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Gregor von Rezzori: An Ermine in Czernopol

An Ermine in Czernopol

Excellent Max Beckmann cover

I’m coming to believe that Gregor von Rezzori (1914-1998) was one of the greatest postwar German-language writers. His work has a sensitivity and more significantly an intelligence stronger than so many of his contemporaries. His socio-intellectual analysis, in particular, stands respectively close to that of his avowed hero Robert Musil, even though Rezzori implicitly acknowledges that he can’t match him. (Rezzori even wrote a long unfinished two-part novel, The Death of My Brother Abel/Cain, just as Musil did. I have yet to read it)

He outdoes many other notables: Heinrich Boll, Wolfgang Koeppen, Peter Weiss, Arno Schmidt, W.G. Sebald, Stefan Heym, Gunter Grass, Christa Wolf, Heimito von Doderer. And I think his work approaches what I consider the upper echelon of postwar Germanic letters: Ingeborg Bachmann, Uwe Johnson, Thomas Bernhard, Adelheid Duvanel, Alexander Kluge. And going back a bit, he leaves Stefan Zweig in the dust and outdoes Hermann Broch‘s The Sleepwalkers.

I’m listing all these names not to show off but because Rezzori still seems like an odd figure to place in their company. Why? Because from all I’ve read, he was quite the bon vivant and well-adjusted man who wrote popular trashy books like The Idiot’s Guide to German Society and even more bizarrely, hosted a tv show called Jolly Joker, which seems to have been an Austrian version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

That all apparently damaged his standing with critics a bit, and even I find it difficult to reconcile with the sheer sensitivity in the writing I’ve read. His memoir The Snows of Yesteryear (inferior to its German title Blumen im Schnee) and his non-memoir Memoirs of an Anti-Semite are both remarkable works, suffused with a great deal of sympathy and very carefully observed. This wonderful passage from Snows, about his childhood maid, captures his talent:

Cassandra’s superstitious awe of the reality of letters, and her ultimate and voluntary rejection of their decipherment, originated in a much more archaic insight. 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. It irritated her to see that we had lost the sense of its terrifying uncanniness and that reading was an everyday custom, publicly performed, nay, that it could even become a vice, as exemplified by my sister. With the instinctive certainty of the creature being, she felt that such casual handling of the irrational was bound in turn to generate irrationality.

She realized that for those who had acquired it, the ability to read conferred power over those to whom the written or printed word remained a sealed mystery. But she also knew that this was a power pertaining to black magic–that it turns against its own practitioners and transforms them into slaves of the abstract. She saw in it a truly devilish power, since its manipulators, who also were its most immediate victims, were not even aware of its nefarious effects.

Gregor von Rezzori, The Snows of Yesteryear

So now comes An Ermine in Czernopol (1966) in a new translation from New York Review Books, an apparently autobiographical novel set in the 1920s in a fictionalized version of Czernowitz, a cosmopolitan city which belonged to Austria-Hungary until 1918, then to Romania until 1940, when it was captured by the Soviets. Today it is part of the Ukraine and is known as Chernivtsi (it has had other names). The name “Czernopol” may be an attempt to capture the city’s essential statelessness.

All this background is somewhat necessary because although the back describes the novel as the story of the anachronistic military officer Tildy, his story only makes up one of many in the novel, which is intentionally fragmented and prodigal. The construction may be the most remarkable aspect. The individual pieces are inconsistent, some characters making a stronger impression than others, but the overall flow is quite unusual and striking. While assembling a portrait of the city in the 1920s, when a pluralistic culture is thriving but dark forces quietly swell in the shadows, the organizing principle is the sense of growing up from child through the teenage years, as seen by a set of siblings.

For much of the novel the siblings are undifferentiated: the narrator is the collective “we.” Only in the latter half does the eldest, Tanya, come into her own and separate from them, and “I” begins to assert himself as well. Tanya will die at 20, we are told, just as Rezzori’s own sister did; he tells of her death in Snows and how much he has missed her for the past 50 years. That sense of breakup, and the sense of youths diverging in tandem with the fracture of the city, is the true center of the novel, and it is deeply affecting.

In keeping with the strange, disorganized time-flow of childhood, other characters make abrupt entrances and exits and recurrences. Tildy, the haplessly chivalric and obstreperous officer who is far too eager to challenge people to duels, disappears for the bulk of the middle of the novel. Mostly we hear of the tutors and prefects and schoolmasters who provide the siblings with what sounds like a damn fine liberal education. We also begin to hear of the casual anti-semitism of the siblings’ parents and extended family, and their aunt’s association with a group of proto-fascists who rail against the sarcastic, urbane liberal press (who are friends and fans of Karl Kraus) and of course the Jewish presence in the liberal press and in the city in general. The proto-fascists come off as uncivilized, sinister buffoons rather than violent menaces, but it’s fairly clear where the line leads, even as it’s also clear why none of the characters are able to anticipate how deadly it will become. For all its idiocies and disasters, urban civilization seems so robust and tolerant, doesn’t it?

The children come to gain this perspective from those around them: The Great War happened; it was the folly of the educated, civilized world; as civilized people we have learned from it; such gruesome folly can never happen again. The novel begins just as the Great War is ending:

We were particularly taken by the young noncommissioned officers: slight, gangly figures so completely bloodless they might have sprung from the soil of the trenches and crater-fields instead of a mother. But because we had been assured that they wrote the most beautiful poems, or at least carried the same with them in little volumes—because they fought to purify the soul more than merely to win the war—and hence their rather certain death was not only a casualty of enemy fire but a sanctified sacrifice on the altar of the highest human values, we felt obliged to somehow square this spirit with the horror. (92)

And this sort of romanticism is something that indeed disappears from the rest of the novel. (Tildy remains its sole exponent.) That is not the future threat.

As to that future threat: there are a fair number of Jewish characters, from the sensitive student Blanche Schlesinger to the Brill family, and the children spend a good deal of time attending Madame Fiokla Aritonovich’s Institute until their quietly anti-semitic parents pull them out. The children know of the anti-semitism but they never quite comprehend what exactly it is or exactly where these mostly assimilated Jews fit into the picture of society. Even among adults, the sense is that anti-semitism isn’t something that was ignored so much as not understood, not even by the anti-semites themselves. This is arguably more depressing, since the implication is that even if we were to look for the dangerous signs of hatred and intolerance, even the intelligent among us would be too stupid to recognize them.

Long after we had left Czernopol, whenever we thought about the Jews in those surroundings, what always came to mind, from all the myriad faces and figures, was the otherness of that gaze.  The Jews were many eyes. We told ourselves that for them we were probably also many eyes. Because nothing gives a more painful demonstration of how far apart we humans truly are than eyes peering out at us from the mask of a different race.

Their gaze hits us like that of a prisoner looking through the bars of his cell. We consider ourselves free, and view others as free as long as we can see through their faces, because they have been shaped in the same way that our face, which we cannot see, has been shaped. But where a different world has left its imprint to obstruct our vision, we recognize just how much we are trapped behind our own masks.

In fact, we never truly love the other, but merely the different world he represents. (310)

Rezzori would later refine this message to a sharper point in Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, where the main character remains a stand-in for Rezzori himself and is not spared condemnation.

Rezzori reaches for Musil-esque levels of societal observation with a higher success rate than most. Speaking of the archaic character of Tildy and his hellbent intention on molding his destiny, Rezzori writes:

Destinies have become as rare as people with character, and they are becoming harder and harder to find, the more we insist on replacing the concept of character with that of personality. (33)

Which is a fairly pithy summary of the psychological  modernist shift. And indeed many of the more intellectual characters are both more multifaceted and more amorphous. Some still make a strong impression. Tutor Herr Alexianu, who raves about the ideas of his cynical, cod-Nietzschean friend Herr Nastase, is hysterical:

“He talks about all this in front of women without the slightest embarrassment. And they love him. They all love him. But as far as he himself is concerned, he refrains from any kind of reciprocity in love. And he does this consciously and intentionally. He calls it his form of monastic asceticism. It is part of his purity, his chastity, not to love. He despites the idea of si vis amari, ama. He says, and correctly, that it is the expression of a half-intellectual, an amateur poet courting the favor of the masses.” (67)

But such humor fades away later on in the novel, when the petty fascism of Herr Adamowski replaces the decadent self-indulgence of Alexianu and the severe skepticism of Herr Tarangolian. Tildy stands somewhat apart from him because he has a story and his story is reasonably self-contained, but his time has passed too, and in fact passed before the novel even began. His miserable fate signals only that old-fashioned Burkean values will not step in where urban liberalism has failed.

Still, all these characters are chiefly part of a background, overshadowed by a very deliberate attempt to portray the process of maturation in a modernist technique that draws heavily on Musil and Proust. (In an interview with Andre Aciman, he cites those two as well as Broch and Joyce as his primary models.) It is an attempt to project their method onto the postwar years, to prove that critical, sensitive, patient portrayals of psychology and civilization still have something to offer despite the increasing noise of industrial and popular culture. I think Rezzori makes his case rather well, but admittedly I’m already in his corner.

Nonetheless, assessing the novel as fundamentally realistic will make it seem like a failure. It was never meant to be; it is fundamentally an internal novel, but the internals are those of children and so are only obtained through retrospection and the jumbling imposition of clumsy, post-hoc systems of narration on them. And depicting this compellingly is a very significant achievement.

Rezzori’s work has touches of affectionate sentiment, but it is primarily bleak. Rezzori declared his utter pessimism and despair with humanity in interviews. How to square this with the host of Jolly Joker and the seemingly comfortable life he lived out, even the comfort with which he gave such interviews? It is one thing to be a Franzen or a McEwan and fail completely to live up to the pretense one has taken on of diagnosing the problems of our time: any complacency then seems perfectly in keeping with the pose. But Rezzori’s sensitivity to pain seems too much like something that would cause him genuine angst. Perhaps it did and he could only show it in the most refractory way. Perhaps it just didn’t.

And what to make of this passage in his author bio—present in every back cover bio I have seen—full of sinister import but not (as far as I can find) something whose details have been publicized:

During World War II, he lived in Berlin, where he worked as a radio broadcaster and published his first novel.

In Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, Rezzori describes his fictionalized self as “the hideous fop who, under the hail of bombs on Berlin in 1943, leads an idler’s life, cynically watching a world in flames, millions of people dying.” No mention of the radio broadcasting though, as though he purposefully left mention of it in his biography in order to raise suspicion. I call out the detail here not because I have any conclusive assessment of it, but because I think this unease is at the very center of his work.



  2. But trivial clowning is a well established response to thoroughgone pessimism! (Or, to interpret the evidence another way, early success in trivial clowning has often launched a career into universal despair.) After all, how else is one supposed to act when, by definition, no solution is possible? Suicide might reduce the annoyance of future choosing, but (for most individuals) won’t contribute much to culture at large. Under — well under — the circumstances, I consider hosting “America’s Funniest Home Videos” a far more respectable reaction than the stoic-mandarin shtick of someone like Beckett, as if there actually is such a thing as human dignity so long as it helps you pick up girls.

    • David Auerbach

      5 February 2012 at 15:41

      I’ve mocked what you aptly term the “stoic-mandarin shtick” elsewhere, but he could still be accused of disingenuousness or fiddling while Rome burns. But if the way one lives involves playing fiddles in one way or another, it’s true that it would be snobbery to insist that only Nigel Kennedy playing Bach on a Stradivarius is acceptable fiddling, rather than bluegrass or czardas.

  3. michael jenning

    8 February 2012 at 22:36

    Well, I’m intimidated by the erudition and wit displayed by your interchange. My modest offering is this: I just discovered von Rezzori, and as a veteran reader of the great diaspora writers (Zweig, Joseph Roth, Adler, Musil), I’m delightfully overwhelmed. I think “Cassandra” from “The Snows of Yesteryear” is a masterpiece, and I can’t wait to read the novels. I will now lapse into appreciative silence. Thank you.

  4. Ezzelino von Wedel

    29 March 2014 at 08:12

    Rezzori wasn’t a radio reporter in Berlin. He started working for the NWDR (Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk) in Hamburg after WWII. He spent the years during the war with writing 3 novels for a fashionable ladie’s magazine. These novels have been out of print since then, but they are quite entertaing and well written, though not to be compared to his later work.

  5. Thank you for the info. It seems some biographies seriously need updating.

  6. Ivan Sedgwick

    4 May 2014 at 07:00

    Von Rezzori was not called up by the Germans as he was a Romanian citizen (at the time) though as an Austrian no longer welcome in his native Bukovina. Like Tildy.
    There is a rather touching short interview with his widow on You Tube in which she mentions that the first English translation of Ermine was pulled by von Rezzori as unsatisfactory. I’ve just read the recent one and it seemed very heavy going and dense, with no consistent register, which the translations of Diary of an anti Semite and Snows of Yesteryear are not. A shame. Still a wonderful book, I just wish my German was up to the original.

    • michael jenning

      4 May 2014 at 13:58

      I agree with Ivan S re the heavy-going in “Ermine,” tho I still liked it. I couldn’t get past the beginning of “The Death of My Brother Abel,” however. I always think of the first section of “Snows Of Yesteryear” and how much I loved it, but it seemed to have been written by a different writer than the one who published “…Abel.” First-rate writer when he was on his game, and I’m looking for his face in some of the films he did…

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