Gregor von Rezzori was born into a vanishing world. By 1918, the year he turned 4, his native Czernowitz, Bucovina (now Chernivtsi, Ukraine), was no longer part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; neither the region nor the empire existed at all. Forty years later, in An Ermine in Czernopol, a masterpiece now finally translated from the German, von Rezzori sent his nameless narrator in search of lost time, to recover what vanished of Europe, and himself, between world wars.
For an author of his achievements, von Rezzori remains relatively obscure. Perhaps one reason is our inability to fit his novels neatly into any single national literature. He wrote in German, but was a citizen, at various times, of Austria-Hungary, Romania and the Soviet Union, before becoming officially stateless and then, in his twilight, a citizen of Austria. Glancing at the novel's spine, one might even mistake von Rezzori for an Italian. Fluent in German, Italian, French, English, Yiddish, Polish and Romanian, he encompassed the continent. He is Europe's novelist.
And Czernopol is Europe's city: "Feast your eyes on Jewish maidens … on Polish girls with catlike faces … on almond-eyed Armenians … on Romanians [of] apple-like freshness." The narrator's depictions of this cosmopolitan capital reach arias reminiscent of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, mingling magic with minutiae.
Of Czernopol, the fictional reincarnation of historical Czernowitz, the narrator seeks to channel the crackling energy of street-level experience: "horse-drawn hackneys, oxcarts, Galician ice cream vendors, stray dogs." Of himself, and by extension of us all, he hopes to reinvigorate the receptivity, the boundless curiosity, of childhood. "When we reencounter motifs from our childhood," he states in one of the novel's more remarkable passages, "we regret having lost the power to experience the world in a way that brought us closer to the essence of things."
The hussar Major Tildy embodies childhood's "richness and dignity." He is "the last knight," "a vision of perfection," an archetype who conjures for our narrator "the untold fairy tales and legends" that fill childhood with splendour. Indeed, the narrator recalls his first vision of Tildy with mythical simplicity: "One day we caught sight of a hussar on a horse, we knew him, and we loved him."
Tildy's stubborn insistence on an outmoded, idealistic code of honour leads to his decline and eventual demise. He is the ermine of Czernopol, and as the novel's epigraph warns: "The ermine will die should her coat become soiled." His code is his coat. Tildy perishes because he refuses to compromise with the sullying force of reality, as we all must inevitably compromise.
Ethnic hatred is one of the forces that speed the annihilation of our narrator's fairy-tale childhood and legendary city. The menacing cloud of anti-Semitism gathers over Czernopol, and in the novel's infernal climax, when a Nazi-inspired mob enacts Kristallnacht, von Rezzori releases its latent storm with terrifying power.
Anticipating Hannah Arendt's insights, however, von Rezzori prohibits the limited understanding of anti-Semitism as merely demonic, a theme developed at even greater length in his subsequent novel, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite. To demonize anti-Semitism, he recognizes, is to elevate the culprits to almost supernatural status, thus committing the same fundamental dehumanization as the anti-Semites themselves. Instead, von Rezzori presents the basic human flaws that cause an individual, a crowd, a people, to become consumed with hatred. He understands how "people create enemies out of their own despair so that [they will]not despise [themselves]"
"The unmistakable quality of [childhood's]reality cannot be reproduced," the narrator sadly admits, and surely he is speaking of Czernopol, and of von Rezzori's beloved Bucovina, as well. But von Rezzori, a neglected master of 20th-century literature, renders this elusive world palpably, unmistakably. We would all be blessed to vanish into such an elegy.
Michael LaPointe is a writer and literary journalist in Vancouver.