Monday, February 9, 2015

Rezzori (take 2)

This is an unbelievably silly post.  I cannot find a usable book cover on-line to indicate that I am finally starting Rezzori's An Ermine in Czernopol, so I am pinning one up here.  Sorry about that.  If I have anything interesting to say about the book after this many month delay (while I was off reading Russians), I will update this post in a week or so -- and repost it so that it can be found.

Sharp-eyed viewers will note that the cover is an adaptation of the central painting in the Max Beckmann triptych, The Beginning.  This is perhaps the 2nd most famous of the triptychs, simply because it is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and millions of people have seen it.  However, it does go into storage periodically or rather other paintings are rotated back on view.  It wasn't there on my last two trips.  I just checked and it is back on view now, so it should be there in mid March when I have a short trip to NYC planned.  That's a significant plus (not that I wouldn't have stopped by the Met anyway).

Ok, I am back, having finally read the novel, and I thought it was a fine novel indeed.

As I have hinted in a few posts, von Rezzori seems to be mourning the loss of a cosmopolitan city that was generally open to citizens of various nationalities (Germans, Poles, Russians and Ukrainians among others) and religions (within limits).  Muslims did not seem to feature in this city, clearly based upon Czernowitz, an actual city that was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  Jews were largely left alone, though somewhat despised (including by the narrator's parents to his shame and regret).  And the anti-Jewish sentiments, so horrifyingly channeled by the Nazis, come to a head in a somewhat smaller-scale Kristallnacht in Czernopol.  After which point, the city loses its cosmopolitan character, and starts to become a backwater.

There are quite a number of much more thorough reviews of the book: here and here and here and here and here.  (Somewhat bizarrely the Guardian does not seem to have reviewed it when the new translation came out, when it would have seemed to have been very much up their alley.)

Mourning the loss of a one-great city puts von Rezzori in the same tradition as Joseph Roth (particularly his shorter non-fiction writings, but one could argue The Radetzky March sets up the Austro-Hungarian Empire as something to be mourned) and certainly Stefan Zweig (almost everything but in particular The World of Yesterday).  One connection not made by these other reviews (because it had not come out yet) is to the film The Grand Budapest Hotel.  (However, Wes Anderson freely admits to being heavily inspired by Zweig, so the linkage is quite legitimate.)  The same sense of urbaneness, even to the point of ridiculousness, is well represented in An Ermine in Czernopol.  The narrator says that one of the chief characteristics of the citizens of Czernopol is that they refuse to take life seriously and make jokes (both open, hearty ones and mean-spirited dark ones) about everything.  Even a man getting shot in the street becomes an uproarious joke to them.  (As one can see, there are pluses and minuses to such an approach to life.)  Curiously, the main character Gustave H., is most of the time witty and urbane like Herr Tarangolian, the prefect of Czernopol, but at the end of the movie, makes a noble gesture of self-sacrifice that is a bit more in line with Major Tildy (who is the "ermine" of the title).

Where this novel is a bit of a departure (and distinct from Roth and Zweig) is that the narrator, and particularly his parents, are a fairly central part of society, and the parents' open antisemitism (mixed with only occasional noble efforts to save particular Jewish children from danger) helped fuel the climate where the general population turns on the Jews of Czernopol.  Curiously, von Rezzori was somewhat closer to the centre in that he was not Jewish and he was actually from an aristocratic lineage (which he later played up), but he was not particularly well-off (his father was a civil servant in Czernowitz) and he had Romanian citizenship, which kept him from being drafted by the Nazis in WWII.  So he is not as complicit (in WWII) as a typical Austrian, to say nothing of the Germans themselves, say a German writer like Günter Grass (who ended up far more tied to the Nazis than he admitted after the war).  An Ermine in Czernopol actually has a number of similarities and a few outright parallels with Grass's The Tin Drum, though I liked An Ermine in Czernopol far more.

That really enough to say on the matter.  If one likes books from Mitteleuropa, then one must definitely explore von Rezzori's work.  It might be easier to ease into it, perhaps starting with The Snows Of Yesteryear.  After that, either Memoirs of an Anti-Semite or An Ermine in Czernopol.  I think one should leave what is often considered his magnum opus, The Death of My Brother Abel, for last.  And that's all I have to say on the subject (for now at any rate).

Edit: Actually I think I should add a bit of discussion around the final chapter, which stylistically seems such a change from the rest of the book.  First, it is a little hard to understand how the narrator would have found out some of the really salacious details.  Second, it is much more about a personal downfall, and the fate of Czernopol is hardly mentioned at all.  Third, the wildness of the events at this dive bar/bawdy house remind me more than a little of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, and both feature streetcar accidents, though I shouldn't say anything more.  It seems impossible that von Rezzori would have read The Master and Margarita in the early 50s when he wrote An Ermine, as the censored Russian version didn't come out until 1967 with English and German translations coming out slightly after that.  But finally, and most surprisingly, the style of this particular chapter seems a complete throwback to von Rezzori's first novel, Oedipus at Stalingrad.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it did surprise me.

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