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!” Continue reading
The Orient Express, was the last novel to be written by Gregor von Rezzori. It was published in 1992, six years before his death, and it allows his un-named narrator to reflect on his life’s journey as a wealthy business man, well into the last era of his life, as he travels the world alone, taking “time-out” from his marriage, his career and his responsibilities.
Generally Von Rezzori’s is thought of as a chronicler of the first half of the 20th century when Europe’s old alliances were crumbling and one war after another redrew the Continent’s boundaries. Von Rezzori was a mid-European, finding himself transferring nationalities every few years as the nations traded citizenship with one another. It is therefore strange to read this later novel, which is far more “modern” than his other work, being set firmly in the last decade and dealing with modern Western culture rather than pre-war Germany or the aftermath of the Austro Hungarian Empire.
We meet the narrator in Venice, a place that disgusts him with its faded splendour, its tourist-infestation and general seediness. His opulent hotel makes no impression on him, for his life has been spent in such surroundings. He finds his hotel room more like a bordello, with its mirrors tilted towards the bed and its gold-framed Birth of Venus on the wall.
While flicking through tourist brochures in the hotel lobby, he finds a brochure for the newly launched Orient Express. The narrator finds himself both intrigued and disgusted by the thought of reviving this once great expression of romantic European travel. For he had travelled extensively in Europe when such trains were the main way of transporting yourself across the Continent and he well-remembered their style and opulence. Continue reading
I have recently discovered the books of Gregor von Rezzori (1914-1988) and feel that I have stumbled upon a layer of gold down in the deeper mines of 20th century literature. Its just surprising that at this point in time that publishers of such authors as Stefan Zweig, Thomas Mann, Gunther Grass etc, aren’t falling over themselves trying to get out a unified edition of Rezzori’s works, and I’m sure its only a matter of time before von Rezzori is well-known as a classic writer of 20th century mid-Europe.
I’ve filed this post under “Austrian fiction” on the basis that von Rezzori took on Austrian nationality after World War II, when his home region of Bukovina, originally part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had passed through the hands of Russia, Romania and Ukraine. Truly, von Rezzori was highly qualified to chronicle the maelstrom of mid-Europe in those tumultuous years, and as I read his books I find a unique voice which is quite impossible to pin-down as German, Romanian, Russian or Austrian.
von Rezzori is primarily a writer of novels. Even where the writing seems to be autobiographical, the reader is never too sure how authentic the memoirs are. In an interview with Bruce Wolmer, when asked about the conflation between the first-person narrator of his books with himself, von Rezzori replies, “this is such an old discussion: To what extent are books autobiographic? Its ridiculous. You can’t eliminate yourself totally unless you’re Shakespeare”. And yet, in von Rezzori, we find completely authentic voices, whether its “Gregor” in Confessions of an Anti-Semite, or Baron Peter in Oedipus in Stalingrad, von Rezzori’s characters have a convincing, if unappealing world-view. Von Rezzori understood these people, he knew where they were coming from, and he was unashamed to tell their stories without the need for constant corrective commentary – their words alone are their judge. Continue reading
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. Continue reading