Gregor von Rezzori (1914-1998) was born and spent his early childhood in Bukovinia, in the Carpathian mountains, a region which, since the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire has passed through several nationalities including Romania and Ukraine. Gregor von Rezzori likewise was a citizen of the Empire, and then became Romanian, Russian and finally Austrian (the latter after a period of statelessness following World War II).
Von Rezzori was a fine writer and I am convinced that it is only a matter of time before he is rediscovered as a classical author in the mould of other writers of his period such as Stefan Zweig. His current obscurity is shown by the ease in which it is possible to obtain second-hand copies of his mostly out-of-print books. I have found excellent hard-back copies at prices as low as £0.99 on both ebay and Abebooks, and I have managed to build up a set of von Rezzori’s main works with very little trouble at all.
In The Snows of Yesteryear (which has the sub-title, “Portraits for an autobiography”), von Rezzori recalls his Bukovinian childhood by presenting pen-pictures of his nurse, mother, father, sister and governess. Von Rezzori was born into a comparatively well-off family, but with more than a little of what we now call dysfunction. His father was a robust hunting-man, happiest when in the forests with his friends. When not hunting, he was womanising, much to his wife’s distress. He has what von Rezorris describes as a “pathological” anti-Semitism, but loathed National Socialism because of its socialism. When viewing a magazine cover containing a portrait of Adolf Hitler, von Rezzori’s father commented, “Germany rises once more. But have a look at this fellow: I wouldn’t hire him as a stable boy!”
In a region of highly mixed ethnicities but with a surprising degree of tolerance, the young Von Rezzori found his father’s Anti-Semitism highly embarrassing and we read of several episodes in which his father’s outbursts against Jews led to a cringing desire to hide-away. No doubt these experiences were the raw material for von Rezzori’s book, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite.
Von Rezzori’s mother was a sickly obsessive who kept her children close to her, not even letting them play freely in the garden. Towards the end of her long life (she died when she was 86), the family realised that in fact her health had been excellent and her constitution tough, but while Von Rezzori was growing up, his mother convinced everyone that “as someone in poor health, even the simplest of tasks were beyond her”.
The author’s sister was four years older than him and was his chief tormentor during his childhood. He writes, “one thing is certain to her. I had to be a thorn in her flesh. For four years she had lived alone in the radiance of her father’s love, unmolested by her mother’s shifting emotional outbursts. Then one day I appeared on the scene and forthwith the splendour faded away”. A picture of intense sibling rivalry emerges, but von Rezzori alas was unable to develop a more mature relationship with her in later years for she died of cancer at age 22.
Perhaps the most vivid portrait in the book is of von Rezzori’s nurse, Cassandra. He writes, “when she joined the household, it was said, she was hardly more than a beast”. Dressed in traditional costume of a wrap skirt, sleeveless sheepskin jacket and leather buskins, von Rezzori’s mother called her “the savage one”. Von Rezzori believed that Cassandra was in fact his wet-nurse, a fact denied by his mother. Von Rezzori tells many tales of this eccentric and much-derided figure, but when the family had to flee to Trieste before the Russian advance after World War I, Cassandra, who spoke no language correctly was able to negotiate safe passages by use of snatches of Romanian, Hungarian, Polish, Ruthenian, Turkish and Yiddish, “assisted by a grotesque, grimacing mimicry and a primitive, graphic body language that made everyone laugh and that everyone understood”.
Despite the sadness of experiencing his parents’ separation at an early age and many other childhood traumas and disappointments, this book is no Angela’s Ashes. It would not fit into the “tragic childhood” genre so popular today. For one thing despite the dramas of a mid-European life in the early 20th century, von Rezzori is far too stylish a writer to deliberately pull the heart-strings. There is no sorrow in this book, rather a practical, no-nonsense description of events and a set of sympathetic portraits of the people who featured in his young life.
The book would be of interest to anyone interested in this period of time, but makes a worthwhile read in itself because of the quality of von Rezzori’s writing and the vividness of the images he produces.