Gregor von Rezzori, “The Snows of Yesteryear”

More mid-European, mid-20th century nostalgia. But, gosh, nobody deserves it more than these guys like Sebald and Rezzori. Their predicaments make any American longing for his past into a total amateur. You can’t go home again? You sure can’t — it doesn’t exist. For Rezzori, this is a literal statement: he grew up in Czernowitz, which was then part of Romania, after having been an outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At least, Czernowitz is the place he identifies as home, though his parents’ rocky marriage and World War I made him something of an unwanted parcel, sent now to Trieste, now to Vienna, now to a gloomy Lutheran vicarage in a small German town dominated by an edifice known as the Black Church. 

Strangely, it’s the places that make an impression on me — or is it that he freights the places with emotion, while nominally focusing on the people? The book is presented as five portraits of the characters most important to his youth: his parents, his sister (dead at twenty-two), his wet nurse Cassandra and his nanny “Bunchy.” Cassandra he describes as almost feral, a pure emanation of what he calls “brood-warmth” who spoke a strange patois of Romanian, German, and snippets of the other Eastern European languages that washed through Czernowitz. Bunchy represented Occidental civilization. His mother was a neurotic, disappointed would-be belle, who felt thwarted by life; his father was concerned only by hunting. (Sounds like a cliche but Rezzori invests this quirk with considerable glamor.) The sister, born four years before the narrator, never ceased resenting him. 

How seriously are readers to take this? “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.” Grains of salt seem indicated. Yet surely the overall dreamlike melancholia is reliable. There’s a haunting epilogue when he goes back to Czernowitz in 1989 and finds it physically restored but culturally homogenized, utterly lacking in magic. I don’t have a lot of patience with this — or with nostalgia in general. Not sure why I’ve been on this reading jag, then. Am I merely examining someone else’s pain? 

Translation quirk: the German title is Blumen im Schnee, “Flowers in the Snow.”  The English translation provides as an epigram a line from the Francois Villon poem Ballade des dames du temps jadis (“ballad of the women of former times,” literally). The poem was written in the mid-15th century and each stanza ends with the line, “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?” (Which gives us 15th century nostalgia; who knew?) Dante Gabriel Rossetti translated this as “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” It makes for a lovely title, but adds a sort of pushy gloss on Rezzori’s original title.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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