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
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