Friday, December 02, 2016

Coming to grips with a historical moment

•Gregor von Rezzori: The Snows of Yesteryear.
translated by H.F. Broch de Rothermann
Introduction by John Banville
New York: New York Review Books
IN A SENSE, I think, the history of our century has been writing its own autobiography. Decades of complacency following World War II — complacency founded on neglect, evasion and postponement — are ending at a precipice. There are so many problems, so many crimes, that it is too easy to attribute the moment to favorite causes. I am not given to political analysis; politics, like economics and molecular biology, is an area too intricate to attract my impatient mind. I have been distracted, seduced some might say, by an essentially literary view of the historical moment and the conditions that have led to it. But literature, like any art, has its utility beyond mere entertainment.

At the moment I'm reflecting on a book just read, Gregor von Rezzori's The Snows of Yesteryear, an extraordinary book. It is a memoir cast on a series of portraits: of the author's nursemaid, his mother, his father, his sister, his governess. Born in 1914 in what was then Czernowitz, the capital of the duchy of Bukovina, he lived to see historic changes, as Czernowitz moved from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Kingdom of Romania (when it was re-christened Cernăuți) to the Soviet republic of Ukraine (Чернівці [Chernovtsy], the current form). These twentieth-century political lurches had their precedents:

Czernowitz, where I was born, was the former capital of the former duchy of Bukovina, an easterly region of Carpathian forestland in the foothills of the Tatra Mountains, in 1775 ceded by the former Ottoman Empire to the former Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian realm as compensation for the latter's mediation in the Russo-Turkish War; the Bukovina was at first allocated to the former kingdom of Galicia, but after 1848 it became one of the autonomous former crown lands of the House of Habsburg.
—Gregor von Rezzori, The Snows of Yesteryear, p. 275

Simply on the level of entertaining reading the book is quite sufficient. Rezzori's writing, in this translation (from German) by H.F. Broch de Rothermann, is fascinating: lapidary, detailed, appealing to the visual and auditory senses, occasionally sending this reader to the dictionary. Beyond the writer's language, his characterizations, of city and landscape as well as people, is evocative, accurate, and often wryly humorous. Eccentricity and neurosis were the common coin of his childhood surroundings, of his family, their domestic life, and their settings, which range from Czernowitz to Vienna to Cairo.

Over and over, in the course of three days, I found myself posting quotations from the book to my Facebook feed:

The picture … epitomizes an irrevocably lost period in my sister's life. That childlike innocence, the existential oneness with all living creatures, the deep embeddedness in the ever astounding richness of all nature became a thing of the past and ceded its place to the realization of the complexity of being. [pp 10-11]

Among the experiences from which we learn nothing that we didn't know already, there is to be counted the insight that the reality we consider as all-dominating in truth consists mostly of fictions. [35]

The strange reciprocity between spirituality and daimon inherent in any enthusiasm—enthusiasm that often deteriorates into fanaticism and corrupts the original purity of great ideas (and, inversely, filters pure intentions and aspirations from what is foul, placing them in the service of the devil) —seems to emerge quite regularly with each new generation. And nothing seems more difficult for the young than to elude the currents of their time. [156]

…essentially, one can't quantify the degree by which the quality of life not only of the privileged but also of the disadvantaged has been cheapened and debased in our century. The tangible expression of this—depredation of nature, hybrid growth and chaos of cities, drowning of the world in junk, lack of orientation in Man—has been pointed out, and yet it does not address the substance and core of the loss. [201]

Well, you can see where this memoir is headed. Rezzori writes about a coming-of-age at a historically pivotal time and place. The family, German-speaking and Vienna-centered, seems to have been relatively comfortable. The father was usually away on trips combining business (government inspections of governmental buildings) and pleasure (hunting in the Carpathian forests); the mother was neurotically poised between artifice and exigency.

Gregor shared these parents with a sister four years older — her father's favorite. He grew up essentially alone, wondering about the world that had produced this family before his own birth and the society that existed outside the home, beyond his permitted range. In what is perhaps the center of the book Rezzori writes memorably, fantastically, of a moment defining the frozen tension at the center of this childhood: he is looking out a window, sees a swallow light on the end of the minute-hand of the town clock at quarter of three, hears

the cheerful noises of a bevy of boys — lost in the wind and as if shrunk and made transparent by the distance: a sound merely dreamed, possibly. And indeed, the reality it evoked for me was totally abstract. I imagined those boys as being lively, but they were also abstract to me… surely engaged in wild games, and I almost could feel their hot breath; at the same time a sense of being excluded from the rich stream of life cut deeply and painfully into me… I was overcome by a fear I had hitherto not experienced. The world around me split up into imaginings, illusions and lies — and I was no longer one with the world.…

The swallow sitting at the end of the minute hand of the tower clock did not move and the hand itself stood still. Time stood still. The sound of the children was lost in space. The tweeting of the swallows fused into a single piercingly high note lie a thread spinning away into the skies. … The whole world stood still.

"The whole world stood still," he recalls, and then "suddenly the swallow flew away and the minute hand snapped over to quarter past three… once again the sounds of the children could be heard from afar." [pp. 110-11] He was ten or eleven years old, in a boarding school in Kronstadt, now Brașov, Romania. He joined his now separated parents only during Christmas and summer holidays: in Vienna and nearby mountains with his mother, hunting in the Bukovina woods with his father.

Some of the most heart-warming pages describe his relationship with his father, oddly both elusive and attractive, given primarily to his pleasures, pragmatic, yet intelligent, even intellectual. Like many hunters, the father loved Nature; was truly alive perhaps only in the woods, which "had hardly ever been touched by human hand and only rarely were visited by some stray shepherd or by a Huzule poacher. To spot and scout stags, we sometimes lived for weeks in the open."

One might have believed that in these circumstances my father would be just as happy as I. Yet a shadow of melancholy often darkened the grave serenity of his comportment while hunting. He saw that such idyllically primeval conditions would soon be over. One day he told me: "remember this day. It will soon be impossible to spot within the span of a few hours a pair of ravens, two imperial eagles, a golden eagle and a peregrine falcon." He was right. [162]

Von Rezzori — the son, I mean, the writer — was gifted with one true talent, he tells us: drawing. But he was channelled into more "practical" areas, in those distant days well before "graphic arts" was to become the savior of talented but undisciplined youths — chemistry, architecture, medicine, mining. Finally he declared that he wanted to give up studies for good, whereupon he was considered "an ignoramus, a mere consumer of illustrated periodicals, a harbinger of the barbarians, who, he foresaw, would soon engulf all of Europe."

He perceived this barbaric invasion as advancing from two sides: from Bolshevik Russia as much as from an America dancing in worship around the Golden Calf. "To fashion present-day Americans from the Pilgrim Fathers, we sent them our human dregs," he was wont to say. "Jefferson's America was drowned in the flood of human riffraff flushed in from Ellis Island. With the conquest of the West by the immigrant rabble, the greed for possession has become epidemic. Any act of violence, any fraud, any whopping lie is all right as long as it serves the pursuit of money, success and power. And it infects us all." [175]

Inevitably The Snows of Yesteryear is about loss, erosion, disappearance. "We lived in Bukovina… as the flotsam of the European class struggle, which is what the two great wars really were. Our childhood was spent among slightly mad and dislocated personalities in a period that also was mad and dislocated and filled with unrest." [200-01] Rezzori muses often, both philosophically and poetically, on memory, nostalgia, irrelevance, and renunciation. I think nostalgia — taking refuge from an ugly or irritating present in a possibly misremembered but clearly preferable past — has a useful function: it prepares us to be less unhappy about the coming final goodbye.

It can also convey us, when we transcend mere personal nostalgia and adopt a more objective frame of mind, into a somewhat more distant place from which, perhaps, our more disinterested view of both past and present can more accurately discern historical relationships and processes. Periods of historical decline — I mean the decline of cultures and civilizations — are similar to the personal relinquishments that prepare one for death. "Among the theories I developed concerning the possible causes of my sister's premature death, there is one according to which the gradual loss or, more accurately, the renunciation of the poetic content in her life contributed to a psychosomatic preparation for death." [201]

Another book fell into my hands today at lunch, Julian Barnes's Nothing to Be Afraid Of, which I wrote about here five years ago. "Memory is identity," Barnes writes [p. 138], and recalls on the next page watching a friend successively losing her memory. "It was a terrifying example of what Lawrence Durrell in a poem called 'the slow disgracing of the mind': the mind's fall from grace." Further [p. 203], Barnes quotes the dying Jules Renard as having said "that writers had a better, truer sense of reality than doctors."

Writing of the dying Austro-Hungarian civilization, von Rezzori seems to me to have a better, truer sense of reality than do many of the historians I have read. He is not a teacher of history; he's an entertaining, witty, observant, cordial guide who accompanies us through those times and places, nudging us now and then when there's a little detail that we suddenly see for the first time as standing for an entire understanding, an aperçue lasting from quarter of three to quarter past.

I am a writer and as such I have not only the right but also the duty to raise the level of reality, as I see it, to the very point where it threatens to tip over into the unbelievable. But if one seeks to achieve this by drawing—as I do—on the autobiographical, paraphrasing and transforming it and inserting it into fictional and hypothetical happenings, then one runs the danger of falling into one's own trap, with the result that one no longer knows what is real and what is not. This exceeds the moral sphere and comes dangerously close to schizophrenia.
Our own American postwar moment has been writing its own autobiography, I think, and may have suddenly fallen into schizophrenia. Books like The Snows of Yesteryear can help us see this, and help some of us through the moment.

1 comment:

louann said...

Well, there is a lot I could comment about here - I think about pretty much everything you are holding up all the time. I'll just say a couple things: as a mediator, the private/personal difficulties I see people describing are so often parallel, although on a much different scale, to the conflicts that exist in politics, between countries, between races/ethnic groups etc. It seems to me that by using fiction/narrative/autobiography, there is a way to enter that space that allows the view beyond "reality" n which truth may often be found. I don't think your description about reading this work is really at all connected to entertainment though you use that word a lot in this post. And I also don't see that this is about schizophrenia. To me this is about the depth of confusion we feel in a major time of transformation, when we can't accurately read the signals about where this is all going. Even those most schooled in interpretation of political/power changes are having trouble.