Review: Memoirs of an Anti-Semite – Gregor von Rezzori

I came to read Gregor Von Rezzori through reading an article, Chronicle of Loss, by John de Falbe in Slightly Foxed magazine no. 15.  As a book reviewer, it is easy to concentrate on new books to the exclusion of many excellent novels which are fast-fading from public gaze.  Who for example reads Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene or Daphne du Maurier these days?  Slightly Foxed magazine publishes articles about writers from the last 100 years or so and reminds its readers of so many 20th century gems that the subscription seems well worth-while.

Gregor von Rezzori is a deeply reflective writer.  He writes what might be called memoir-based fiction, but he is not just interested in his stories, but wants to bring out the meaning behind them.  His mind is hugely inventive and the reader gets the impression of someone who can see all points of view and incorporate them into his stories.  He seldom allows his characters to get away with expressing their prejudices and long-held opinions but always sets them in juxtaposition with someone holding an opposing view, or else shows the absurbity of their statements by setting them in a context of personal decline and ultimate failure.

A true European, Gregor von Rezzori (1914-1998) was born in Czernowitz (now Chernovtsy, Ukraine) towards the end of the Austro Hungarian Empire.  His home town was absorbed into the Romanian Kingdom and after World War 1, Rezzori studied in Vienna and other European cities, settling eventually in Bucharest until 1938 when as a German speaking Romanian he was compelled to move to Berlin.  After the war he earned his living as an author, a screen-play writer and an actor moving around Italy, France and the USA, eventually settling in Tuscany.

Memoirs of an Anti-Semite consists of five stories, illustrating the decline of the old European aristocracy and the prejudices they took with them to their demise.  It would be a mistake to think that this book is as its title might suggest, “anti-Semitic”.  Quite the contrary, for although the book’s characters exhibit anti-Semitic attitudes, the author allows this to show their ignorance and stupidity.  Very often the Jews they despise are more clever, witty and successful than their old-European adversaries, and in some ways, the book would be better titled as “confession” rather than “memoir”.  However, no doubt Rezzori, known for a mischievous streak, preferred the bolder title as a provocation to his readers.  I can’t help but be reminded of Jonathan Littel’s opening sentence to his novel written in the first person about a senior SS officer, The Kindly Ones;

Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened.  I am not your brother you will retort, and I don’t want to know.

For in the same way, Rezzori teases his readers by drawing them along with his first-person accounts of these prevailing mid-20th century attitudes, until suddenly they are forced to protest, No, that’s not right, and quickly distance themselves from Rezzori’s undeniably sympathetic characters.

Memoirs of an Anti-Semite consists of five stories, each one revealing a different aspect of the anti-semitic position.

The first story, Skushno (a Russian word meaning ennui, a dreary boredom, perhaps a spiritual condition), concerns Bubi, a boy sent to live with his uncle and aunt in “one of those out-of-the-way hamlets with tongue-twisting names which on maps of the European south-east make the riverine regions along the Prut of Dniester seem like civilised territories”.  Bubi’s uncle and aunt are kindly people and allow Bubi to live in a tower usually reserved for hunting guests.  Bubi explores the deeply rural and run-down townlet and the first discordant note is introduced when he finds that,

On weekdays, the place was almost lifeless, if we disregards the straggling gangs of lice-ridden Jewish children who romped among the sparrows in the dusty roads

Bubi forms a strong relationship with his Uncle Hubert and learns with relish of the beer-drinking fraternity which he belonged to while at University.  He is entranced by the stories of student life, particularly the uniform the fraternity used to wear, a ludicrous outfit of white trousers, knee-length boots, a velvet jacket and a fur hat.  He persuades his Aunt Sophie to make him a replica of this outfit and delights in strutting around his tower rooms, observing this new self in the mirror.

The next day he walks out to the village in his new clothes, only to be set upon by a gang of Jewish children who dance around him, mocking him as more and more children join in the ribaldry.  Outside the Jewish doctor’s house he is met by a boy his own age who blocks his path.  Bubi thinks that “he looked like a yong ram staring closely into the blazing fire.  But even more unforgettable than the stamp of this face, the look of a downright smug self-assurance lodged in my mind”.  The boy touches Bubi’s fox tail cap and enquires if he is a Hasidic rabbi.  The boy turns out to be the doctor’s son, Max Goldmann, and rapidly dismisses the gang of children. As the two boys talk they discover things in common and despite Max’s supercilious and condescending manner they form a casual friendship.

The rest of the story describes an increasing and unrelenting challenge to Bubi’s anti-Semitism. Max turns out to be more clever and sophisticated than Max in every way.  Bubi’s Aunt Sophie discovers that Max is a brilliant pianist and becomes his sponsor.  Uncle Hubert has a dispute with Dr Goldmann and refuses to duel with him, resulting in Uncle Hubert being expelled from his fraternity for cowardice.

Despite the anti-Semite tones of the opening of this story, Rezzori depicts the ascendancy of intellectualism, Jewish or otherwise, and the decline of old reactionary Austro-Hungarian values.  The story is about the new, modern world rising over the old world, but also about the irrelevance of race as an indicator of talent.

The next story, Youth, finds a young man away from home, living in city lodgings and trying to build a career as an artist.  He is tormented by sex and has many causal and sordid encounters, at one point suspecting that he has caught the dreaded syphilis.  He falls in love with a young girl he sees in a wheel chair, without any real contact with her, and builds up a picture in his mind of a beautiful, tragic, pure woman, the feminine ideal which he can never possess.

The young man is forced by financial problems to take a job and finds employment as a window-dresser, imagining that his creative talents will be recognised by his company leading them to invite his to become a designer.  This of course never happens and despite his longing for “the girl in the wheel-chair” he forms a deep and long-lasting relationship with a Jewish shop-owner, some years his senior, who has the title “The Black Widow”.

The story is of course about the oft-found literary conflict between the slut and the madonna.  The girl in the wheelchair is complete fantasy.  Had the young man got to know her he would no doubt have found all sorts of human failings in her.  But in The Black Widow he actually finds a complete woman, clever, loving, faithful, who is actually a real-life and whole person and a far better proposition than the disabled girl who he has never met.  The young man of course ruins the relationship with the Jewish woman and never finds the girl in the wheel-chair (or what she represents in his mind).

The other thee stories show similar conflicts, ending with the final story Pravda (Truth), giving an insightful voyage around the memories of an elderly “old-European” as he reflects on the second of his three marriages, showing his inability see his Jewish wife as anything other than Jewish despite her secularism and disconnection from Jewish tradition.

This book is rich, not only in the quality of the story-telling but also in the writing.  Rezzori’s talent is on a par with other writers of the inter-war period such as Stefan Zweig.  I have been able to build up a collection of Rezzori’s books by using ebay and AbeBooks and I am pleased to see that this title Memoirs of an Anti-Semite has been republished by the New York Review of Books. I hope that other publishers pick up his other titles to bring Rezzori’s writings to a new audience.

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