Childhood Regained: Gregor von Rezzori’s Autobiographical Fiction

For Gregor von Rezzori the past was not another country, it was several. His Mitteleuropean homeland, engulfed by successive tidal waves of history, became as remote and mysterious as Atlantis in just a few decades. When von Rezzori was born in 1914, his hometown of Czernowitz was the capital of the Hapsburg crown land of Bukovina. Four years later, the empire collapsed, and the Bukovina was ceded to Romania. Czernowitz became Czernauti. After World War II, the northern half of the Bukovina and the city, now Czernovtsy, fell under Soviet control. Since 1991, Czernovitsi and the surrounding region have been part of the Ukraine. A few years before his death in 1998, von Rezzori returned to the city of his birth for the first and last time since 1936 to look for remains of the world he had conjured so vividly in his fiction. Despite the surprisingly pristine condition of Czernovitsi’s landmarks and historic buildings, von Rezzori found his primary muse, the city that had inspired and haunted him throughout his life, unrecognizable. Czernowitz had been homogenized and sterilized, its demons exorcized. All traces of its “restlessly vivacious, cynically bold and melancholically skeptical spirit” had vanished along with the yeast that had nourished it, “the unique propinquity and juxtaposition of the Bukovina’s multiplicity of populations and [their] furiously fermenting compression in its capital, their reciprocal insemination and abrasion, the challenging constant need to react quickly and adapt shrewdly.” And yet von Rezzori had captured that elusive spirit in its multifaceted, contradictory, vital exuberance as early as 1958 in his novel An Ermine in Czernopol,[1] recently republished in an exquisite new translation.

The teeming, polyglot, and highly cultured municipality of Czernowitz, affectionately known as “Jerusalem on the Prut” and “Little Vienna,” was a legendary city even before the dissolution of the Dual Monarchy and the subsequent annihilation or expulsion of many of its most educated citizens. In the early years of the twentieth century, Czernowitz boasted two universities, the language of high culture was German, and Jews made up one third of the city’s population. A “hodgepodge of Swabian Germans, Romanians, Poles, Jews, Prussians, Slovaks, and Armenians” lived together in linguistic chaos and relative, if prickly, harmony on the fault line between two eras. In An Ermine in Czernopol, von Rezzori transforms the city of his childhood memories into the fictional metropolis of Czernopol. He heightens and exaggerates the city and its citizens to the very limits of plausibility, throwing their already pronounced characteristics and idiosyncracies into sharp relief. He raises “the level of reality . . . to the very point where it threatens to tip over into the unbelievable” until Czernopol acquires an immediacy and vitality that the historical city can hardly counter. Czernopol’s mythical topos trumps the legend of Czernowitz.

Late in the novel, the narrator demurs, “[t]hose of us who want to tell you stories are really simply always talking about ourselves, and in such a way that the stories become our stories.” Indeed, the finest of Gregor von Rezzori’s more than twenty books are those that draw most deeply on his life, and particularly his childhood. His best books, An Ermine in Czernopol, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, and The Snows of Yesteryear,[2] often called his Bukovina trilogy, blur the boundary between fiction and autobiography. The narrator of the five interlocking stories of Memoirs of an Anti-Semite (1979) is named Gregor and shares von Rezzori’s background. He is the son of reasonably wealthy and unhappily married parents. His father is a visceral anti-Semite in the minor nobility, all the more dedicated to his civil service sinecure of overseeing the conservation of Orthodox monasteries because it allows him to indulge his passion for hunting in virgin forests for weeks at a time, and his mother a highly strung woman who channels her frustrated social ambition into obsessive overprotectiveness. These stories follow Gregor’s trajectory from the Bukovinian provinces to Bucharest then Vienna, where he witnesses demonstrations celebrating the Anschluss, an event he welcomed despite his dislike for Germans because he felt excluded as a Romanian subject, before he finally lands in Rome. The stories, however, do not recount Gregor’s life so much as retrace the genealogy of his spirit and reveal the ways in which he resists or succumbs to the blandishments of that “jealousy born of envy.”

Gregor is steeped in the anti-Semitism of his class, though he is ambivalent and contrary enough to recognize its absurdity. He does make exceptions for Jewish women with whom he has affairs since, in the widely shared view of his predatory and profligate circle of acquaintances, “Jewesses were no Jews” and therefore fair game. The narrator readily concedes that during the war he was “a hideous fop who, under the hail of bombs on Berlin in 1943, [led] an idler’s life, cynically watching the world in flames.” What enlightenment or broadening of spirit Gregor experiences is limited and short-lived. Still, the ruthlessness with which he acknowledges the attitudes that surrounded and infected him and his unwillingness to apologize for them or to revise or explain them away is enlightenment of a sort.

Von Rezzori’s lightly fictionalized autobiography, The Snows of Yesteryear (1989), is the most conventional of the three. Touching portraits of his mother, father, and sister, whose flaws he presents with an empathy that softens his devastating candor and refusal to varnish, are bookended by those of his Romanian nurse, Cassandra, and his German governess, Bunchy. Under von Rezzori’s pen, his parents and sister become emblems of the age despite or perhaps even through their eccentricities.

Their obsessions—our mother’s anxiety-whipped, guilt-ridden sense of duty and our father’s blindly passionate escape into his mania for hunting—were specific responses to circumstances that in no way fitted their upbringing, their existential concepts and expectations, even less their dispositions. We lived in the Bukovina—more radically than would have been the case elsewhere—as the flotsam of the European class struggle, which is what the two great wars really were. Our childhood was spent among slightly mad and dislocated personalities in a period that also was mad and dislocated and filled with unrest.

Gregor von Rezzori owes the range and depth of literary sensibility to his two caretakers. From his illiterate peasant nurse Cassandra, “a barely tamed savage,” he absorbed the “primeval essence” of the Bukovina. His love of its landscape, fairy tales, and linguistic genius was fostered by Cassandra’s inexhaustible supply of stories told in her “own patched-up patois, gathering words from all over to form her linguistic collages, randomly found vocables, scurrilous verbal creations, word-changelings, semantic homunculi.” She also firmly imprinted him with her superstitious awe of the written word.

The serried rows of books on the shelves of my father’s library were truly demonic for her. That certain things had been recorded between the covers of these books which could be grasped mentally and transformed into speech and knowledge by initiates in the shamanic craft of coding and decoding those runic symbols—this could be understood only as a supernatural phenomenon.

His very proper, civilized and civilizing governess Bunchy—from the diminutive of her German surname Strauss, or “bunch of flowers”—took the young von Rezzori in hand after he had been expelled from various boarding schools. For a few years, before his parents separated and his mother took him off to Vienna, Bunchy not only helped fill the gaps in von Rezzori’s education and enticed him to share her love for Kultur, she also helped liberate him from the “narrow-minded provincialism” and anti-Semitism of his background through the example of her highly principled tolerance and by introducing him to her other, mostly Jewish, pupils whom he befriended.

The family’s self-delusions were transparent, but tenacious. Long after the Romanians began to stamp out the faded grandeur of the Dual Monarchy with the “garish colors” and “overheated drama” of their belligerent nationalism, the von Rezzoris lived as “powerless relics” in “the years 1919–1939 in the illusion of having a pseudo-feudal position in the world . . . like those British colonials who remained in India after the end of the Raj.” Thanks to their parents’ odd mix of permissiveness and excessive control, Gregor von Rezzori and his sister, both graced with strong independent streaks, were able to see through the dominant fictions and inhabit a limbo of their own until the world of their childhood disappeared forever. “We knew the fabric that fed the poetics of our life; we knew the value of those myths into which lost realities are transformed.” That fabric and those myths were both a rich source for and backdrop to von Rezzori’s personal and literary mythologies.

An Ermine in Czernopol is his most ambitious foray into autobiographical mythologizing, and this extravagant, lavish, and sly—even gleefully malicious—book succeeds in no small part because of its sumptuous language, which Philip Boehm reproduces in English, elegantly navigating the novel’s shifting registers, mongrel dialects, jokes and multilingual puns. Scenes are set with vivid descriptions that culminate in paradoxes. In Czernopol, for example, the rich are rich and the poor are poor as they are everywhere, but the beggars defy the imagination. They are covered

with pustules and abscesses in colors that would have astounded even Matthias Grünewald, men whose mutilations and malformations would have caused Hieronymous Bosch to question his own sanity, and they appeared . . . in hordes that crept and crawled, slithered and slid right beside you, so as to encircle you, cling to you, clamber on top of you—as if to drag you down to their lowly level, encrusted with filth and swarming with lice, as though you had stepped on one of their nests and stirred up the entire colony.

Gruesome as the sight was, the narrator notes, it stirred no one in Czernopol “to undertake any action, as common parlance significantly puts it, either for or against—and the two are hard to separate.”

In the novel’s lavish tapestry, the warp is the city itself and the weft “a rich gallery of people, as colorful and aromatic as a bouquet of grasses and fresh meadow flowers,” all seen through the eyes of the narrator who, unnamed and undifferentiated from an indeterminate number of siblings, speaks as a collective “we.” The figures he describes with such relish serve as comic relief, illustrations of socio-historical trends, or harbingers of the “tumult of destruction to come.” They are variations on themes or screens onto which the narrator projects his childish hopes and desires. The District Prefect Herr Tarangolian is one of the presiding spirits. An inscrutable, witty and dandified cynic whose “mustache twirled out into two venomously black radish tails,” and whose sources of information seem unlimited, loves Czernopol as a mistress and describes the tensions with pithy eloquence: “Here you can find a dozen of the most disparate nationalities and at least half a dozen bitterly feuding faiths—all living in the calculating harmony that is built on mutual aversion and common business dealings. Nowhere are the fanatics more tolerant, and nowhere are tolerant people more dangerous, than here in Czernopol.”

The central plot is relatively simple and anti-climactic. Major Tildy, an Austro-Hungarian hussar who enlisted in the Romanian army following his company’s defeat in the First World War, is a holdover from the previous age. His rigid code of honor and complete lack of humor make his downfall inevitable in a place like Czernopol where mockery and ridicule have been elevated to “an art form, a folk art of unparalleled authenticity.” Tildy has married the drug-addicted daughter of a local peasant who made a fortune in timber. When an impertinent writer insults the honor of his wife’s promiscuous half-sister, Tildy becomes embroiled in a chain of escalating dueling challenges with his own immediate superior and a commanding general. None will fight him. He is confined to a psychiatric ward for observation, then run over by a streetcar shortly after his release. The city itself deals the final blow.

In and around the structure of this slender story, von Rezzori winds digressions that twist and turn, double back on themselves, stray in unexpected directions and are occasionally resumed many pages later. This allows von Rezzori to bend his many amusing subplots to the service of meditations on weighty themes like history, ideology, the passing of the Old Order, and the seductions of illusions. Yet the central and the most gripping thread in the book is the progression of the narrator’s éducation sentimentale et morale, his awakening to the “crude banality” of a world bounded by the adults’ “stubborn assertion of preconceived opinions” and his Uncle Sergei’s world-weary dictum “Tout comprendre, c’est tout mépriser.”

While all three books are stamped with an intense yearning for the colorful world of his past, von Rezzori’s most urgent longing is not for a lost era, but for the state of childhood wonder, of unmediated perception of the world. His primum mobile is the yearning for the “time when we were an intermediate race, when we stole knowledge from the gods, insight into the essence of things.” Major Tildy’s true essence is visible to the children upon their first glimpse of him in his snug “cornflower blue uniform, with the wheat ears and gold braid.” He immediately becomes for them a symbol of beauty and heroism: a “strange saint,” an “angel dressed in armor, the imperial sword-bearer.” But Tildy’s rigid, anachronistic sense of virtue, the residue of a lost golden age, cannot survive the cynical, smirking reality of Czernopol. He is the ermine of the title who, we are told in an epigraph from the Physiologus, “will die should her coat become soiled.” And by the end of the farcical chain of events, he has not only stained his honor, in the children’s as well as the city’s eyes, he “has dismounted and is rooting in the mud.”

In Gregor von Rezzori’s fiction, the end of childhood inevitably turns encounters with surroundings that are rich and strange into “routine interaction with the all-too-familiar.” But the numinous experiences of childhood can be stored like treasures in the foundation of the soul as motifs or images that resurface with a sensation of secret recognition, of “déjà vu mingled with nostalgia” when we come across pale reflections of them later in life. Mourning his lost ability to perceive the world with the rapture of his childhood, the Ermine’s narrator speculates that “[p]erhaps our soul is capable of little more than tracing the secret essence of these basic motifs through everything it encounters.” Even if true, all is not inevitably lost as long as there are books like The Ermine in Czernopol and The Snows of Yesteryear to reverse, or at least suspend, the fossilization of adulthood by opening our eyes, like treasure maps to the glories of a lost era, to the mysterious core of the mundane.

[1] AN ERMINE IN CZERNOPOL, by Gregor von Rezzori. With an intro. by Daniel Kehlmann and trans. by Philip Boehm. New York Review Books Classics. $16.95p.

[2] MEMOIRS OF AN ANTI-SEMITE, by Gregor von Rezzori. With an intro. by Deborah Eisenberg and trans. by Joachim Neugroschel and the author. NYRB Classics. $15.95p. THE SNOWS OF YESTERYEAR, by Gregor von Rezzori. With an intro. by John Banville and trans. by H. F. Broch de Rothermann. NYRB Classics. $15.95p.