Authors: Gregor von Rezzori
GREGOR VON REZZORI (1914â1998) was born in Czernowitz (now Chernivtsi, Ukraine), Bukovina, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He later described his childhood in a family of declining fortunes as one “spent among slightly mad and dislocated personalities in a period that also was mad and dislocated and filled with unrest.” After studying at the University of Vienna, Rezzori moved to Bucharest and enlisted in the Romanian army. During World War II, he lived in Berlin, where he worked as a radio broadcaster and published his first novel. In West Germany after the war, he wrote for both radio and film and began publishing books at a rapid rate, including the four-volume
Idiot's Guide to German Society
An Ermine in CzernopolÂ
(published by NYRB Classics). From the late 1950s on, Rezzori had parts in several French and West German films, including one directed by his friend Louis Malle. In 1967, after spending years classified as a stateless person, Rezzori settled in a fifteenth-century farmhouse outside of Florence with his wife, gallery owner Beatrice Monti. There he produced some of his best-known works, among them
Death of My Brother Abel, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite
, and the memoir
The Snows of Yesteryear: Portraits for an Autobiography
(available as an NYRB Classics).
DEBORAH EISENBERG is the author of four collections of short stories and a play. She is the winner of the 2000 Rea Award for the Short Story, a Whiting Writers' Award, a Lannan Foundation Fellowship, and five O. Henry Awards. She lives in New York City.
MEMOIRS OF AN ANTI-SEMITE
A Novel in Five Stories
GREGOR VON REZZORI
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS
The friend who introduced me to Ivan Turgenev's short novel
, characterized it as a beautiful thing that's made out of ugly things, and it has occurred to me since that a substantial quotient of ugliness may well be integral to all truly beautiful literary works. In any case, there can be few books rooted in a more profound ugliness than Gregor von Rezzori's
Memoirs of an Anti-Semite
, which so vividly, so feelingly, so elegantly, with such tender care, anarchic humor, and shocking honesty portrays the crucible of Central Europe during the first half of the twentieth century, with its catastrophically toxic compound of cultural elements and historical impulses.
Rezzori was born in 1914 in the Bukovina, and he preserves in print, in this and other books, the immense vitality of the region at that timeâthe linguistic and ethnic ferment, the vast, brooding landscapes lit by the fading glow of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the borderland combustibility. As a young man, Rezzori also spent time in Vienna, where he studied and had family, in Bucharest, and in Berlin, and he can cause those cities to spring to life on a page with such intense immediacy that you can practically drink the coffee and eat the pastry.
Memoirs of an Anti-Semite
was first published in its entirety in German, in 1979, but the story “Troth,” which the polyglot author wrote in English, appeared ten years earlier in
The New Yorker
under the title “Memoirs of an Anti-Semite.” And although the book was written decades after World War II, most of it is set in the preceding years, along the road to that war.
The cultural life of Germany and Central Europe in the 1910s, '20s, and '30s burns so brightly against its dark background that for many of us who weren't there it has the force of thwarted memory, of something that grieving is straining to reinstate. And the art of the periodâmusic, film, painting, architecture, and literatureâwith its probing, uneasy, anticipatory qualities, seems to be straining forward for some sort of information or resolution from the far side of the immense blood-filled trench that violently severs one part of history from another.
It is sickeningly clear to us, now, just what is about to happen back then, on the other side. And yet, though the abyss yawns conspicuously in their path, the people walking around in that particular past seem nearly oblivious. Why, why on earth don't they watch where they're going?
The names of certain years are like tolling bells that announce not only the horrors each contains, but also the greater ones to come: 1919âthe Treaty of Versailles; 1923âthe apex of hyperinflation in Germany; 1933âthe Reichstag fire, which enabled Hitler to seize power by declaring a “state of emergency”; 1935âthe Nuremberg Laws, which stripped German Jews of citizenship; 1938âAnschluss, the annexation of Austria into the German Reich; Kristallnacht, the state-sponsored pogrom against Jews throughout the Reich; 1939âthe German invasion of Poland; 1942âthe Wannsee Conference, at which the program was devised to eradicate all Jews by means of extermination camps.
And of course between these years and within each of them, there are the myriad new rules, decrees and laws, economic and social events, and developments within the Church as well as within the medical and academic establishments, all of which were to signify in the ensuing immolation of a large part of the world.
The incremental contributions to the intertwined catastrophesâthe war and the attempted genocide of the Jewsâcontinue to be sifted and scrutinized. And there are many contemporaneous reports available to us. We have a number of astonishing witnesses' accounts from people who were soon to be murdered and from some who, against all likelihood, evaded murder. And we have the Nazi's hair-raisingly meticulous records of their programs, policies, and deeds, their triumphal speeches and exhaustive propaganda. There are also some superb diaries and memoirs by people like Sebastian Haffner and Missy Vassiltchikov, who could perfectly well have led successful lives within the Third Reich but who instead dedicated themselves to opposing it.
But with all this wealth of documentation, one thing that we have very little insight into is what it felt like to be someone who managed somehow to remain relatively unaffected by and relatively unconcerned with the government's darkening shadow. What about the person who was managing just to go about his or her business? What might such a person have been experiencing at each turn, at each of the moments that, in retrospect at least, appear as so starkly significant?
Once a great public cataclysm has occurred, it is nearly impossible for people to recall what it is they felt and how they behaved during it or just prior to it. Misery is a potent aid in obliterating memory, and shame in distorting it. The mind's mandate is to interpret, and even in the most routine course of things the mind confects a stanceâcodifies, retroactively, reactions and attitudes; interpretation springs instantaneously from experience, but interpretation is inherently inaccurate.
Perhaps Rezzori's most astounding coup in this book is to keep his narrator's consciousness severely restricted to the moment it is experiencing, his tone pristinely untouched by the reader's (and author's) indelible awareness of the conflagration about to engulf entire populations. The stories are told from some unspecified “present” about a younger self. Yet throughout those sections of the book set before the war, there is no stain of hindsightâsanctimony, apology, self-exoneration, regret, or even sobriety regarding the shattering events that are soon to follow. It is a fastidious exploration of a psyche in circumstances that became extraordinary, and it sheds more light on murderous and suicidal human irrationality than any other single work I've encountered. It is alsoâhowever troublinglyâdeliriously
and a virtuoso literary performance.
The complexities of the book's title alone, the tangled and ambiguous colorationsâbrutal, nostalgic, formal, comedic, goading, confessionalâput one off-balance and on guard before one even reaches the subtitle:
A Novel in Five Stories
, itself arrestingly equivocal.
I'd assume this choice of subtitle was at least in part a marketing decision: novels are more saleable than stories, never mind that the book is not really a novel at all. On the other hand, neither is the book exactly a collection of stories. The sections, each of which is complete in itself, are, in fact, relatedâthough it's hard to say exactly
; they're certainly not related in any way that free-standing segments of a novel might be expected to be related.
The first and last sections of the book have Russian titlesâ“
” and “
, we're told immediately, “is difficult to translate. It means more than dreary boredom: a spiritual void that sucks you in like a vague but intensely urgent longing.”
, on the other hand, we can all easily translate, and yetâas exemplified, for instance, by the famous Soviet newspaper from whose name most of us know the wordâwhether it actually means anything is debatable.
What impels the book's first section toward the dubious, fragmented goal of the last, expresses itself variously in the course of the intervening stories as a longing for one's childhood landscapeâsource and symbol of one's integration into the universeâthe longing for something to believe in, the longing for something to be loyal to, the longing for something to
: childish and adolescent longings, the longings of the pure in heartâromantic, innocent, and noble. Or so they seem to those who hold or extol them. But under Rezzori's unflinching gaze the sentimental haze evaporates from around them and we watch notions of “loyalty” and “identity” degrade into little more than fertile soil for the cultivation of hatred.
Anti-Semitism, in various aspectsâmild distaste or virulent loathing, unabashedly arbitrary or justified by religious dogma or some idea of “race”âis the element that shapes each story in the book. Or, to put it another way, deforms what each story would be if anti-Semitism were not an overwhelming element in the narrator's consciousness and history.
” the young narrator's uncle Hubi fondly recalls an encounter with a distinguished neighbor, Saul Goldmann, casting a sickening display of bigotry as a youthful, high-spirited witticism. Anti-Semitism recurs throughout the book as foible, ornament, quirk, heirloom, side effect, deviceâin short, always as something trivial.
The particularly dazzling story “Troth” is a vertiginous slalom down inter-looping trails of absurd logic, all constructed in the service of untenable ideas. Here is the narrator's placidly anti-Semitic Viennese grandmother shortly after Germany has annexed Austria:
Coming back from Mass, she had been laughed at and shouted at in the open street, and nearly man-handled, by a handful of young rowdies who were forcing a group of Jews to wash slogans for the Schuschnigg regime off the wall of a house. Among those Jews, my grandmother recognized a physician who had once cured one of my aunts of a painful otitis media, and she interfered, attacking the young rowdies with her umbrella and shouting that this was going too far.
A marvelous phrase, “going too far.” How far is precisely far enough? What is a judicious, a decorous, an appropriate measure of contemptâthe precise amount of contempt in which a Jew ought to be held? And how much is excessive, or, even worse, vulgar?
Rezzori is exquisitely sensitive to indices of status, and anti-Semitism frequently appears in the book as a function of prestige. Here, again from “Troth,” the narrator is describing a local charlatan, who calls himself Mr. Malik. Though Mr. Malik turns out, unsurprisingly, to be a passionate admirer of Hitler, the same grandmother of the narrator (whose vast string of ridiculously pompous names are summarily discarded by his Jewish friend, lover, and mentor, Minka, in favor of “Brommy”) takes it for granted that because Mr. Malik's name is obviously assumed, he must be a Jew. And