Sunday, August 18, 2013

So utterly absurd as to be frightening - Gregor von Rezzori's childhood memoir

I thought I was going to write a bit about Gregor von Rezzori’s The Snows of Yesteryear (1989) a couple of days ago.  Luckily for me, time is an illusion.  Just is the Wheel of Life, as the holy man keeps saying in Kipling’s Kim.   Rezzori’s memoir has some curious and coincidental similarities with Kipling’s novel.

Rezzori was a child of empire.  Home was Czernowitz in Bukovina, successively Austro-Hungarian, Romanian, Soviet, and now Ukrainian.  But Rezzori’s family was Austrian, his father a colonial administrator with an aesthetic job (cataloguing and maintaining artistic and architectural treasures in remote Orthodox monasteries – how Austrian), his mother a high-strung neurotic (also very Austrian).  The parents are a terrible mismatch, the family a disaster, but it is the only one Rezzori had.

Rezzori’s memoir superficially resemble Elias Canetti’s childhood memoir, The Tongue Set Free (1977), another story of a boy from the Austrian imperial provinces, with two crucial differences.  First, young Rezzori had no intellectual aptitude at all, unlike the reading-obsessed future Nobel Prize-winner.  The next to last chapter in the memoir is about the governess (“Bunchy”) who finally succeeded in cramming some Austrian Bildung an Kultur into the young nitwit, but for most of the book it is a mystery how he turns into the man writing the sentences on the page.

Second, Rezzori was born in 1914, nine years after Canetti, so the only Austria he ever knew was the one that was in crisis, or shattered, part of his family’s history but not his own.  “We did not live our own lives,” Rezzori writes about his teenage years.  “Our lives were being lived by our period” (222).

None of this is a reason to read Rezzori’s book.  I am just – still – sorting through my little heap of Austrian discoveries.

No, the reason is to meet Rezzori’s family.  Each chapter is devoted to a family member, ending with that governess and beginning with his beloved nurse Cassandra, a native of Bukovina:

When she joined the household, it was said, she was hardly more than a beast.  They had peeled her out of her peasant garb and had instantly consigned the shirt, the wrap skirt, , the sleeveless sheepskin jacket and the leather buskins to the flames.  But clad in city clothes, she looked so utterly absurd as to be frightening. (5)

She spoke no German but rather “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 (8).”  Rezzori wrote in German, but his nurse’s strange Creole was his first language.  How unlikely it all is.

The book was translated by H. F. Broch de Rotherman.  The original title is Blumen im Schee, “Flowers in the Snow,” a reference to the most poignant scene and image in the book (it is at the end of the “Cassandra” chapter), much better than the Villon cliché.  


  1. Yes, the family is extraordinary, a monstrous and exaggerated version of all the things we assume families to be. The portrait of the sister is very compelling.

    I like Von Rezzori's writing, I must say. The poorly-chosen English version of the title makes this book seem twee, which it is most definitely not.

  2. Oh good, someone who has read it. I feel I only glanced against the book here.

    The sister's story should be the weak one, since 1) she is not as dramatic a personality as either parent, and 2) her story has already been told in the parents' chapters by the time Rezzori gets to her chapter. Yet it turns out the story was not really covered, and and she actually is just as interesting a person, even as a child.

    I do want to read more Rezzori - the other two Czernowitz books that are in English both sound good.

  3. Yes, I agree: I read Memoirs of an Anti-Semite before this and have An Ermine on the shelf. There's a spectrum from novel to memoir that the first two books occupy differnt positions on, so I'm interested to see what the 3rd is like.

    Is there something about mothers in early 20th century north / central European bourgeois or petty aristocratic families? Rezzori's is a prize specimen (according to him, at least). And melodramatic, spitelful, controlling, selfish mothers feature in both Sybille Bedford's and Elisabeth Gille's work, although the latter is in fact a transplanted portrait of her grandmother (seen imaginatively through Gille's mother's eyes).

  4. Those mothers - one wonders. Canetti's memoir, Gary's Promise of Dawn. Peculiar. I might say it is just a literary device if the mothers were not so individual and memorable.