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The Lost World

Why Gregor von Rezzori yearned for an era he never knew

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Gregor von Rezzori, the only son of a loveless marriage, entered the world at an unpropitious time—1914—and in an inauspicious place—the city formerly known as Czernowitz, capital of the region known as Bukovina, in the final days of the Hapsburg empire. He was a refugee before his first birthday and would never find a way back home. That “lost, bygone world, golden and miraculous,” as Rezzori calls it in his recently reissued 1989 memoir, The Snows of Yesteryear, had been destroyed in the cruelest war the world had ever seen. By the time he was old enough to speak, he was already nostalgic “for something forever lost, something I had already lost the moment I was born.”

Gregor von Rezzori
Gregor von Rezzori

Rezzori would devote his writing life to this curious nostalgia for a world he had never really experienced, and whose protracted death throes it had been his misfortune to experience—in the unhappy role of “flotsam of the European class struggle.” In contrast to his elder sister, born four years earlier, “before the general proletarianization of the postwar era, in a world that still believed itself to be whole,” Rezzori had been, as he put it, “a true son of the era of universal disintegration.” His writings concern the fate of people like himself, belonging to “a dying and largely superannuated caste,” and forced to live amid the ruins. He made it through the two world wars intact and found a comfortable place for himself in the new world, which he occupied with the great ambivalence of an exile from a place to which there can be no return. He wrote radio scripts and screenplays, acted in films, married an Italian countess, and wrote a series of German-language novels whose reputation has steadily waxed with the passage of the years. He died in 1998, having outlasted “the short 20th century,” as the historian Eric Hobsbawm called it, referring to the great class struggle that divided Europe until 1989. He has found in NYRB Classics, which reissued The Snows of Yesteryear and published his 1979 novel Memoirs of an Anti-Semite in 2007, a devoted steward of his legacy.

Part of what lent that lost world its golden aura was the deference it gave to German-speaking servants of the emperor, such as Rezzori’s family. Amid the wild palimpsest of peoples deposited by centuries of conquest and migration in Eastern Europe—Romanians, Ruthenians, Hungarians, Armenians, Bulgarians, Germans, Poles, Greeks, Turks, and Jews—the Austrians assumed the role of “cultural compost,” the self-deprecating term that Gregor’s father used to name the virtual monopoly on political, cultural, and economic power held by a city-dwelling German minority in the east. The city to which the Rezzoris returned in 1919 was now part of the new state of Romania, in which the Rezzoris found they were “taken over by another class to which we deemed ourselves superior but which, in fact, treated us as second-rate citizens.”

On the one hand, losing their place at the top of the racialized caste system that had permitted the many nations of Eastern Europe to live together in peace was, “for the class to which my parents belonged,” he wrote, “a fall into chaos, into impotence and deprivation, hopelessness and squalor.” Then again, “humiliation merely aggrandized, as humiliation suffered by the kinds of people who considered ourselves members of a class of masters,” will often do, the family’s threadbare pretensions to greatness:

We felt excluded, but on the other hand, our isolation made us feel out of the ordinary and even that we belonged to a chosen elite. The myth of lost wealth rankled in us but also made us arrogant. All our efforts were directed at not being deemed declassé.

This disappointed upbringing, spent in “cannibalistic solitude” among hostile strangers (a short distance from the Dniester River, the border across which the bloody birth pangs of a new proletarian utopia were taking place), made Rezzori an acute witness to the psychological condition of the Germans between the wars. Something new and dire had been unleashed into the world by the carnage of the Great War. “A species of men arose from that ghostly landscape of bomb craters and trenches whose bestiality was unconstrained,” Rezzori wrote. “A free field was given to the Hitlers and Stalins to come.”

Whereas the Rezzoris fled the loss of their privileges into self-devouring neurotic obsession (the exhaustive exposition of which makes up the bulk of The Snows of Yesteryear), other Germans responded more actively. Aggrieved at the loss of their position, morally adrift in a world in which the old traditions and hierarchies had been destroyed, thirsting for a return to greatness, inured to mechanized violence, fearful of the Bolshevik menace from the East, and even more fearful of morally subversive elements within, certain elements of the German people went on a search for scapegoats. They readily found them in the Jews.

Memoirs of an Anti-Semite is in many ways the fictional counterpart to The Snows of Yesteryear, sharing with it a social, geographical, and cultural setting, and many individual anecdotes. A loose collection of five long thematically linked short stories, the book follows its protagonist, Arnulf, through a series of episodes in which he finds himself engaged with Jews as friends, rivals, employers, business partners, persecutors, and above all, lovers—first a middle-aged Jewish shopkeeper, then the orphaned daughter of a Viennese professor, and lastly, in a short-lived second marriage, a Jewish woman who was nonetheless, as he puts it, “truly the most goyish shikseh he had ever encountered.” Arnulf is emphatically not a Hitlerite monster, or a Nazi street brawler, but, like Rezzori, a well-bred Austrian from a civil service family in the former Bukovina. He exhibits, without apology, the social snobbery of his class, but none of the racial resentment of the Nazis. He is a believer in settled hierarchies, fixed institutions, and people who know their place in the world:

The specifically Jewish quality in Jews had never repelled me so much as the attempt—doomed from the start—to hush it up, to cover it over, to deny it. The yiddling of Jews, their jittery gesticulation, their disharmony, the incessant alternation of obsequiousness and presumptuousness, were inescapable and inalienable attributes of their Jewishness. If they acted as one expected them to act, so that one could recognize them at first, one was rather pleasantly touched. They were true to themselves—that was estimable.

Gregor von Rezzori

The 19-year-old Arnulf’s contempt for those who refuse to know their place is transparently a compensation for a man who has lost his own place. He moves to Bucharest after the war and finds himself working as a window dresser for a cosmetics company—”a hod carrier, an out and out menial, for mostly Jewish shopkeepers.” He finds himself woefully unprepared for the job. Stuck amid the ups and downs of the commercial cycle, Arnulf learns empathy for the Jews. “Their hereditary milieu was the world of open possibilities, in which a man could just as easily become a Midas as get stuck in the lowliest form of donkey work,” he says. “I now understood their restlessness, their anxieties, their messianic expectations, the abrupt change from immeasurable arrogance to shamefaced self-debasement.”

Rezzori has a remarkable lyric gift that he uses to describe the wide expanses of Bukovina. In a series of beautiful set pieces, he evokes the vanishing world of Germanic chivalry, already in its last stages of degeneration into the debased kitsch that the Nazis would exploit, the emerging commercial melee of post-war Bucharest with its Armenian and Jewish shopkeepers and its red light district; and shabby-genteel Vienna, where he socializes almost exclusively with Jewish artists and musicians. He is a great hit at their parties, telling Yiddish stories and jokes he has learned on the streets of Bucharest, Czernowitz, and Lvov. Later he accidentally finds himself caught up in the surging crowds celebrating the Anschluss that brought the rump state of German Austria into the Third Reich. He is on his way to meet his girlfriend, whom he plans to marry. “The morbid, rhythmic stamping of their feet hung like a gigantic swinging cord in the silence that had fallen on Vienna,” he writes:

What the hell are we marching for? I asked the man beside me.

“Anschluss,” he barked.

Well, that literally meant “connection,” and that was exactly what I was looking for.

Should a book about the deadliest hatred of the 20th century, particularly one by a German, be so mordantly funny, so cheerfully alive? But this, of course, is how people live history. They are inattentive and self-absorbed; they worry about their next sexual conquest while the conquest of the world is being planned in distant chancelleries. Memoirs of an Anti-Semite is a horror story precisely because it so resolutely refuses to feel like one. The story it tells is of a passive, attenuated complicity, which is all the more harrowing for its passivity—for without this passivity which encompassed all but a heroic, and mostly destroyed, few, none of the worst crimes of the Nazi regime would have been possible.

Both The Snows of Yesteryear and Memoirs of an Anti-Semite close with a similar note of ambivalence. Though each in its own way ruthlessly exposes the complicity of imperial German nostalgia with history’s greatest crime, both books retain a connection to that lost world, and much distaste for the new one that took its place. In the epilogue to The Snows of Yesteryear Rezzori returns to the city of his youth, now known by its Ukrainian name of Chernovtsy, in 1989. It is a place whose racial ferment was settled once and for all in 1945, with a massive ethnic cleansing (the Jews were the first to go, to unmarked mass graves, or to extermination camps, during the war itself) that left a racially homogenous Ukrainian city behind. He finds the buildings all meticulously preserved, but the spirit of the place—”its restlessly vicious, cynically bold and melancholically skeptical spirit”—expunged. The post-war settlement had imposed decades of continuous peace on the continent. But at what cost? At no cost that can easily be quantified, but one that is nonetheless real, and which it is the job of our artists to recall.

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The Lost World

Why Gregor von Rezzori yearned for an era he never knew

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