The time is ripe for a rereading of Gregor von Rezzori, one of Central Europe’s most distinctive voices
Von Rezzori’s formative years, spent in the exotic, multinational milieu of the Bukovina, proved to be an inexhaustible source of literary inspiration.
There’s an episode towards the end of Gregor von Rezzori’s prize-winning 1958 novel An Ermine in Czernopol in which a football match between a local Jewish team and their ethnic Romanian rivals brings armed gangs of youths out onto the city streets. Brought in to restore order, the army displays an even greater appetite for destruction than the mobs that they have been sent to control. By the end of the evening, forty of Černopol’s citizens lie in the morgue. This sudden outburst of violence comes as something of a shock in what is otherwise a disarmingly warm, witty, nostalgic book about life on Europe’s eastern fringes in the 1930s. Nobody quite like Rezzori dealt with the big themes of the Twentieth Century with such deceptive lightness of touch. Rereading the book in 2015, these scenes seem disturbingly contemporary.
Despite being regarded by critics as one of the key reference points in twentieth-century Central European literature, von Rezzori remains the kind of writer that many people have heard about, but never actually read.
Son of an Italian-Austrian civil servant with aristocratic habits and an addiction to hunting, Gregor von Rezzori (1914-1998) was born as Gregor Arnulph Hilarius d’Arezzo in Chernivtsi, the multi-ethnic capital of what was then the Austrian crown land of Bukovina. Following the fall of the Habsburg Empire in 1918 Chernivtsi became part of Romania - and is now an important university city in southwestern Ukraine. As he wrote in the 1994 memoir Anecdotage, “I still have the linguistic confusion of that fabulous land in my ear: Romanian, Ukrainian, German, Yiddish, Polish, Hungarian, Turkish, Armenian, Romany. A babel in which – thanks to a down-to-earth amalgam of heartfelt concern and worldly cynicism – everybody understood each other perfectly.”
Von Rezzori’s formative years, spent in the exotic, multinational milieu of the Bukovina, proved to be an inexhaustible source of literary inspiration. However von Rezzori’s nostalgia for his inter-war East European homeland was always clouded by the knowledge that it was a flawed paradise, a corner of the Habsburg Empire from which the Habsburgs themselves had forever departed, and where the catastrophe of the Second World War was always lurking just around the corner.
In our current epoch of corporate serfdom, conservative populism and creeping putinization, it’s increasingly tempting to draw comparisons between the Europe of today and the Europe of the inter-war years, as if we, too, are stumbling towards a dramatic historic turning-point, the exact nature of which we cannot yet discern. The time is therefore ripe for a re-reading of von Rezzori; and thanks to NYRB Classics, the three novelized memoirs that make up his so-called Bukovina Trilogy (An Ermine in Czernopol, The Snows of Yesteryear and Memoirs of an Anti-Semite) are all currently in print.
The very title of Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, the most internationally celebrated of von Rezzori’s books, sums up perfectly the mischievous, ironic, but ultimately unsettling nature of von Rezzori’s style. A picaresque, erotic and largely autobiographical novel about a young man’s adventures in inter-war Bucharest and Vienna, it’s also a subtle portrait of a society drifting blithely towards disaster, unaware of its own complicity in the mass crimes which lie in the immediate future. Arguably Josef Roth (another writer born on Habsburg Empire’s eastern borderlands) is the only other Central European novelist who described the world of the 1920s and 30s with the same mixture of jocular mischief and woozy unease.
After early schooling in Chernivtsi von Rezzori was sent to German-language schools first in the Transylvanian city of Brasov, then in Fürstenfeld near Vienna. Sporadic and inconclusive courses of study followed; mining in Leoben; then architecture and medicine in Vienna. Von Rezzori spent four years in Bucharest before returning to Vienna, then moving to Berlin in 1938.
Von Rezzori’s rather complicated background ensured that he avoided active service in World War II, emerging after the war to serve as a radio journalist in Hamburg. He covered the war crimes trials at Nuremberg, but also wrote humorous fictional sketches about the imaginary world of Maghrebinia – based on his Bukovinian homeland – that were broadcast on the radio. The stories were published under the title Maghrebinian Tales (Maghrebinische Geschichten) in 1953, a book that went on to become a million-seller. The Tales ran against the grain of German post-war literature, representing an escapist retreat into a world in which World War II had not yet happened. 1958’s An Ermine in Czernopol was in many ways the literary outgrowth of the Maghrebinian Tales: a nostalgic journey back to the land of von Rezzori’s youth, but also a bitter reflection on the social forces that had destroyed it. The book won Rezzori literary respectability, but he remained associated in the public mind with popular culture, writing screenplays for romantic comedies, sometimes acting in them too (notably in Louis Malle’s 1965 comedy Viva Maria!, in which he appeared alongside Jeanne Moreau and Brigitte Bardot), writing articles for Playboy magazine and authoring witty, satirical books such as An Idiot’s Guide to German Society. By the early 1980s he was the suave, congenial host of Austrian TV series Jolly Joker, which took a gentle, uncritical look at celebrities and their lifestyles – sadly none of these appearances have so far resurfaced on Youtube. The fact that von Rezzori married three times seemed to be in keeping with the public perception of him as what Germans call a Salonlöwe – charming, likeable, but also dangerously predatory. His third wife was Italian art dealer Beatrice Monti della Corte; the couple lived in fine style in Tuscany, which is where he died on April 23 1998. His Tuscan connections are remembered in the Gregor von Rezzori international literature prize, presented at the annual Festival dei scrittori in Florence.
Even today von Rezzori continues to be regarded by the German-speaking world as a popular entertainer rather than a big beast of European literature. In the rest of the world, however, von Rezzori’s genre-straddling career is seen as something of an advantage, providing exactly the kind of background that makes the charmers, tricksters and womanizers of his fiction so convincing.
It was the short story Troth, published in the New Yorker magazine in 1969, that helped make Rezzori’s international reputation. Set in Vienna on the eve of the Nazi German takeover in 1938, it is narrated by a young man who goes along with the prevailing political drift to the right while at the same time being swept into the social circle of a fascinating, intelligent, liberated Jewish girl called Minka. Troth went on to become a central part of the critically-acclaimed Memoirs of an Anti-Semite: A Novel in Five Stories, (published in German in 1979; English in 1981). Von Rezzori’s alter ego in Memoirs is constantly falling in love with Jews (and also Gypsies, Armenians and any other non-Austrian race he comes across), despite a conservative Austrian upbringing in which any association with Jews was considered to be a betrayal of good etiquette.
It’s probably in North America that von Rezzori’s status as both a great writer and an important witness to the troubled twentieth century continues to be nurtured. Europe’s relationship with von Rezzori is rather more ambiguous; an attitude which might be explained by von Rezzori’s complicated heritage, and the fact that he lies outside any established national canon.
Kiš, Krleža, Kundera, Kertesz
According to Andrei Corbea-Hoisie, professor of German literature at the University of Iasi in Romania and a leading expert on the literary heritage the Bukovina, “it was Italian scholar Claudio Magris who first placed Rezzori on the same level as Robert Musil and Heimito von Doderer, in the category of “Post-Habsburg” authors. French critics in particular – and also Americans and Italians - have regarded Rezzori as a canonical writer; but strangely, the German and Austrian critics have failed to do that. But if we think about it, the stylistic and thematic points of contact between Rezzori’s literature and that of Bruno Schulz, Danilo Kiš, Miroslav Krleža, Sandor Marai, Milan Kundera and even Imre Kertesz are numerous and go deep. I look forward to a new generation that will analyze these common elements, and go beyond the “national” fixation that is still present in the evaluation of literature produced in this region. And I also look forward to the day when German philology to tell us why Rezzori, who was part of the same generation as Böll, Siegfried Lenz and others, ended up writing such a different kind of literature from that of his contemporaries.”
Another prominent Rezzori enthusiast is Martin Pollack, the Austrian writer, journalist and translator whose own fascination with the eastern borderlands of the Habsburg Empire resulted in the book Galicia: a Journey Through the Lost World of Eastern Galicia and Bukovina, first published in 1984 and still in print in German today. “Von Rezzori is one of the most important German- language writers of the 20th century – and at the same time, unfortunately one of the most underrated. He is certainly not so well known - and not much read - in contemporary Austria. This might have to do with a mentality widespread in Austria to forget or rather repress unpleasant things which have to do with the past. This is true for the First World War and even more so for the Second, especially the Austrian participation in the Holocaust. There might also be a second explanation: Gregor von Rezzori is seen by many as a representative of Eastern Europe – an area which many Austrians don’t want to have anything to do with. Many seem to forget that they have their roots in the so-called “East“; in Eastern or Central Europe, or in the Balkans.”
As far as Pollack is concerned, the works of von Rezzori remain as relevant as ever: “The world which Gregor von Rezzori writes about is gone, and cannot be brought back: it was destroyed by the two totalitarian systems which reigned in the twentieth century – Nazism and Stalinism. However we are currently living through times which remind us of 1914 –the aggression of Putin’s Russia against the Ukraine, in the name of protecting the Russian people across the border. We are also witnessing a rise of nationalism, not only in Russia but in many other countries too – for instance in Hungary where these tendencies are very strong and dangerous. So it’s a good idea to re-read authors like Gregor von Rezzori who wrote about the big catastrophes in the last century which were brought about mainly by nationalism. Von Rezzori was brought up in a multi-lingual surrounding which fell apart before his eyes – and it is this process which he describes so movingly in his books.”
© Jonathan Bousfield
An earlier version of this article appeared in Jutarnji list