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.