Memoirs of an Anti-Semite
Gregor von Rezzori is a multilingual Rumanian novelist brought up in Bukovina and Bucharest after the liberation from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, educated in Vienna, and writing in German. In Germany his startling powers are admired, but he is almost unknown in the English-speaking world because of the difficulties of translating his eccentric, part-baroque, part-almost-slangy talking prose. Two of the stories in Memoirs of an Anti-Semite were written in English. He worked for British radio in Hamburg during World War II. The second sentence in the following passage—
Troth. She must have used it quite unconsciously, without a second thought as to the word’s immeasurable profundity. This made me rather pensive for a couple of days…
—has the note of, say, P.G. Wode-house’s disarming clichés.
Those who expect the sensational or a tract from Rezzori’s title will find something very different. He might even be described as anti-Semite manqué, coming from a country where anti-Semitism—among other “anti” passions—was endemic by tradition. More accurately, like the arrogant young Jewish pianist whose gifts enchanted him but of whom he was violently jealous for other reasons when he was thirteen, Rezzori is an artist with a demon in him.
The episode with the young pianist occurs in the first of the four half-fictional disquisitional stories in which this vivid toing and froing autobiography is enclosed. They are speculative dramatizations of the myths against which he rebelled in a youth that went adrift in the political catastrophes in the Middle Europe of his past. In an epilogue his mind scurries through a kind of reverie about some of the private disasters of his middle years which had not taken story form. This, I think, is a loss. But his conclusion revives a very generalized misanthropy which reminds one of Spengler’s Decline of the West: the once confident Western “goys” themselves may, in their turn, become displaced persons, too gifted for a banal proletarian dispensation.
The word “troth” spoken by the most engaging and sisterly of the Jewish women the author has been in love with is at the heart of all his stories of a changing self. For his father, a minor landowner in Bukovina, troth means an inherited loyalty to the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had been betrayed when Rumania became a separate kingdom, and even goes back to a mystical regard for the Holy Roman Empire, the West’s knightly and armed bulwark against the Oriental swarms of Asia. The old gentleman could go on for hours about the tragedy of the split between Rome and Byzantium—until his wife, who did not love him, left the room. He saw himself as a betrayed colonial outpost and therefore, when Rumania became independent, a second-class citizen.
The warlike history of his class had turned into an expensive passion for hunting in the Carpathians, and he automatically hated the Jews, whether humble or educated or above all rich, for they “spoiled the hunting.” It infuriated him that his wife asked poor Jews to…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.