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Sunday late morning

Sunday late morning

'Abel And Cain' a novel by Gregor Von Rezzori Translated from the German by David Dollenmayer

Francine du Plessix on Gregor Von Ressori

Gregor von Rezzori, whose novels and memoirs revealed the tragic sweep of European history through two world wars and beyond, died last Thursday at his home in Donnini, a village near Florence. He was 83 and also had homes in Manhattan and on the island of Rhodes.
The cause was a heart attack, said Elizabeth Sifton, his editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Mr. von Rezzori wrote most of his work in German, though he also produced highly admired prose in English and Italian. In whatever language, he evoked the collapsed polyglot world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire into which he was born. He once described himself as ''a living anachronism,'' and ''a man dreaming of a lost homeland.''

That homeland, as it emerges from his provocatively titled novel ''Memoirs of an Anti-Semite'' (published in 1981 in the United States) or from his less fictionalized autobiographical work ''The Snows of Yesteryear'' (1989) was rooted geographically, culturally and emotionally in Bukovina, a region in central Europe that at the time of Mr. von Rezzori's birth on May 13, 1914, was an outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The empire collapsed with the outbreak of World War I a few months later, and Bukovina would experience the convulsions of history that would remake the face of Europe.

Mr. von Rezzori would watch his homeland fall under the rule of Romania and the Soviet Union; today it is divided between Ukraine and Romania. But it was Bukovina as it was ruled from Vienna that served as the point of departure for Mr. von Rezzori's life and work. His hometown of Czernowitz (now Chernovtsy in Ukraine) had a rich but complicated national and ethnic history, and much of his work depicts the loss of a familiar, if never idealized, order and the onset of chaos.

Whether writing autobiography or fiction, Mr. Von Rezzori kept dissecting himself, mining his experience with an unadorned and unsympathetic memory. The narrator of his ''Memoirs of an Anti-Semite,'' a man also named Gregor, claims at one point that among the skills of survival he possesses is ''the artful feat of always holding up a new possibility of himself, a fiction of himself.''

The critic Stanley Kauffmann, reviewing the novel in The New York Times Book Review, described ''Memoirs'' as ''a literature in which the author envisions himself as a character in a design arranged from the data of his life as another author might arrange items from fictitious notes.''

''Memoirs of an Anti-Semite'' was first published in 1979, when the author was 65. It is composed of five connected stories, each dealing in some measure with the protagonist's relationship with Jews and with the expressions of attitudes toward Jews over several decades. Much of the protagonist's life resembles that of the author, who was the son of a snobbish Austro-Hungarian official who was responsible for the maintenance of art in Orthodox churches. Despite their Sicilian forebears, the von Rezzoris spoke German as their first language. As a young man the author could also make his way linguistically among the Romanians, Slovaks, Hungarians, Ukrainians and Yiddish-speaking Jews who lived in his hometown.
In the stories that make up ''Memoirs of an Anti-Semite,'' the fictional Gregor is taught in his upper-class home to have contempt for Jews as aliens, rivals, inferiors. He reveals his disdain for his Jewish classmates but makes exceptions for Jewish women, with whom he has affairs. At one point he finds himself in Vienna on the night of March 11, 1938, and is swept along by Nazi demonstrators celebrating the Anschluss. Later he marries a Jewish woman and becomes the father of a boy, whom he adores. But when the child dies at the age of 5, he confides that he would have been more comfortable had the child been born a girl since the son appeared to be ''himself as a Jew.''

The work is characterized by a candor and unstinting description of attitudes that the author must have known from both experience and observation. ''He is an artist, devilishly honest, stubborn, the creator and the created of an artwork about a survivor,'' Mr. Kauffmann wrote. ''It is through Mr. von Rezzori's art, rather than through any vanity or apology, that we are enlightened.''

Mr. von Rezzori focused more closely on his childhood and his family in ''The Snows of Yesteryear,'' a volume of reminiscences. Here the domineering, philandering and anti-Semitic figure is clearly identified as the writer's father, a descendant of impoverished nobles who left Sicily to serve emperors in Vienna. His mother is portrayed as an overprotective woman who believed she had married beneath her station.
Of his parents, Mr. von Rezzori writes: ''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.''

In her review in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote: ''In the story of his own family he finds a parable of Europe's dissolution; in the confusions of his own parents, a mirror of the losses sustained by that vanishing class of the haute bourgeoisie.'' She added: ''The wounds the family sustained were psychic ones: a Chekhovian sense of displacement, the perception that all the old certainties -- of class, religion and society -- had abruptly vanished, a disorienting fear that the world no longer corresponded to expectations.''

The book also contains Mr. von Rezzori's impressions of a visit he paid to his hometown 50 years after he left it in what was to be Czernowitz's last year under Communism. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Michael Ignatieff said that Mr. von Rezzori could well be ''the last great remembrancer of a region that has vanished from the map and mind of Europe.''

Mr. von Rezzori spent much of World War II in Berlin. In ''Memoirs of an Anti-Semite'' the fictional Gregor confessed that he had been ''a hideous fop, cynically watching the world in flames.'' In 1985, the real Gregor drew on his wartime experiences to write a huge novel called ''The Death of My Brother Abel,'' in which among many threads of narrative he presented the perspective of small aristocrats refusing to see the disappearance of their cultural and physical world.

Elie Wiesel, writing in The Washington Post, said: ''If a great novel can be recognized by its obsessions, its characters and above all its tone, then 'The Death of My Brother Abel' is unquestionably great.''

These books secured Mr. von Rezzori's international reputation rather late in his life. But altogether he wrote some 20 books, beginning shortly after the war while also working as a radio script writer in Germany. In the earlier works, among them a four-volume ''Idiot's Guide to German Society,'' he skewered German society both during the war and through the postwar period of de-Nazification and economic renewal.
Since the 1960's his reputation in Germany and much of Europe has grown from that of a facile and cynical commentator to one of the most serious writers in the German language. He was acclaimed for carefully following his own precept: ''You must never undertake the search for time lost in the spirit of nostalgic tourism.''

A handsome man and an engaging conversationalist, he was once described by Francine du Plessix Gray as having ''a majestic courtly manner that made him look as if he were perennially hosting a reception in some Middle European palace.'' In fact, as a personal protest of war and the irrationality of politics, he spent decades as a stateless person until the inconvenience of seeking visas drove him to take up Austrian nationality.

He cherished friendship, maintaining it was the central ingredient to any happiness, ''vastly superior to romance, family, children, sexual love.'' By all accounts he was good at it. One old friend, the film director Louis Malle, cast him as the father of the character played by Brigitte Bardot in his 1965 movie ''Viva Maria'' as an act of homage but also because he needed a figure who would look impressive on horseback.
While he was making the film, he met, fell in love with and married Beatrice Monti della Corte, an Italian aristocrat who had an art gallery in Milan that was among the first in Europe to seriously promote the work of American artists. Another friend, the writer Bruce Chatwin, wrote about staying in the medieval tower that the von Rezzoris offered to guests at their farmhouse in Tuscany. Michael Ondaatje, the Canadian writer and author of ''The English Patient,'' was another frequent writing guest.

Mr. von Rezzori is survived by his wife. He had two sons by an earlier marriage to a Prussian woman, but details of his survivors were incomplete yesterday. Gregor von Rezzori had a gift for aphorisms and pithy wit, as he revealed in an interview in Britain in which he was invited to give short answers to short questions:

What is your greatest extravagance?


What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?


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