Gregor von Rezzori Harold Segel - Essay

Harold Segel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 class-conscious Austrian nobility among whom Rezzori grew up and whose outlook shaped and later collided with his own, anti-Semitism was a bedrock of society….

In awaking to the preposterousness of prejudice, Rezzori discovered within himself the resources for a deflationary irony, both wry and comic….

[The final chapter entitled "Pravda"] is the weakest of an otherwise entertaining and thought-provoking "novel in five stories," and not just because of the author's regurgitation of his Jewish marriage. In attempting to race through time to bring his readers up to date on the vicissitudes of his postwar career, Rezzori shifts gears from first to third person altering both narrative voice and rhythm for the worst. Forgiveness is in order, though; there are simply too many values of art and insight in the Memoirs to allow judgment to be misled by a late-appearing display of spleen or a backfired literary strategy.

An inherited class prejudice against Jews became the catalyst for Rezzori's rebellion against a static, moth-eaten, and more than slightly ridiculous world as doomed to oblivion as the Jews who were such a large part of it. The anti-Semitism of the lapsed aristocrat appears benign and bemused in the idiom of quasi-fiction, but the context of ultranationalistic pan-Germanism in which it unfolds, and which Rezzori at times delineates so tellingly, reinforces the grim awareness that it was indeed here that one of the greatest of human calamities was forged.

Harold Segel, "Goodbye to All That," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), August 30, 1981, p. 11.