The Snows of Yesteryear: Portraits for an Autobiography
At Christmas in Romania some of the students marching toward the guns of the Securitate were heard to chant, “Europe is with us! Europe is with us!” They gazed imploringly into the cameras of Western television, unaware of the irony that, until that moment, our amnesia had been colluding with their tyrants. It took the revolution of these brave students for us to recall that Romania had been a part of Europe all along.
As the glacier of the Eastern tyrannies recedes, it leaves behind the moraines of ruined economies, but it also lays bare the common European roots which the glacier sought to destroy in the eastern soil. These roots are the subject of Claudio Magris’s essay on the civilization of the Danube and Gregor von Rezzori’s Snows of Yesteryear, an autobiography of a childhood in the Bukovina, once an Austro-Hungarian province, then a Romanian region, and since 1940 absorbed into the Ukraine. Rezzori chronicles a family’s destiny during Hitler and Stalin’s “great shovelling under” of the cultural world of Mitteleuropa, while Magris finds the tenacious survival of Middle European culture even in the rubble of Ceausescu’s Romania.
Magris helps us to see the Danube as the great German, Magyar, Slavic, Romanic, Jewish artery linking Europe and Asia. Along it traveled the Romans of Mitteleuropa—the German-speaking merchants, colonists, and administrators of Austria-Hungary who spread their theaters and schools, their post offices and printing presses through the Slavic lands. German culture was once a key link connecting Romania to Western Europe. The town of Brasov, for example, where Securitate and the army fought for control of the streets over Christmas, was called Kronstadt until 1945, and there were twelve German-language papers published in the town, and only one Romanian. Rezzori attended the German Gymnasium there in the 1930s. The heroic town of Timisoara was once the capital of the Swabian German colonists of Danubian Romania.
Magris’s book meanders like the river itself, searching out the sites where the alluvial deposits of old Danubian culture are to be found: the old railway stations, barracks, post offices, and museums painted in Austro-Hungarian yellows and ochres. It is a bibliophile’s travelogue, by a scholar who knows both the Bulgarian peasant epics and Slovene mountain poetry, and who offers us this erudition in a light, strolling style, free of guidebook dreariness. What we get is a writer’s tour of south-eastern Europe; the musicians, sculptors, painters, and architects, will have to wait their turn. Georg Lukacs rather than Bela Bartok, Paul Celan rather than Brancusi, are the shades Magris takes us to meet.
Some of these encounters with the traces of vanished genius are memorable. Magris takes us to Haupstrasse 187 in the Austrian town of Kierling, to a little two-story house that was once Dr. Hoffmann’s sanitarium. It was here that Franz Kafka came to die. Magris goes out onto the little balcony at the back:
From here Kafka, stretched in his deck-chair, looked out on the garden beneath, where there now stands a wooden shed crammed with wheelbarrows, sickles and other tools. He saw the greenness which eluded him, or rather the flowering, the springtime, the sap, everything that was sucked out of his body by paper and ink, desiccating him into a feeling of pure, impotent barrenness.
Magris also visits the monastery in Austria where in 1934 Adolf Eichmann came for a week of prayerful rest and contemplation. We learn that in gratitude for the peace and inner tranquility which Eichmann had found in its walls, he wrote in the monastery greeting book upon leaving: “Treue um Treue“: faith for faith. Another Austrian monastery, we learn, sheltered Josef Mengele for several years after 1945. Once during the war, when asked how much longer the business of extermination was going to last, Mengele replied, “Mein Freund, es geht immer weiter, immer weiter.” “It goes on forever, my friend, forever.” This too—the exterminatory impulse—is as Danubian as Sachertorte.
Yet not all of what Magris sees is somber. In Ulm, he discovers a Borgesian obsessive called Ernst Neweklowsky whose life work, Navigation and Rafting on the Upper Danube, over two thousand pages long, was an engineer’s love poem to the river, printed in three volumes, cataloging everything about river lore, even the twelve different names by which the Zille, the Danubian flat-bottomed boat, is known. In Bratislava Magris finds a pharmacy with the delightful name of The Red Prawn, and on its shelves he opens a manual of pharmacology published in 1745 in four languages, Slovak, Latin, Hungarian, and German. In Subotica in Yugoslavia, he finds the same characteristically Danubian infatuation with the polyglot in a lover’s scrawl on a corrugated iron fence: “j’ai t’ame.”
Magris’s attention to the linguistic subsoil of Danubian culture, rather than to the gray surfaces of existing Eastern European tyranny makes the book a welcome relief from the now-hackneyed travelogues of socialism in decay. Yet as he passes through Hungary, he recalls an Italian journalist’s description of how some workers razed a statue to Stalin in the thick of the fighting of 1956 and then continued to hack away at the boots on the base even when the bullets were whining around them and the approaching Soviet half-tracks were shaking the ground under their feet.
The Romanian revolution was the final vindication of the lonely courage of the Hungarians in 1956. The first of the sections Magris devotes to the Romanian parts of the Danube is aptly titled “On the Road to Evil.” He discovers that Romanians gave the name Hiroshima to the parts of old Bucharest devastated by Ceausescu. Magris looks down at the building site which spread through central Bucharest like an irradiated sore and notices a labyrinth of underground tunnels under construction—unaware, as we are now, that these were the rat warrens of the Securitate.
Magris’s book ends strongly, in the vast alluvial delta where the river empties into the Black Sea. In the liquid universe of the delta, in the bleak and rusted port where he decides, arbitrarily, that the river must end, Magris finds himself possessed by the metaphor of the river’s dissolution as death, and he concludes by quoting the Triestrian dialect poet Biagio Marin: “Lord let my death be like the flowing of a river into the great sea.”
Other moments in this erudite and original travelogue, it must be said, are marred by the author’s inability to let incidents speak for themselves. At the end of a delightful passage describing a dawn promenade among the illustrious dead of Vienna’s central cemetery, in company with a municipal worker whose job it is to keep down the rabbits, Magris finishes with a mawkish and obscure elegy to one of the dead rabbits. The dead animal is “an image of the deficit of the universe and of the original sin of life which feeds on death.” A few pages later, Magris sums up the Viennese fin de siècle in equally murky prose:
Vienna is the city of the post-modern, in which reality yields to the depiction of itself and of appearances, the strong categories weaken, and the universal comes true in the transcendental or dissolves into the ephemeral, while the mechanisms of necessity engulf all values.
In another place, he writes that the Habsburg motto, AEIOU—Austriae est imperare orbi universo (Command of the universe falls to Austria)—has become a “code-word in post-modernism, an emblem of the inadequacy and oblique defensiveness which mark our warped and shabby ego.” In fact, any sentence in the book which contains the word “post-modern” should be skipped.
Magris also fails to define what, if anything, unites the national cultures that have made their homes on the Danube’s banks. He comes closest to defining what they share when he makes an interesting comparison between north German Protestant culture, epitomized by Hegel, and Danubian culture epitomized by the Austrian dramatist Grillparzer. Hegel heralded Napoleon as the appearance of the World Spirit on horseback, while Grillparzer saw him as sinister, totalitarian, a mind that “everywhere sees nothing but his own ideas and sacrifices everything to them.” This contrast between the Danubian and the Rhenish axes of the German psyche leads Magris to observe of Austrian culture in general that it
defends what is marginal, transient, secondary, the pause and respite from that mechanism which aims at burning up such things so as to attain more important results.
These generalizations, however suggestive they may be, define Danubian culture according to its specifically German elements, and as the river flows eastward, through Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Romania, this German minority culture seems more and more vestigial. “The Danubian civilization” that Magris goes in search of trails away, like the river itself, into numberless national tributaries. One might conclude that geography is not destiny: sharing a river only means sharing the same pollution.
If so, the portents for a revival of cosmopolitanism on the Danube are gloomy. The Bulgarians want to expel their Turkish minority; the Romanians may not stop persecuting their Hungarian conationals, just because it was Ceausescu who once organized the persecution; Serbs, Croats, Bulgarians, and Romanians share mainly their detestation of one another. In the Balkans, as Magris sardonically observes, “every prejudice recognizes the right, or even better, the necessity, of the next person’s prejudice.” Liberty for Eastern Europe may bring about only a revival of fratricidal Balkan particularism. Seventy years after the fall of the empire, the civilization of the Danube is still in search of the shared allegiances precariously safeguarded under the doddering Franz Joseph. What a tragedy it would be if the students and workers of Bucharest fought and perished so that their children would be free to take up the old Balkan quarrels again.
Gregor von Rezzori concentrates on one tiny patch of ground, his beloved Bukovina, and yet manages to say as much about the Danubian world as Magris, who is concerned with the whole 3000-kilometer stretch of the river. The Snows of Yesteryear is autobiography as portraiture, self-revelation by means of the character study of the people who shaped Rezzori’s life. Admirers of his Memoirs of an Anti-Semite will recall his great talent for character sketch. Each portrait is a miniature of the Bukovinian past. Thus when his peasant nanny Cassandra speaks, her patois was a “laborious linguistic farrago,” part peasant Romanian, part German, part servant, part master. As Rezzori puts it, she made do with “linguistic tidbits, like a beggar who collects the crumbs fallen from a rich man’s table.” Unfortunately, Rezzori cannot seem to remember any examples of what she actually said, except that when she wore her black, white, and gray nurse’s uniform she said gaily, “I go about like photograph of myself.”
Cassandra represented the irrepressible idiom of the Romanian soil while Bunchy, the Austrian nanny, stood for Mitteleuropean Kultur and refinement. While Bunchy taught the Rezzori children the poems addressed by Michelangelo to Vittoria Colonna, Cassandra was whispering peasant fairy tales in their ears.
Rezzori stresses what Magris sometimes misses, the conflict between Kultur and the Danubian national idiom. Rezzori also finds a binding cultural element in the Danubian world that Magris more or less ignores: the tide of American dance music, dress styles, and movies that swept into the cultural void left by the Austro-Hungarian collapse. Reading Rezzori, one begins to understand how, as Magris tells us, a young German boy from Timisoara called Johnny Weissmuller ended up in Hollywood swinging through the trees dressed in a loincloth and calling himself Tarzan.
For Rezzori, the Mitteleuropean civilization that Magris celebrates was just a “thin foil…superimposed on an untidily assorted ethnic conglomerate from which it could be peeled off all too readily.” There was a German language theater in Czernowitz, for example, but after the First World War protests from Romanian students forced its closure. When the twin pillars of the bourgeois world, property and learning, were toppled in 1918, Rezzori’s parents had to learn to live in exile “in a colony deserted by its colonial masters.” The Rezzoris had served the Austro-Hungarian monarchy since the eighteenth century; they could not allow themselves to sink into either the Romanian or the German Swabian worlds around them, and both parents’ lives can be seen as futile attempts to maintain the dignity of a German ruling class in the border marches of a defunct empire.
Rezzori’s portrait of his mother is heartbreaking. He remembers her at Constanza on the Romanian Black Sea coast when he was a boy:
She must have seemed a grotesque figure, running along the beach in her inappropriately elegant sleeveless bathing costume, between the puddles of seawater and the reeds, among the rinds of sucked-out watermelons and the spat-out sunflower seeds, protected from the burning sun by a parasol and a Florentine straw hat, legs singed to the same pink as the little shells crunching under her bathing pumps, in her arms a pack of magazines and bathing towels to have ready when we emerged.
Even when her marriage to Rezzori’s father was beyond speaking, she continued the “almost medieval marital devotion” of a bygone era, darning the very hunting clothes she hated him to wear, “secretly weaving with her own hair, the rips in his tweeds and donegals.” We see her as a woman enslaved to duties and proprieties that no longer made any sense in the 1920s, married to a man incapable of living up to her image of Mitteleuropean patriarchy, and unable herself to break away into the new world of 1920s feminism.
Rezzori’s father cuts an equally absurd and affecting figure. He was one of those Eastern European gentlemen who ordered his shaving kit from the best shops in London, who knew how to roll a cigarette with one hand while keeping the other hand on his horse’s bridle, and who contributed learned articles on game to European hunting journals. His anti-Semitism expressed the fastidious contempt of the German minority for “the Russnyacks and Polacks,” “the black-red-and-gold Bukoviniensers” and “Jew city” that surrounded them in the Bukovina. He was the type of aristocratic anti-Semite who told his son when Hitler came to power, “this fellow: I wouldn’t hire him as a stable boy!” and who disapproved of Nazi pogroms because, though Jews were bloodsuckers, “that doesn’t give anyone the right to steal from them.”
His anti-Semitism was of a piece with his headlong retreat from the twentieth century, from the American influences his son secretly admired, from the whole confusing, nonhierarchic world of Europe after the collapse of empire. He took refuge in the forests of the Romanian patriarchate, as if only in hunting stags and wild boar could he maintain intact the integrity of the gentlemanly ideal that the real world of the 1920s now mocked. In a beautiful and perceptive passage, Rezzori writes:
Occasionally I encounter people who, seemingly unaffected, survive from a former world and populate the present in odd incarnations, like dinosaurs; when I look a bit closer, they seem somehow hollowed out—all of them without any doubt personalities, that is to say, utterly and completely personae: masks shaped in a period-given stereotypical form. The growth of a shell around the time-resisting personality has eaten away the individual within. What remained, irrespective of the personal qualities, is a more or less anachronistic period document.
This was the fate of the father. It might also be, one suspects, the fate of the son, as the last great remembrancer of a region that has vanished from the map and mind of Europe.
That it has vanished—irrevocably—Rezzori does not allow his nostalgia to deny. The last, affecting postscript in the book describes his return to the Czernowitz of his youth, now a dumpy town called Chernovtsy in the south-western Ukraine. The old house is still there; the official buildings are still painted in an imperial Austrian egg-yolk yellow alternated with an imperial Russian pea green. But the hodge-podge, the Bukovinian melting pot, is gone: the Swabian Germans, Romanians, Poles, Jews, Prussians, Slovaks, and Armenians have all been killed or repatriated, and their places taken by stolid cabbage-eating Ukrainians. The wild, colorful, murderous variegation of Czernowitz, Czernopol, Cernati—as it was sometime or another called—has been replaced by the stolid sub-Stalinist uniformity of Chernovtsy. The market in the city square where “under a fragrant cloud of garlic” Jews, Armenians, Lipovanians, and Germans haggled for tanned sheepskins, sharp cheese, rotgut and tobacco, cooking oil and cow dung, is now a concrete covered parade ground, hung with a gigantic billboard of Lenin. The cosmopolitan border world of Austria-Hungary and tsarist Russia has been transformed into “an immense pauper’s asylum.” One day, too, the walls of that asylum will come down.