Gregor von Rezzori Christopher Lehmann-Haupt - Essay

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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).