Gregor von Rezzori 1914–
In his autobiographical fiction Rezzori, who now lives in Italy and writes in German, portrays the colorful and volatile milieu of central Europe after the First World War.
Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, his recent "novel in five stories," provides ironic and disturbing insight into the prevalent anti-Semitism of the pre-Second World War era by candidly examining Rezzori's own culturally inherited prejudices and values. The Hussar, an earlier novel, earned praise for the energetic and intricately textured prose with which Rezzori fashioned an imaginary city, Tchernopol, and its picturesque inhabitants.
If there ever existed a melting pot, it was the city of Tchernopol, situated in some vague Eastern European country …, a place thriving on splendid feuds, relishing wit and stupidity, and living in four centuries simultaneously. Tchernopol, formerly imperial Austrian, now Polish or Czech—who knows? possesses an alert skepticism of everything, above all of itself. The city is the heroine of this strange, brilliant and exasperating novel ["The Hussar"] by Gregor von Rezzori….
In many respects, this is a picaresque novel, abounding in knaves, rascals, innocent children and talkative bystanders. The scoundrels have the upper hand in every way, and the earlier chapters will lull readers into a false security: namely, that we are in for a delightful chronicle of roguery. But although the scalawags in Tchernopol deceive everyone except other scalawags, the author fools his readers, changes keys gradually and ends on a nearly tragic note. We must emphasize the word nearly—it is hard to say when the author wants us to take him seriously. Most of the time, he seems to be winking at the reader while relating the capricious doings of his bizarre characters….
What about plot? What about heroes? Mr. Rezzori can't be bothered. He presents a mosaic of anecdotes, contemplations, lyrical hymns (descriptions of neglected gardens delight him forever), arguments, parodies, sketches and dialogues discussing all events described, plus others he has had no time to relate. He never catches up with himself. His inventiveness is as unlimited as his gusto and energy. He mixes the comic and the horrifying; he exalts the tender beauty of a feminine character on one page, and, on the next, spends as much time recounting a freakish business deal….
To be truthful, Mr. Rezzori does not care much for connecting incidents. He is enamored of his language, which seems to produce all the characters and incidents. It is typical of the book that most of its people are enthusiastic talkers….
Now and then, the author interrupts himself and promises to get on with the story, but he is not able to do so. In less experienced hands this nonchalance might have become fatal. Mr. Rezzori's narrative, gushing forth from the well of a boundless imagination, is never dull.
Richard Plant, "Scoundrels Had the Upper Hand in Every Way," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1960 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 10, 1960, p. 4.
In his childish innocence the nameless young narrator of this affectionate Old-World chronicle ["The Hussar"] had worshipped [a] colorful hussar as a quixotic white knight….
[Gregor von Rezzori] uses the hussar as a wonderful excuse to explore the local folkways and to remember lovingly the wonder of growing up in … a heady and volatile atmosphere. As he doggedly follows the tenuous thread of Major Tildy's misfortunes, he introduces half the inhabitants of Tchernopol, where half a dozen nationalities and religions jostle for attention. Except for an ugly current of anti-Semitism, life is thoroughly relaxed and good-humored.
The leisurely and episodic narrative is dexterously held together by an engaging point of view that neatly blends the wide-eyed wonder of a child with the disenchantment of a remembering adult. The initial tone of gentle irony and satire melts into a mood of elegiac sadness for a city that could debase a proud hussar and allow a soccer match to explode into a short vicious pogrom. Though obviously autobiographical in inspiration, "The Hussar" is far more than a collection of scrappy memories. It is an extremely artful and frequently witty evocation of all the charms and contradictions of a bustling Central European city.
Robert C. Healey, "Sad, Witty and Charming," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), May 29, 1960, p. 8.
How protected we are by our trust in the good manners of American publishers. We pick up Gregor von Rezzori's novel without batting an eye, knowing full well that its title, "Memoirs of an Anti-Semite" must be ironic, or at least ambiguous. And of course we are right. In the novel's fifth and final episode, called "Pravda" because it may be anything beside the truth, the narrator reflects from the vantage point of 1979 on his talents for declaring his past selves a fiction—"Indispensable talents, if you wanted to survive. For otherwise, how could you stand the look of your face of yesterday." Finally, the entire contents of these "Memoirs" are declared to be fiction.
On the other hand, the stories told in them are very close to autobiography, for the narrator strongly resembles the author…. And though the narrator is exceedingly hard on himself, the fact remains that he was raised to despise Jews by his aristocratic father…. [All] the complex causes of European anti-Semitism are anatomized in these pages. Nothing is made prettier than it was. Nothing is glossed over.
Still, though we never escape the theme of anti-Semitism, it is not what is uppermost in our minds when we turn the final pages. What we recall then is the breathtaking richness of the history it recounts and the extraordinary way it makes time pass by. (p. 416)
Yet it is not alone for the vividness of its settings and characters that we attend to "Memoirs of an Anti-Semite." We also savor the sound of the author's voice, an extraordinary blend of bitter self-denigration and sweet recollection….
And of course we can never avert our eyes from the dissection of anti-Semitism that keeps going on in the background—a dissection that amounts to an anatomy of Central Europe in the 20th century. (p. 417)
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "'Memoirs of an Anti-Semite'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 1, 1981 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. IV, No. 9, September, 1981, pp. 416-17).
Those who expect the sensational or a tract from Rezzori's title ["Memoirs of an Anti-Semite"] will find something very different. He might even be described as anti-Semite manqué, coming from a country where anti-Semitism—among other "anti" passions—was endemic by tradition. More accurately, like the arrogant young Jewish pianist whose gifts enchanted him but of whom he was violently jealous for other reasons when he was thirteen, Rezzori is an artist with a demon in him.
The episode with the young pianist occurs in the first of the four half-fictional disquisitional stories in which this vivid to-ing and fro-ing autobiography is enclosed. They are speculative dramatizations of the myths against which he rebelled in a youth that went adrift in the political catastrophes in the Middle Europe of his past. In an epilogue his mind scurries through a kind of reverie about some of the private disasters of his middle years which had not taken story form. This, I think, is a loss. But his conclusion revives a very generalized misanthropy which reminds one of Spengler's Decline of the West: the once confident Western "goys" themselves may, in their turn, become displaced persons, too gifted for a banal proletarian dispensation.
The word "troth" spoken by the most engaging and sisterly of the Jewish women the author has been in love with is at the heart of all his stories of a changing self. For his father, a minor landowner is Bukovina, troth means an inherited loyalty to the Austro-Hungarian Empire….
The father's sense of caste brought boredom into the house, and as a boy the author suffered long spells of what the Russians call skushno, i.e., an ennui, a sense of "a spiritual void that sucks you in like a vague but intensely urgent longing." The longing is strongly influenced by the fact that the boy is the...
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Memoirs, not confessions: this anti-Semite asks not to be forgiven, he asks to be enjoyed [in Memoirs of an Anti-Semite]. Enjoying him is not hard; Gregor von Rezzori is a wizard of a writer. There is sin, but there is also style. Rezzori flaunts both. He will leave many readers in a muddle, and he will win many admirers. The man's malice is really elegant. His book is a new avenue through the century's most disgusting decades. It is the persecution of the Jews as told by a dandy.
Rezzori calls his book a novel, and he cannot be blamed for not calling it an autobiography. Fact or fiction, it is a book proudly consecrated to truth. (The last chapter, entitled "Pravda," is an apology for the author's embellishments, and for the author.) The impassioned protagonist of this chronicle of prejudice is Gregor, who was born during the Great War into an aristocratic Austrian family marooned in the Bukovina by the breakup of the empire. His father keeps faith with the imperial ideal; he fusses over a very ceremonial "German-hood" and—the primary demonstration of his undefeated Austrian patriotism—he hunts. He instills his son with a fitting hatred of the Jews, and of the mind as Jews practice it…. [Gregor's] ambition was the sporting life, and sex; and he did not want for horses and women. Yet he is left with the memory of a life that has miscarried. His marriages fail, his son dies, his culture disappears.
What has all this to do with the Jews? Gregor has a hypothesis about his life. His memoir interprets his life according to the appearance in it of Jews at its most critical moments. Jews, especially the women, have been the instruments of his humiliation. It is a short fall from the amorist to the anti-Semite, because Gregor is a sucker for Jewish women. He is a philo-Semite in bed. He admires the "Oriental" charms of his accommodating Jewesses, and is deeply affected by the ancient tragedy he detects in their eyes…. [But when] the women disappoint, so does the race. (p. 29)...
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The jacket of this rich, disquietingly good book calls ["Memoirs of an Anti-Semite"] "a novel in five stories." Though these five long stories are independent, they are linked and dramatically cumulative. One can accept them as component parts of an organism, but there are reasons to examine the term "novel."…
Most of [the facts about the author] are also true of the book's protagonist, or are transparently touched up, and all the other facts of the book fit between or around them logically. Four of the five pieces are in the first person, whose name is Gregor. But I don't suggest that "Memoirs of an Anti-Semite" is simply autobiography costumed as a novel; nor is it a conventional autobiographical...
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Jews are the complicated walking symbol of von Rezzori's alienated state, the Jews of his boyhood and young manhood. Jews he has feared, loved, desired, betrayed, degraded and been degraded by, and of whom he has said to himself, "Whatever else I am, at least I am not that, but why is it I can never get away from them?" Jews he must scorn, patronize, flee from, merge with, drown in, be endlessly embroiled with. Jews he needs to separate from, cleanse himself of, extend recognition to, come to terms with. And never does….
[Memoirs of an Anti-Semite] is composed of five pieces, four of which are highly shaped reminiscences of different periods of the author's life. Each reminiscence...
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To the individual dislocated by social change as much as by the upheaval of war, the memoir becomes less the literary retrieval of a past than a self-explication in terms of a value system irretrievably lost. The resources of fiction that can effectively be utilized for this purpose are handsomely exemplified by Czeslaw Milosz's The Issa Valley and Rezzori's Memoirs. The projection of the self as fictional hero lifts the constraints of linear narration, permitting changes of perspective (in Rezzori, through the fictionalization of the autobiographical "I") and the reordering of experience into the components of the novel.
For the landowning, hunt-loving (this above all), and...
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It matters little how much of Memoirs of an Anti-Semite may be autobiographical; the book's achievement overshadows its origins. These haunting stories portray history unwinding within a single skull, a cultivated, often charming mind being betrayed by a catastrophic flaw. They also show how such treason, magnified many millions of times, led civilization itself to the brink.
Paul Gray, "Divided Soul," in Time (copyright 1981 Time Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission from Time), Vol. 118, No. 11, September 14, 1981, p. 100.
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