I can still vaguely recall the days when I used to review books in a timely fashion, sometimes even within a day or two of finishing them. My standards have, shall we say, relaxed somewhat since then but I still usually try to write reviews within a week, at most two, of reading the book. Whoops. February and March have been interesting months for me, going between intense periods of reading and then weeklong breaks where even picking up the newspaper seemed too onerous. But I think, I certainly hope, all that is behind me now and I can focus on reviewing some of the books I read over the past two months, beginning with The Snows of Yesteryear by Gregor von Rezzori.
I mentioned this title when I made my reading list for the Eastern European Reading Challenge (and let us take a brief moment to celebrate the fact that I finally read a book that fits into one of my challenges!) though I had very little idea at the time what it was about. I knew it was a memoir of growing up in Austria-Hungary/Romania by someone with a von-ified Italian surname. Honestly, that’s all the encouragement I ever need. Throw in a few photographs (there are several at the beginning of each section) and I’m done for.
Strictly speaking, yes, this is a memoir but really it is von Rezzori telling the life stories of those who surrounded him in his childhood and adolescence. He is their biographer but also our subject. Through portraits of five others – his nurse, his mother, his father, his sister, and his governess – von Rezzori tells the story of his family and his early life, a strangely rootless existence begun in Czernowitz (in Austria-Hungary) in 1914. His homeland eventually became part of Romania and von Rezzori seems to have accepted and love his new country though he was ethnically anything but Romanian. One of the things I’m always interested to read about in memoirs from this period is the writer’s perspective on the rise of the national socialists in Germany. This is, after all, a memoir of the inter-war years and what could be more interesting that the views of ethnic and linguistic minorities in the new self-determined states, like Romania?
From our viewpoint, the developments in Germany were welcome: a profusion of optimistic images of youth bursting with health and energy, promising to build a sunny new future – this corresponded to our own political mood. We were irked by the disdain with which we as the German-speaking minority were treated, as if the former Austrian dominion in Romania had been one of Teutonic barbarism over the ancient and highly cultured Czechs, Serbs, Slovaks, and Wallachians, as if these had freed themselves from their oppressive bondage in the name of civilizing morality. The bitterness of the defeat suffered with Germany rankled in us, and we felt good when we saw that in Germany, a new self-reliance refused to accept that a people vanquished was a people despised. (p. 129)
In speaking about those closest to him, or at least those most central to his formative years, von Rezzori considers them not just as people with their own concerns and agendas but as influences on his development. Cassandra, his peasant nurse, is remembered most affectionately and Bunchy, the family’s governess, with great respect and admiration. His feelings towards his blood relatives are more conflicted.
His neurotic, controlling mother inspired little affection in either of her children, preferring to focus on or concoct her own personal dramas. A quarrelsome, angry woman, she divorced (or at least separated from) two husbands and then cast herself as the victim. She sounded alarmingly like some of my female relatives, which does little to calm my fears that all Slavic women eventually turn out to be crazy. Please, if you can find a book that counteracts this theory, send me the title. Now. Give me hope for the future.
Von Rezzori is much more sympathetic towards his father, a larger-than-life figure, fond of hunting, drinking and wenching. He is grand and effusive, full of lust and emotion and is a figure straight out of a comic opera. I’m a bit in love with him myself. Father and son weren’t particularly close but it’s clear that von Rezzori adored him and was more than a little jealous of the intensely close bond between his father and his sister. So much of both the sections on his father and on his sister are taken up discussing their relationship, enviously remembering how easily and affectionately they interacted. Von Rezzori’s father was not an easy man to get along with, indeed it sounds as though he was quick to offend and slow to apologize, but his daughter was the exception. Enviously, von Rezzori describes their relationship, in awe of not just the close father-daughter bond but the genuine friendship between the two:
In the case of my sister, the chemistry was right: she was blood of his blood, though quieted by the thinner blood of our mother, and curbed as well by a clear intelligence, similar to his own but more disciplined. Her love for him was as unconditional as it was luminous. She would sometimes shake her head at him but laughed as she did so. In amusement she would follow his scurrilous train of thought, and she always knew what was meant as a joke and what was to be taken seriously. Her attitude towards his escapades was one of maternal tolerance, and whenever he went too far, she found an outlet for her irritation in the convulsive laughter that shook both of us when we spoke of the vagaries of family life. (p. 170)
Von Rezzori’s emotions towards most of the people in his life are generally straightforward. Affection for the women who raised him, general disinterest and sympathy for his troubled mother, awe of his father. Not so with his sister who died age only twenty two. For me, this is by far the best section of the book; emotional and beautifully written, it is the part where you learn most about von Rezzori himself, about what he feels and thinks and how he became who he is. It begins with, I think, the most beautifully written passage of the entire memoir:
Now that I write this down, she has been dead for fifty-six years and not one of those years has gone by without her being close to me in an almost corporeal way – not in the abstract sense of a loving preserving memory, but in a well-nigh physical presence, often anything but welcome. Whatever I do or fail to do, whatever happens to me, observing; at times I even call her to make sure she’s there. For fifty-six years – a whole life span – there has not been for me a single happy or unhappy moment, neither success nor failure, no significant or even halfway noteworthy occurrence on which she might not have commented. She is mute but she is there. My life is a wordless dialogue with her, to which she remains unmoved: I monologize in front of her. (p. 193)
For such a short life, this chapter is filled with emotion. It’s restrained but intensely moving. He seems to have resented her, was clearly jealous of the adoring relationship between her and their father, but all the same he was in awe of her. Of all his relationships, this was probably the most complicated and therefore the most interesting. She was, he carefully points out, extraordinary, explaining how years after her death he’d shown some of her writing to a psychologist friend who exclaimed over its maturity and insight, marveling that a young woman of barely twenty could have written with the kind of self-awareness usually seen in those twenty or thirty years her senior. How, as a younger sibling, do you ever make peace with that? Most siblings eventually mature and put aside their childhood rivalries in adulthood. But von Rezzori was still a teenager when his sister died. They had never been particularly close and they never had the chance to meet each other as equals, to come to respect one another as adults and he remains haunted by her ghost, engaged in a never-ending competition with a woman he hardly knew, who he’ll always feel the need to impress.
My one quibble with his analysis of his sister – indeed, my only issue with the book in its entirety – is his insistence that she belonged to a lost world, to the ordered discipline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and that it was her incompatibility with the post-war reality that lead to her death. This seems like the over-romanticized fantasies of a dreamy boy. But that’s the thing about memoirs: what’s more important, who the person actually was or who they were to the memoirist? For von Rezzori, his mother is his mother. She is referred to by no other name, has no individual self, the same for his father and his sister. It is always ‘my sister’ or ‘my mother’. Their actual identity ceases to be important in such instances. They matter because of how they influenced the writer, however falsely they may be remembered.