A Child of Sleepwalkers: On Gregor von Rezzori

A Child of Sleepwalkers: On Gregor von Rezzori

A Child of Sleepwalkers: On Gregor von Rezzori

A novelist’s grim portrait of Central Europe between the wars.


For Gregor von Rezzori, who died in 1998, Europe “committed suicide” in 1914, the year he was born. Von Rezzori’s whole oeuvre is a gay, merciless, tragic reflection on Europe’s decomposition, a process in which World War II and the Holocaust are hardly more than an aftershock, following which the old continent’s ways of life disintegrate into techno-abstract homogeneity. “We’re a rotten people; our culture is rotten,” he insisted in an interview. Von Rezzori began writing in earnest only in 1940, as if he thought that from then on there was little left to do but remember and reflect on the catastrophe. In his many books, the most enduring of which are autobiographical fictions, he expresses scant interest in the times he was living through; “Pravda,” a story from 1979, alludes to his glamorous days as a screenwriter in the 1950s and ’60s, but even this tale is engrossed with an older history. Von Rezzori’s great theme is the darkening world of Central Europe between the wars. The paradox is that as Europe’s remains are gnawed away by fascism, the books’ narrators, likewise born around 1914, are just starting out in life; these contrary arcs set vitality and decay to fizzing together like a cabaret cocktail.

The narrators are loosely based on the author, forming a composite singularity with as many outlines as a Giacometti figure. Only the “I” of von Rezzori’s The Death of My Brother Abel (1976) is not an alter ego, and although that massive novel dwells on the ersatz character of postwar Europe, it’s still marked by the ripples of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s destruction and the corruption of sustaining myths. The three volumes published by NYRB Classics—An Ermine in Czernopol (1958), Memoirs of an Anti-Semite (1979) and The Snows of Yesteryear (1989), the first having just appeared—are worth reading chronologically to sample different incarnations of the same fanciful boy and adolescent, and his later dilettante drift. To arrive at the last book, a straight family memoir divided into portraits, is like bumping into recurrent fictional characters in a factual, “real” space—only to find these people just as captivating as the fun-house-mirror reflections we’d met before.

Von Rezzori’s father was an Italo-Austrian nobleman, proficient in chemistry and the arts, with a sinecure in Bukovina, where after 1919, when the region passed to Romania, he pretended to uphold a teetering bastion of civilization but really stayed on for the hunting. A “pathological” anti-Semite but too snobbish to be a Nazi, contemptuous of the Anschluss for being a vile Prussianization of the ideal of Greater Germany, he was also a rough-edged life force, more interesting and more loved than his fictional counterparts. Von Rezzori’s mother was a period type: wan, over-refined, disenchanted. His older sister—tougher than the equally doomed Tanya in Ermine—was a rival for the affections of their father, who, in von Rezzori’s opinion, died early from a terminal case of their mother’s “princess in rags” complex. This fascinating but démodé clan was counterbalanced by a primeval nanny and a cultivated governess, whose portraits bookend Ermine. For von Rezzori, artistry, understanding and growth were the gifts of these outsiders.

Cassandra, the illiterate, dwarfish peasant from the Carpathians who was the young Gregor Arnulf Hilarius’s wet nurse and nanny, raised him with the vigor and imagination his mother lacked. Even more important than Cassandra’s cheerfulness and feel for earth, life and death, was her peculiar linguistic genius. “Each second or third word was either Ruthenian, Romanian, Polish, Russian, Armenian or Yiddish, not to forget Hungarian and Turkish.” The boy was fed ancient fairy tales flecked with “scurrilous verbal creations, word-changelings, semantic homunculi,” morsels the writer stored up—not only in his sensitivity to the mongrel heritages of Eastern Europe and language itself but in various Cassandra-like characters and the raucous folk-world of Tales of Maghrebinia, a series of once-popular books based on the stories von Rezzori told on the Berlin radio after the war.

When the boy outgrew Cassandra, his moral education continued under Bunchy, a paragon from Pomerania. Although she failed to persuade her charge to take his lessons seriously, she helped him and his sister endure the linked disintegration of imperial Austria and their parents’ marriage. Bunchy also seeded a timely awareness of class and race, and alerted them to the existence of a wider world. With the candor free of coyness that enables him to write about the most uncomfortable subjects, von Rezzori concludes he owes to Bunchy “what little virtues I may possess,” including “my lifelong striving to overcome a fatal indifference.” Indeed, his marginal narrators recall Robert Musil’s “man without qualities.”

Low and high culture, disorder and measure, East and West: such polarities provide the author’s alter egos the leeway to wonder who they are, and allow a sweeping stylistic range, from the satirical to the sublime, all the while cloaking a dispassionate core. Even in the memoir The Snows of Yesteryear, von Rezzori examines with great lyricism the same dynamics as in his fictions, between tribal identity and individual temperament, inheritance and chance, and depicts them as being compounded by history, time, the zeitgeist.

* * *

An Ermine in Czernopol dramatizes a 1920s childhood in a family similar to the von Rezzoris, marooned in a city identical to theirs: Czernopol is the newly Romanian Czernowitz, Ukrainian Chernivtsi today. In the 1920s, because of its position at the intersection of trading routes and migrant paths, the city was still a caldron of peoples, religions and lingos, “all living in the cynical harmony that is built on mutual aversion and common business dealings.” It was also an important hub of Jewish life. While the narrator provocatively recalls the city’s cult of mockery as a sophisticated form of aesthetic intelligence, he is ambiguous about its brutality: “People laughed, cried, loved, robbed, and thrashed each other at the markets, coupled behind fences, died in the gutter…. The children of the street laughed with the raw, tinny laugh of meanness.” Against this picaresque backdrop, both an intensely remembered place and the model of a seething, explosive border, the novel explores the disarray of national identities and a child’s loss of idealism in the jagged shadow of World War I.

The narrator, his sister Tanya and an uncertain number of siblings are unanimously high-minded and naïve. They’re unlike children you’ve ever met, partly because the novel’s temperament is shaped by the perceptions and interpretations of children but not by their language. Somehow—thanks perhaps to the majestic “we” that conveys their inner progress—von Rezzori gets away with attributing to them the most preposterous and charming thoughts. Here’s a moment in the evolution of “their” attitudes to the war:

The war, which had very much started as our own but was soon completely remade into “the Germans’ war,” had been presented to us as Siegfried’s battle with the dragon…. We were amazed that people felt it necessary to explain to us exactly how Siegfried felt challenged by the dragon in order to attack it with just cause. This cause struck us simply as part of his heroic nature…. But now, called upon to admire the war’s mechanics and engineers, we found ourselves faced with the unreasonable demand to view Siegfried as a master planner who calculated every sword stroke…with a slide-rule…. So we watched the intellects that held him so completely by the threads and gave them our most careful attention, but not our love.

There follows a delicious riff on German soldiers first as termites, then as terrifying metallic larvae, bereft of the “holy passion” that ennobles sacrifice. The anxious perusal of news photos turns Field Marshals Hindenburg and Ludendorff into hot-air balloons, lacking the levity to take off: “Because as it was, when they stepped out of the train, harnessed by an iron sense of duty, shackled to the earth, they displayed a bombastic sullenness: their swollen and corseted bulges tugged against their moorings.” Here von Rezzori echoes his father’s distinction between vulgar militarism and chivalric heroism. The children’s yearning for the latter crystallizes in an infatuation with a solemn mounted hussar, Major Tildy, who has married, with impeccable self-sacrifice, the drug-addicted daughter of the local millionaire peasant. The gauntlets the major throws down in defense of his whorish sister-in-law’s honor draw laughs. Illusions are coarsely punctured all round. The precocious narrator must, like the foolish hussar, come down off his high horse, even if to leave childhood “meant exchanging the inscrutable autocratic splendour that accompanied each new thing as it entered that world for a routine interaction with the all-too-familiar.” Yes, the novel strays into lushness, but delectable writing and a positively Russian understanding of yearning and nostalgia balance the precise, Musil-like scrutiny of the absurd ex-empire.

At first this duality seems central: von Rezzori’s belief in essences leads him to plot the nature and interaction of different populations with endless subtlety, like a taxonomist or a naturalist, in contrast to his romantic treatment of personal transformation. But it’s really a continuum. Characters can change only as their nature allows. In the words of the wise headmistress of the school the children attend (until the family realize it’s Jewish): “In the best case their characters can be fostered. You can’t implant anything, you can’t develop anything that isn’t already inside them.” Where social or ethnic groups are concerned, this sense of predetermination results in stereotyping. Von Rezzori’s peasants are dim but crafty; his radicals, heartlessly cerebral. A catalog of conventional types always underwrites the operation of myths and fables, from primeval fireside tales to Aesop to Maghrebinia.

Thus the Jewish children and adults at the school confirm certain caricatures, and the narrator even remarks on it; yet the sudden human contact with this mystified otherness makes him question his family’s anti-Semitism, an “educated” blend of disdain and burlesque. Besides, not only are the Jewish kids deeper and more worldly than he; they possess another—tellingly aristocratic—virtue: “the superiority of an older race.” When the Jewish football team trounces the pro-German Romanian one, and the post-match brawl turns into a citywide pogrom, the narrator cheers on his new heroes:

From the darkness of the chestnut trees…a troop emerged and fell upon the plundering mob like a flock of avenging angels. They were muscular young men dressed in white linen pants covered with flour; their shirts were open, and their heads were covered in little visorless felt caps—apprentices from the numerous kosher bakeries…. And leading them into battle was a Jewish Mars, a stout god of war…his fat face flushed red like David when he became a man…. It was Dr. Salzmann [their mild, tolerant religion teacher] in his hour of greatness.

The novel’s analysis of the psychology of prejudice does not hinge on the simple matter of redemption, of turning “bad” stereotypes into good, the “humble” into the martial. True to his belief that people can’t really change, von Rezzori shows with riveting, agonized panache, and from within the subjectivity of his narrators, that if you’ve had a certain upbringing, no matter what you think, feel or do, you are still—more or less unconsciously, always insurmountably—prejudiced. And if anti-Semitism is the emblematic sin of interwar Europe, it’s linked to other imaginary hierarchies with real effects, such as class and nation. For the author and his generation, at any rate, there’s no escape. Rather than a condemnation of prejudice, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite insists that we are doomed to be its accomplices.

* * *

Leaner and funnier than An Ermine in Czernopol—more Nabokov than Musil—Memoirs of an Anti-Semite presents itself as “A Novel in Five Stories.” All but the last are set in four successive periods, from about 1927 to 1938. Each narrator speaks in the voice of the familiar “I” who shares much of the author’s background and biography, along with his feckless temperament and vacillating sense of identity. With slightly different trajectories and experiences, they remain callow despite growing older, indeed more suave and superficial, as calamity approaches. Each story revolves around an encounter with Jews that the protagonist experiences as averagely annoying, humiliating or good fun; only the reader knows how little time remains.

In “Skushno,” 13-year-old Bubi, expelled from his Styrian boarding school for “inability to learn,” is staying with relatives in the country near Czernowitz. Mincing ridiculously around the woods clad in an imitation of an old German drinking-fraternity costume (he is going through a Sturm und Drang phase, thrilled by the “bitterness of anticipated futility” in those masculine songs), Bubi is befriended by Wolf, a tough, rude Jewish doctor’s son who is also a brilliant pianist. Wolf tramples cheerfully over Bubi’s romanticism, forcing him to see the lewdness around him and mocking the stupidity of the goyim, until the boy takes a half-meant, cowardly revenge.

Skushno” is followed by “Youth,” set in 1933 Bucharest, where an adolescent on the cusp of adulthood is prey to lust, insecurity and high-flown fancies about himself. He becomes a cosmetics salesman, a lowly job that nevertheless provides passage into the city’s exotic neighborhoods, where he seduces Gypsy girls and imbibes the Orient at Mr. Garabetian’s Armenian bazaar (all the author’s prototypes are primarily watchers, the perfect position for the writer that “I” never is). He falls for a middle-aged Jewish shopkeeper, when at the first tentative clinch he notes “the sudden transformation of an age-old fear into joy…. This change in her face was what made me love her.” He worships the ancient suffering she embodies—until he hits her in public, exasperated by her petty-bourgeois airs. He thereby loses both her and the respect of the working-class characters he was flattered to know: he has been identified not as a lofty soul but as a member of “a caste that blemished me, as though I were Jewish.” Von Rezzori shows the merged mechanisms of class and race as too ingrained and shape-shifting to be overcome. “Löwinger’s Rooming House” performs a similar operation with sex and race in late-1930s Vienna, as Nazism gains ground among the sort of people who can’t decide whether “Jewesses” are Jews or common bitches.

The third story is “Troth,” which briefly made von Rezzori’s name when it appeared in The New Yorker in 1969. A lot happens in flashback. There’s another whirl through that inexhaustible childhood and its contradictory heritages, here developed in the light of the schism between the two Roman Empires. A harsh portrait of the parents is accompanied by the narrator’s startling anti-Semitic rants, deploring for instance the way upstart rich Jews change their names as camouflage for “their repulsive social climbing.” (The proud or the submissive sort are no better; hatred precedes its justifications.) While reproducing some of his parents’ opinions, the narrator tries to snub them by embracing identities they’d scorn—Romanian or Turkish. Interleaved with these vignettes is the tale of his friendship with Jewish Minka, a happy flapper who lives upstairs in his grandmother’s building in Vienna. When he is 17 she brings him to bed, more as a toy than a boyfriend, and the affair remains tender and uncomplicated for years, because “there was a taboo that controlled my feelings.” He is even rescued from his defiant provincialism by Minka’s circle of Jewish artists and bohemians: “That little kingdom of hers, which became my universe, was composed of all that was best in Vienna in the early 1930s, the most intellectual and most amusing.”

It seems contradictory, but that’s the point. One feeling does not prevent another where Jews are concerned. As events gather pace in the Reich, Salzburg “was just awful. It was overrun with Jews. The worst of them had come from Germany as refugees and, in spite of their luggage-laden Mercedes cars, behaved as if they were the victims of a cruel persecution.” By 1938 even carefree Minka is worried. “‘Oh, don’t exaggerate,’ I said. ‘You Jews are always making a fuss about something.’” The honesty of this tale precludes the smallest moment of self-redemptive remorse.

The final story, “Pravda,” unfolds in the third person and is set much later, as a feverish retrospection involving judgments and excuses. In her introduction to Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, Deborah Eisenberg asks, “Who is this ‘he,’ this other, whom life has made us? When did we split off from ourselves, and…our received view of things?” The answer is surely when the war and the Final Solution got going. The elderly man walking down Via Veneto in 1979 rummages desperately through his guilty recollections, in search of the fragments of disconnected lives that were necessarily unreal, as his parents’ values were already obsolete in 1918: he is “a child of sleepwalkers—growing up in a dreamed world, sometimes nightmarish…predestined to lose every kind of reality.” Again, he is at once a literary creation and a version of the real von Rezzori, so that when the character admits that self-reinvention has allowed him to dodge any “out-and-out collision with reality,” we think of the author’s self-reinventions in art, too. And when von Rezzori wonders that “perhaps what allows him to feel unalterably himself is also his perpetual changing,” he has foregrounded the fluctuating “I”s of the books. But ambiguous consistency is no answer to Pilate’s question. The Jewish encounter here is fittingly, then, a case of fiction within fiction.

The narrator met his “second, Jewish wife” at a nouvelle vague film shoot. She was nominally Jewish; she was more imbued with Catholic culture, and had survived the war thanks to the devotion of an SS man who saw her as “the very model of a German girl.” But as soon as a child arrived, she and the narrator began helplessly to invent each other according to ancestral habit, as the drama-queen Jew and the inconstant goy. They taunted each other in “theological” arguments over truth, she playing the authentic, the literalist, the absolutist; he, the ironical aesthete. After the divorce, they fought over what was to be the spiritual heritage of their child. “No, it was good that the boy had died early”; he would have been destroyed by the contentions re-created by this apparently enlightened couple out of thin air. The two “races” had become mirror images of each other’s irreducibility.

In 1986 von Rezzori published an essay in Vanity Fair about following the tracks of Humbert Humbert. He confessed to loving the motels and highways of Lolitaland, deeming their ahistorical plasticity the very core of America. It was an imaginative alternative to Old Europe, which had been destroyed by the logic of its nature long ago.

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