in Czernopol. In Germany my name is stuck to Maghrebinian Tales.’

There are three other novels, Oedipus at Stalingrad, a hectic and tortuous portrait of pre-war Berlin with echoes of Musil; the long Death of My Brother Abel; the short Orient Express; and a superb earlier memoir first published in 1988 as Blumen Im Schnee and translated into English as The Snows of Yesteryear, which to my ear has a tone of pompous sentimentality utterly at odds with its contents. There is one further volume of memoirs, Mir Auf Der Spur (literally, ‘On My Track’) which was published in the year before his death and concerns his time in Germany. Tantalizingly, it has not yet been translated into English. Born in 1914 in the province of Bukovina, von Rezzori began life as a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As the Russians advanced on his birthplace of Czernowitz, the family moved to a house near Trieste and then to Vienna. After the First World War and the fragmentation of Emperor Franz Joseph’s fragile empire, von Rezzori was brought up as a Romanian. His education, conducted precariously at home and at school in Brasov, was enlivened by periodic hunting expeditions in the Carpathians with his father, a monomaniac who supervised hunting in Bukovina under both regimes. As a young man von Rezzori was in Vienna where, between chasing women (successfully – he was extraordinarily handsome), he started a career as a draughtsman in an advertising office; then in Bucharest, where he continued chasing women, duelled a bit, and developed a passion for horses. The Anschluss put a stop to this carefree life: as a German-speaking Romanian citizen he was ‘repatriated’ to Germany, where he spent the war. Afterwards he worked in radio in Hamburg, got divorced, knocked around Europe a bit and then married Beatrice Monti, a distinguished Italian art dealer. He died in 1998 and she continues to run their house in Tuscany, Santa Maddalena, as a writers’ retreat. It would be possible to see von Rezzori as a dinosaur from an age and a place that have vanished. Czernowitz, Bucharest, Brasov, Trieste and Vienna once belonged to a coherent world. When it shattered, its parts went in different directions – respectively, to Ukraine, Romania, Transylvania, Italy and Austria. Those of its citizens who rejoiced at the resurgence of German culture had their lives broken all over again (if they survived) in the Third Reich. Von Rezzori observed history and his place within it with an unflinching eye: he was acutely aware that he embodied some of the deepest fissures of twentieth-century Europe, but his mordant irony and lack of sentimentality make the anomaly of his survival emerge in his work in a very modern way. Although it was written after the war, his earlier fiction has a pre-war flavour to it. Like Musil, Joseph Roth and even Jaroslav Hašek, von Rezzori’s theme was the loss of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Although atmospheric, it seems to belong to a different era. Even Oedipus at Stalingrad, for all the intensity of its turmoil and its grand title, is of its period. It’s as if the writer is so  concerned to generalize his personal loss and reflect his catastrophic times that he has concentrated on looking around at the expense of looking into himself. That changes radically with Memoirs of an Anti-Semite. Consisting of five stories (two of which he wrote in English), it presents modest provincial scenarios in which attitudes that made the Holocaust possible might have taken root. The first, ‘Skushno’, concerns a boy from a family whose loyalties were with the Dual Monarchy. He has been sent to stay with his uncle and aunt in a  village where he encounters situations that narrow and develop his insecurities. The theme of anti-Semitism is introduced after a few pages in a remark that is all the more shocking for being throwaway: ‘On weekdays, the place was almost lifeless, if we disregard the straggling gangs of lice-ridden Jewish children who romped among the sparrows in the dusty roads.’ Memoirs of an Anti-Semite invites its readers to speculate about its author in a most disconcerting way. Just how far did he share his characters’ views? Anecdotage contains the unequivocal recognition: ‘I myself – pampered by my Jewish friends – was a steadfast anti-Semite.’ There are enough reflections from his autobiographical work to show that he was intimately acquainted with his fictional world, and to feel that the power of his fiction is closely related to his ruthless honesty about himself. If Memoirs of an Anti-Semite does not seem dated, it is not because there is anything inherently more ‘modern’ about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust than about the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. It is because of the unnerving position of the narrator, the timeless implied injunction, ‘Look into yourself, reader,’ and the honesty with which the author explores the harrowing context. Memoirs of an Anti-Semite also contains suggestive remarks about the nature of writing. The irritating, cynical gentleman in ‘Skushno’ who sees what is happening, taunts the boy with the remark, ‘Whereas one need only be what one is, upright and modest, he, the artist, is committed to self-realization at every instant.’ A character in the third story, ‘Löwinger’s Rooming House’, insists to the narrator, ‘I told you you should write [fiction] . . . this walk through the no man’s land between realities.’ And later in the same story we read, ‘There appeared to be no way out, only a flight forward, through enemy lines, the same route Miss Alvaro’s aunt had taken to escape the spectres of the past: making myths of them.’ Like Miss Alvaro’s aunt, who reinvented herself as an Armenian to disguise her Jewishness from her beloved husband, von Rezzori reinterprets the past through stories. ‘I invent myself in my own novels: that’s my way of escaping an unbearable reality,’ declares the narrator of ‘Pravda’. It would have horrified Nabokov (with whom von Rezzori is sometimes compared) to see lines from fiction being used as a clue to the personality of their author. Yet, with von Rezzori, the intensity he brings to bear on his own experience in his autobiographical writings is too clearly related to that in his fiction to ignore. With autobiography the connection is of course undisguised. The Snows of Yesteryear is a work of a particular kind of literary genius that may be grouped with Nabokov’s own memoir Speak, Memory and Richard Wollheim’s Germs (see Slightly Foxed, No. 7). It consists of five character portraits: ‘Cassandra’, his ‘half-savage’ Carpathian wet nurse; ‘The Mother’, ‘The Father’, ‘The Sister’ and ‘Bunchy’, a governess called Miss Strauss (Strauss being the German for ‘bunch of flowers’). The significance of von Rezzori’s original title, Blumen in Schnee, is soon made clear. After an achingly beautiful description of how Cassandra uses the base of her milk churn to make flowers ‘blossom forth in the snow’, he writes that he wants her to continue because ‘I know full well that these tracks will be blown away by the wind and covered by the next snow, ultimately dissolved entirely in spring with the melting of the snow and thus fated to disappear forever’. Here, the artist wrests a metaphor from a mysteriously remembered childhood image which presages not only the disintegration of his own life but also the disappearance of the Dual Monarchy and the Third Reich. Another breathtaking image derives from the time he spent as a private pupil in Brasov. Sitting in a ‘window recess, cut so deeply into the building walls that it felt as if I were sitting in a cell’, he looks out at Brasov’s Black Church and sees a swallow sitting on the clock’s minute hand:
and the hand itself stood still. Time stood still . . . The deep blue of those skies, in which thousands of swallows were scattered like playing-card clubs, seemed all at once transformed heraldically into a reverse ermine: a black sky seeded with swallows of a forget-me-not blue. And thus it became transfixed. The whole world stood still.
This is not merely a nostalgic evocation of childhood: the playing cards are the hectic hedonism of Weimar Germany; the world is turned inside out and holds its breath; the value of memory is embodied in the colour of the swallows. And time’s suspension is an illusion: when the swallow on the clock hands flies away the hands snap forwards, and we all know what happened then. All the portraits in The Snows of Yesteryear are extraordinary, but most extraordinary is that of the author’s mother. The eldest daughter of a Habsburg martinet, she married a man to whom she was wholly unsuited and left Vienna with him for Czernowitz. Following the birth of Gregor’s older sister she went each year for several months to ‘recuperate’ in Luxor and Montreux, but the First World War and the subsequent collapse of her world meant that she became isolated in a province she regarded as detestably provincial, in a house which, though it belonged to her own family, she considered alien, with a husband whose high spirits and physicality she found repellent. ‘She knows what’s in store for her . . . she foresees her future and the impossibility of coping with demands that will be addressed to her – without conceiving for a moment that she might be able to change anything.’ Among these demands was motherhood, a role which she embraced with a confused passion symptomatic of her own ‘jittery inner emptiness’: at once desperately over-protective of her children and yet incapable of responding to their developing needs. ‘Her solicitude, her kindness and her self-devotion, were as imperious as they were obsequiously degrading, and the angry servility that accompanied them, ever more exhibitionistic, turned into a formidable blackmailing weapon.’ In due course she divorced her husband, a controversial act for the time and another rupture for her son. Her life then unfolded as a tragedy in which ‘she ascribed her perennially smouldering rage to the disappointment of her marriage’ rather than to ‘the helplessness implanted in her long before’, and its poignancy is made more acute by the early death of her daughter and her own  stealthily tenacious vitality’ which enabled her to survive her ex-husband by several decades, until after the ruins of the Second World War. Von Rezzori was brought up among women and was plainly fascinated by them. Shrewd, uncompromising in his assessments, unafraid of contradictions, he writes about women with a perspicacity and love that are rare in any context but unique, so far as I know, for someone of his time and place. But his portrait of his father too is superb. While clearly recognizing him as an anti-Semite, a vehement supporter of the Sturm und Drang revivalist Germany, he nevertheless writes of accompanying him on a hunting expedition: ‘Nothing will ever place me so intimately in the world again. Nothing will have this sense of presence.’ And I cannot believe that literature contains a better description of a man shaving than there is in this portrait. The historical and cultural remoteness of the world von Rezzori describes is emphasized by the gap between what may actually have been lost and what he remembers. He feels that he is defined by his loss but he can no longer be quite certain whether it is Czernowitz or the ‘Czernopol’ of his fiction which is more deeply embedded in his own identity; a solid, independent reality or a world recreated as myth according to his own nature and neuroses. Hence the disturbing nature of his return to Czernowitz in 1987, described at the end of The Snows of Yesteryear: ‘It began to sound as if I had invented Czernowitz, and with it myself.’ This tension between what has actually been lost and what is remembered as loss underpins his work and gives it a much broader significance than its immediate setting might suggest. For while his own loss must be particular, the sense of having suffered loss is, in our fast-changing world, common to all. As von Rezzori also knew, it is the basis of psychoanalysis. He says in The Snows of Yesteryear, ‘the nonsexual tensions between our parents and their uninhibited explosions in front of us triggered a fairly complete anthology of neuroses. My efforts to deal with these on my own, without professional rummagings in my unconscious, greatly enriched my life.’ Whether von Rezzori’s portraits allure or shock, the vividness with which he draws them dramatizes for us the process of interpreting loss; and interesting though his particular losses certainly are, the enduring value of his work is to be found, in the end, in the constantly shifting reflections of his mind.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 15 © John de Falbe 2007


About the contributor

John de Falbe has been selling books at John Sandoe’s in Chelsea for 20 years.

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