Lament for the members of a class of masters

Gabriele Annan

Gregor von Rezzori was born on his mother’s estate in Bukovina in 1914. Bukovina was Austrian in those days, Romanian after the First World War, and Russian after the second. The Rezzoris were minor Austrian gentry administering the outposts of empire, more like the British in India than like the magnates who entertained Patrick Leigh-Fermor when he passed through the Balkans. There was Italian blood on the father’s side and Romanian-Greek and Irish on the mother’s. Rezzori is very much concerned with blood and racial inheritance in all his books. The concern itself appears to be an inheritance: his father was steeped in late 19th-century Greater German ideology. He was also unquestioningly anti-semitic. Rezzori deplores such attitudes: but he can never leave them alone – they are an ingredient in the fuel he runs on.

When the war broke out his father joined the Austrian Army. The Russians advanced towards the border and his mother fled with Gregor and his four-year-old sister to a paternal family house near Trieste. A year later Italy entered the war, and they fled again, this time to Lower Austria. After the war they returned to Bukovina, and settled in Czernowitz, a multi-racial city of Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Austrians, Armenians, Ruthenians and members of exotic Balkan tribes like Lipovanians and Huzules (every time a Huzule comes into the story, Rezzori reminds one that they are descendants of the Dacians whom the Romans drove into the Carpathian mountains). The Rezzoris had become unenthusiastic possessors of Romanian passports and members of the particularly unpopular German-speaking minority. They kept themselves to themselves. The children were hardly ever allowed out of the garden of their large villa on the edge of the town, except to visit the estates they still owned in the country. The parents’ marriage broke up. Gregor was sent to various boarding-schools, in Austria and in the German enclave of Kronstadt in Transylvania. By the time of the Anschluss he was a student in Vienna. His books have been dining out on this curriculum vitae ever since – dining out in the best sense: entertaining, informing, reminiscing, evoking, philosophising, flirting, analysing the zeitgeist; witty, melancholy, cynical and sexy; and just occasionally buttonholing the audience and thundering on about how things aren’t what they used to be under the ancien régime.

Like a Central European Jean Rhys, he never stops re-inventing himself and recycling his exceptionally picturesque and picaresque past. In his best-known work, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, the central figure admits as much to the second of his three wives: ‘I invent myself in my own novels: that’s my way of escaping an unbearable reality. And as for what you tell me about the necessity of identifying with the hero, or, more recently, the anti-hero, I manage to do that effortlessly: I am my own protagonist from the very start.’ Later in the same book ‘with the detachment of a 65-year-old’, the hero or anti-hero ‘senses that his strength for re-inventing reality is beginning to wane, the reality-forming re-invention of the present as well as the transfiguring fairy-tale re-invention of the past’. Still, in 1985, four years after Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, Rezzori managed to produce a huge, furiously energetic maelstrom of a novel called The Death of My Brother Abel which took his hero/anti-hero into the era after the Second World War. Now he is 75 and has turned to what he calls ‘portraits for an autobiography’: they don’t seem very different from what he calls fiction, though the voice is less urgent, the rage against the squalor of the world has turned to resignation, and there are fewer fireworks.

There are five portraits: his father, mother, sister and those two pillars of European childhood memoirs, the peasant nanny and the foreign governess. The governess is usually English: in this case she was a Pomeranian from Stettin, but still a Protestant injection of rectitude, responsibility and moral independence into a lax Catholic milieu. The nanny, a Huzule, was Greek Orthodox with primitive pagan undertones; she provided warmth, while the governess provided values, standards and affection; the little boy seems to have loved both of them more than he loved his parents.

His father’s only interest in life was hunting: not to hounds, of course, but what would be called shooting in England. It was his ‘way of escaping from an unbearable reality’. What was unbearable was the collapse of the old order after the war. He despised the Romanians, but preferred them to the Austrians because at least the Romanians had a monarchy. He shared many of Hitler’s ideas, but despised him too as an upstart. He adored his daughter, and had little time for his son except as a hunting companion. There are magical descript-ions of hunting expeditions in the wild Carpathian countryside – like passages from Tolstoy or Turgenev. They are not pastiche, though: on the contrary, they seem to well up from the same ecstatic spring.

Rezzori’s mother was beautiful, elegant and neurotic in a way that made everyone’s life a misery. She felt cheated of the life she had been brought up to lead – cheated by history, but even more by her eccentric and unsociable husband. She doted on her son, coddled, dosed, over-protected and over-punished him. ‘With the fitful capriciousness of the potential mistress, for ever vacillating between stormy tenderness and pretended indifference, between lovingly passionate empathy and cruelly punishing iciness’, she formed his idea of what women are like; and with her fluid pearl-grey dresses, delicious smell and narrow shoes, she formed his idea of what ladies are like as well. He remembers her from photographs ‘gathering a fur piece round her naked shoulders in a gesture that nowadays is frequently imitated by transvestites’. This sentence encapsulates Rezzori’s handling of the past: he conjures up a conventionally romantic vision, then holds it up to ridicule. His autobiographical sketches may be nourished by nostalgia, but the nostalgia is not proof against the corrosive acid of his famous disillusionment. He is not lamenting the past for being beautiful and over: he is punishing it for being phoney and containing the seeds of the present.

The most equivocal and unforeseeable portrait is the one of Rezzori’s sister. They did not get on. In many ways their relationship sounds like a textbook case of sibling jealousy, but there is something strange about them as well.

She has been dead for 56 years and not one of those years has gone by without her being close to me in an almost corporeal way – not in the abstract sense of a lovingly preserved memory, but in a well-nigh physical presence, often anything but welcome. Whatever I do or fail to do, whatever happens to me, she stands constantly in front of me, next to me, behind me, observing ... She is mute but she is there. My life is a wordless dialogue with her, to which she remains unmoved: I monologise in front of her.

It is easy to understand her power when one looks at the photograph alongside this passage. It was taken when she was 20. She looks about 15 and ravishingly pretty; and her expression is one of Mephistophelian mockery – nihilistic and annihilating.

She was much more successful than her brother, who presents himself as a dreamy lout – though an excellent shot. She was graceful, socially adept, clever, precocious, good at lessons, hard-working and ambitious. Whereas he tried hard to feel his roots in Romania, she strove ‘to be repatriated to the truly Germanic world’. After an Austrian boarding-school, she attended the Consular Academy in Vienna; she was in her first job and engaged to be married to a sweet-natured and suitable Austrian fellow graduate when she contracted a disease of the lymph glands and died slowly and painfully at the age of 22.

Rezzori wants to believe that her illness was psychosomatic – willed by her because of her ‘renunciation of the poetic content of her life’. This idea lies at the centre of his historical-philosophical-psychological reflections on ‘re-inventing’ the past and present. The Death of My Brother Abel was peopled almost exclusively by displaced persons. Here they are déclassé, which is another version of the same thing: both categories have lost their past.

We considered ourselves members of a class of masters, although we were no longer masters of anything, taken over by another class to which we deemed ourselves superior, but which, in fact, treated us as second-rate citizens because of the odium attached to the ethnic minority. 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 élite. The myth of lost wealth rankled in us but also made us arrogant. All our efforts were directed at not being deemed déclassé. Nothing was entirely unambiguous. Nothing was what it really was with any degree of certitude. Everything was bathed in a dubious twilight.

Unlike Rezzori, his sister had actually lived in what one might call ‘the olden days’, if only for four years, and she had turned this pre-1914 period ‘into the myth of an incomparably lofty existence, truly her due, her secret distinction’. As she and her brother grew older, they realised that ‘one can preserve the treasured moments of the past as one would a hidden jewel; or one can be dragged down by them as by a convict’s ball and chain. For sensitive natures, these alternatives are very close. If there is any resemblance between my sister and myself, it is little else than our shared innate knowledge of the essence and value of renunciation.’ They saw what the ball and chain did to their parents, who became more and more impossible, eccentric and alienated from the world they inhabited. So they renounced or tried to renounce the past – and the sister died of the renunciation.

Rezzori’s theories about re-inventing the past and present may not be original, but their poetic resonance makes them a very suitable basis for autobiography and fiction: after all, almost everyone feels displaced, déclassé and in exile from their past, one way or another. If the present book is not quite as gripping as Rezzori’s previous ones, this may be because the raw material is the same (or he would claim that this is the raw material). There is perhaps too much internal repetition too: the same episodes of family life march on in each portrait, like soldiers of a stage army. But compared to the usual run of reminiscent writing, The Snows of Yesteryear (how could anyone choose such an unbelievably corny title?) is a work of poetry and revelation.