Thursday 8 December 2011
It was, as so often, Simon Winder in his exuberant meisterwerk Germania who made me eager to read something else, in this case Gregor von Rezzori's The Snows of Yesteryear. It's an awful title, as Winder points out, though of course much better in the original French, hence my liberty of reproducing the Gallic edition to preserve Villon's original ('yesteryear' was Dante Gabriel Rossetti's parallel neologism in his translation, I just found out). In fact the original Blumen im Schnee seems even weaker in English, 'Flowers in the Snow', but has the virtue of sounding more elegant in German than 'Die Schnee von vergangenen Jahr', which somehow sounds better when Strauss and Weill set the line to music.
Which is a lengthy preamble to recommending a modest but striking group of memoir portraits mostly huddled in Bukovina, that pungent, mixed-up eastern European borderland which found itself first in the Austrian empire, then in Romania and later still in the Soviet Union (presumably now it's mostly part of an independent Ukraine). Rezzori is probably right to start with the most outlandish figure in his young life, the nanny or wet nurse Cassandra - possibly so called, the author thinks, at the monastery where his father found her.
For quite apart from such unbelievable, avowedly innocent pagan antics as frolicking naked with the household dogs, Cassandra is a symbol of that multi-ethnic melting-pot which changed between the wars and, by the time of the second, beyond all recognition. Coming from a hamlet in the Carpathian mountains, Cassandra, 'who spoke no language properly, expressed herself in snatches of Romanian, Ruthenian, Polish and Hungarian, as well as Turkish and Yiddish, assisted by a grotesque, grimacing mimicry and a primitive, graphic body language that made everyone laugh, and that everyone understood'.
Rezzori places himself clearly within the historical faultlines that ran through his family. Purely through the chance of being born in 1914, he was set apart from the Habsburgian assurance-turned-neurosis which bedevilled his mother and, especially, his ill-fated older sister:
She had been born before the general proletarization of the postwar era, in a world that still believed itself to be whole, while I was the true son of an era of universal disintegration. The foundation of her good breeding lay in the self-assurance, however deceptive, of an imperium basking in glory and resting on a punctilious system of rules of comportment and behaviour. In contrast, I grew up in the dubious shakiness of one of those successor states described, rather derogatorily, as the Balkans. That this would give me the advantage of a more robust psychic makeup, which greatly facilitated my adaptation to our changed circumstances, in due time received dramatic proof.
Rezzori deals either harshly or objectively, according to how you read him, with all his family members, but clearly views his broadminded Pomeranian governess, 'Bunchy' (from her name, Strauss), with greater love or rather kindness as the most civilizing influence. I'm not sure I like him and it would be overstating the case to put his literary talent up there with Zweig or Joseph Roth. But he does evoke with presumed truth and vividness a part of the world, also evoked in the later chapters of Claudio Magris's masterly Danube, that comes to seem increasingly attractive as a travel option now that so much of our beloved Middle East is out of bounds.