Transcendental Chutzpah

The Death of My Brother Abel

by Gregor von Rezzori, translated by Joachim Neugroschel
Viking/Elisabeth Sifton Books, 632 pp., $19.95

A lot of Gregor von Rezzori’s autobiographical novel is about the overwhelming difficulty of getting it written and how it was begotten by despair upon impossibility. In the end (if it is the end: the English, though not the original German, version finishes with the legend END OF BOOK ONE) it runs to 632 pages. You need to think big about it: think of terms like epoch (1918–1968), epoch-making, Gargantuan, Promethean, apocalypse, holocaust, maelstrom, Götterdämmerung, Wirtschaftswunder, The Decline of the West, A la recherche du temps perdu, the mega-Mann of The Magic Mountain, Dr. Faustus, and The Confessions of Felix Krull. At times you may think it is a case of overkill, especially in the hall of sex where every dazzling trophy on the wall is a grand twelve-pointer, whether she be a Francophone mulatto impresario, a freaked-out WASP model, rich Romanian Jewish femme du monde, poor Polish Jewish concentration-camp survivor, French hooker, German hooker, German Hausfrau, German aristocrat, German movie starlet, or French movie star. Sexual boasting is matched by cultural boasting, with classy quotations in every European language dropping like crystals from a chandelier in an air raid. And all this is delivered by a Torvill and Dean of the typewriter, dancing the zapateado upside down on ice.

Though less so in the feeble English translation by Joachim Neugroschel. This lurches from fourth-grade literalness to vulgar banality (and not just when Rezzori mimics, as he often does, the jargon of some modern hate-world of his, like public relations). It ranges from the quaintly archaic “tiding” for “message” to plain ignorance, like “Lake Wörther” for “Lake Wörth.” People pout when they should be sulking—the activities can overlap, and one word does for both in German, but not in English.

Even in translation, though, Rezzori’s alter ego buttonholes you, convinces you that what he has to say is not just important but vital, your great, your last, your only chance of understanding what happened in and to Europe between 1918 and 1968. Scourging hype is one of his favorite activities, and yet one wonders every now and then whether one isn’t falling a victim to his own hype as he preens, puns, parries, parodies, pirouettes, pontificates, and prophesies in a selection of typefaces according to whether the first-person narrator is narrating, thinking, writing a letter, or apostrophizing his dead friend Schwab, a failed novelist.

It will be obvious by now that the verbal exhibitionism is catching. But the important thing is that Rezzori has something to exhibit besides his extravagant dexterity with words and conjurer’s sleight of hand at transforming idées reçues into revelations: he is amazingly funny, clever, committed, and his chutzpah is of a transcendental order—in spite of (or possibly because of) the fact that here, as in his earlier Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, he specializes in not being Jewish and illuminating anti-Semitism from the inside.

His hero is born just after the First World War in Bessarabia, supposedly the son …

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