The Snows of Yesteryear (1989) by Gregor von Rezzori is a masterpiece in that rare genre that might be classed as incidental autobiography. The story the book has to tell, of the formation of a soul and a sensibility, is slyly concealed within the interstices of a set of other stories, other lives, other pasts. In its method, which seems not a method at all, it resembles those other two great magically dissembling memoirs of the twentieth century, Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (1966) and Harold Nicolson’s Some People (1927). Rezzori’s style is less beadily precious and certainly less prolix than Nabokov’s, and his psychological insights run deeper than Nicolson’s, but all three writers share the same poise and elegance, the same dryly critical eye, and, delightfully, the same faintly absurdist wit. As Rezzori writes:
To recognize what is absurd and to accept it need not dim the eye for the tragic side of existence; quite on the contrary, in the end it may perhaps help in gaining a more tolerant view of the world.
Gregor von Rezzori sprang from, in Humbert Humbert’s happy phrase, a “salad of genes.” On his father’s side his origins were Sicilian—his paternal ancestors had moved north to serve the Habsburg emperors—while from his mother he inherited Swiss, Greek, Romanian, and Irish blood. He had the dubious distinction of being born in a country that ceased to exist while he was still a young man. The Bukovina, a region on the northern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains, boasts a history that in richness and complexity is entirely disproportionate to its size. The country, if that is the word, came into existence in 1775 as an annexation from Moldavia by the Habsburgs, and remained a statelet within the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1919 when it passed into Romanian control. In 1940, it was split between Russia and Romania, and in 1947 Romania formally ceded the northern half of the country to the Soviets, the former capital, Czernowitz, becoming the Ukrainian city of Chernovtsy.
By the melting-pot standards of the Bukovina, Rezzori’s background was relatively uncomplicated. Neither of his parents was born in the region. His father, a minor aristocrat and a civil servant in the employ of the empire, came from Austria to Czernowitz at the end of the nineteenth century to take up the post of overseer of the art and artifacts of the Romanian Orthodox monasteries in the region. His mother’s parents, Rezzori writes, “had lived there temporarily, connected with the country by an originally Greek bloodline that over the centuries had become Romanian”—a typical example of his elegantly and blandly unenlightening narrative style. In the years between the wars, from 1919 to 1939, the family persisted
in the illusion of having a pseudo-feudal position in the world…. We considered ourselves as former Austrians in a province with a predominantly Austrian coloring, like those British colonials who remained in India after the end of …