By Gregor von RezzoriNew York Review Books
It was once said that Austria’s two achievements were to have persuaded the world that Hitler was German and that Beethoven was Viennese. The line might have appealed to Rezzori, whose unreliable narration of Mitteleuropa between the wars is one of the minor (and later—Memoirs was first published in 1979) gems of the Austro-Hungarian tradition. In her introduction to this welcome new edition in the library of classics kept evergreen by The New York Review of Books, Deborah Eisenberg makes the intriguing claim that Rezzori’s “coup” is his ability “to keep his narrator’s consciousness severely restricted to the moment it is experiencing, his tone pristinely untouched by the reader’s (and author’s) indelible awareness of the conflagration about to engulf entire populations.” She underlines this by saying, “There is no stain of hindsight—sanctimony, apology, self-exoneration, regret or even sobriety regarding the shattering events that are soon to follow.” This is very nearly but not quite true.
Subtitled as “A Novel in Five Stories,” the book mirrors Rezzori’s own trajectory as a young man from one of the more distant and umbrageous departments of the Dual Monarchy: the “Bukovina” province that was then Romanian in character and now forms part of Ukraine. Like the Krajina between Croatia and Serbia, Ukraine basically means “frontier” or “borderland,” and Rezzori deftly evokes the sense of coming from “a meeting point (or chafing point, if you will) between two civilizations.” He specifies the role of “the steppe winds from the east, opposed [to] the Western in the spirit of a fatalistic resignation to destiny,” and the title of his opening story—“Skushno,” a Russian word for extreme anomie—could well be the name of an enervating wind like the simoom.
As wonderfully as he evokes the torpid, inspissated atmosphere of this moribund region, Rezzori evokes local anti-Jewish prejudice mostly in its clichéd form, and his narrator, perhaps unreliable in this respect as well, is rather more an observer of the prejudice than (as the novel’s title might imply) a carrier of it. Thus, there are hordes of apparently dirty Jewish children, no doubt destined to mutate into subversive burghers as described above, but the young man’s first Jewish acquaintance and contemporary is portrayed as smart, tough, musically gifted to an impressive degree, the son of a leading physician (again something of a stereotype), and inclined to be extremely rude about the stupidity and backwardness of the goyim. In other words, those who expect to be reading of lurid pogroms will be disappointed. Instead, Rezzori’s character insinuates with the greatest of subtlety that there is something feminine about the Jew, and that this is what sets him apart from the manly and robust and patriotic characters who like to roar cheery songs rather than listen to the tinkling piano, and whose chief joy is the hunt. Apart from his desire to stroke the keyboard in the company of women and his lapses into Jewish vernacular (written off as “yiddling,” which has a somehow girlish intonation), young Wolf Goldmann’s other defects are his telling fascination with psychoanalysis and his indifference to animals and the outdoors. In a tremendous sentence, the Rezzori character announces, “I forced myself to act toward him with that chivalrous generosity which guards the aristocrat against the ignominy of being resented.”
However, young Goldmann is also portrayed as being more sexually knowing than the narrator, and this under-emphasized trope of anti-Semitism—of the Jew as the possessor of arcane erotic skills—is taken up more explicitly when Rezzori’s character moves from the retarded provinces to the more advanced cities of Bucharest and Vienna. In these locales it is a commonplace among young rakes, and even among young Nazis, to say with a wink and a leer, “A Jewess is no Jew,” and Rezzori’s young man (who begins urban life as a salesman for “the Aphrodite Company”) takes this as permission first to humiliate a Jewish sexual partner in public and then to carelessly betray a nonsexual Jewish partner in private. In each instance, he seems almost surprised that the females concerned have any emotions, but then, as he phrases it with splendid callousness: “They always expected some calamity, these Jews.” (Or, with even more magnificent condescension: “The usually Jewish shopkeepers were kind and mellow people so long as the two-thousand-year-old panic did not flare up, which made them hysterically vehement.”)
In general, then, the book at first appears to deal more in the microcosmic elements of die Judenfrage: the gossipy and folkloric side of the prejudice, with the grander themes of Nazism, Bolshevism, and Zionism—even Freudianism—occurring distantly offstage. Every now and then, the narrator makes a reference that—pace Eisenberg and her praise for his avoidance of the anachronistic—has him showing slightly too much awareness, as well as too little. He several times makes an allusion to the Moldovan town of Kishinev, but never betrays any knowledge of the fact that it had been the site of a Czarist massacre of Jews that made headlines around the world. But on the other hand, really, would a Gentile youth from the Bukovina know at once how to identify and name a “kupat kerem kayemet,” or collection-box for the redemption of Palestine, or be able to say of a Jewish woman’s bedroom that “it had too much Chagallian poetry”? I think here we can see the reticent figure of Rezzori, who was himself a stateless person for many years, peeping obliquely through the layers of his own story.
It took me a while to make the slightly kitsch connection that had been forming in my mind, and to compare Memoirs of an Anti-Semite to Bob Fosse’s filmic masterpiece Cabaret. As with the original Isherwood stories, the action indeed gets along with the help of idiotic remarks made by bigoted landladies, and the wheels are greased by flashy talk of easy money and easy sex. And then the compere of the show turns graphically ugly in his humor, and the pretty blond youths begin to sing in Horst Wessel tones. With Rezzori, this critical moment comes in his penultimate story, titled “Troth.” The real-time name of Adolf Hitler, along with his Austrian comic-opera name of Adolf Schicklgruber, has finally been mentioned, and things are turning nasty and serious. As night falls, the narrator finds himself:
in the middle of an uncanny procession. In blocks that in their disciplined compactness seemed made of cast iron, people marched by thousands, men only, in total silence. The morbid, rhythmic stamping of their feet hung like a gigantic swinging cord in the silence that had fallen on Vienna.
Here is the darkness-haunted mass demonstration in favor of the Anschluss. The symbolism is almost perfect. In place of the oddly shaped, anomalous, pluralistic, ironic jigsaw of old Austria-Hungary, there is the stamping, tramping tyranny of the uniformed, square-shaped “block.” And the anonymous, faceless robots of this block are bent on one objective above all: the cleansing from the German-speaking lands of “the low, materialistic Jews.”
In his essay on Malinowski, Ernest Gellner wrote of how the borderline and marginal peoples of Austria-Hungary needed three things from their benign, whiskered old monarch. They required insurance against mutual fratricide, protection of local and eccentric cultures, and guarantees against the ambitions of Germany and Russia. By giving way first to micro and then to macro anti- Semitism, not only did this fair approximation of a civilization lose its best minds; it lost its collective mind, and thus managed to invite the two worst possible fates by beckoning on first a German, and then a Russian imperium. Writing as he did from the wreckage of postwar Europe, Gregor von Rezzori could claim the peculiar distinction of being one of the few survivors to treat this ultimate catastrophe in the mild language of understatement. This is what still gives his novel the power to shock.