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 the house, albeit to give them clothes.
The father’s sense of caste brought boredom into the house, and as a boy the author suffered long spells of what the Russians call skushno, i.e., an ennui, a sense of “a spiritual void that sucks you in like a vague but intensely urgent longing.” The longing is strongly influenced by the fact that the boy is the handsome pet of a frustrated mother. He will idealize and fear other women, especially women of his own class. As for the Jews who swarm in the countryside, he knows them well—he picks up Yiddish very fast—and does not hate them, but he does not like them. He is simply class-conscious: either they are too obsequiously poor or too flauntingly rich. Their chief “vice” is asking “personal questions.” His boredom is also due to sexual frustration, and when at eighteen he rebels against his family and his class and runs off to Bucharest to earn his living—a notion repugnant to his parents—and has liaisons with Jewish women, who always attract him, he discovers that the Jews also have their troth.
This is the central theme of the episodes that follow: violent sexual desire—the “myth” of sex as he will call it; sex is not love—will surprise him by turning him into a Lothario, passionate but soon back in boredom. He will be left with guilt because he has betrayed the dreamed-of, lifelong “ideal” love, probably derived from his love of his mother. (That thought annoys Rezzori, who hates Freudian doctrine as “the Jewish disease.”) Still, in Bucharest, he is a nearly genuine déclassé, in a half-Oriental city of all races, beautiful women, and sham sophistication. He sinks to employment as a window-dresser for an international cosmetic company, a ruthless trade, but he is still the “boyar’s son” who early in the morning before he goes to work secretly becomes a part-time gentleman jockey familiar with trainers and reeking stables. So he has a double life as a salesman, i.e., he is a voyeur in the red-light quarter of the city or seducing the easy horsey girls.
His first experience of the Jewish “troth” is with an older woman who runs a pharmacy, and who is known to all the salesmen for her arrogance and rages—the hardheaded Black Widow. She contemptuously allows him to arrange a décor of toothpaste in her shop window and by accident he falls down a trap door and is stunned. Terrified that he will sue her for negligence, she helps him up. He passes out and comes to to find her stroking his cheek and saying, “My little boy! My baby!” to appease him and take his mind off the law:
When I put my arms around her to draw her to me, her eyes widened in horror, as though she had beheld the depth and core of all evil. She made an involuntary movement to repel me. But then I witnessed a surprising change; I could only guess at what it was: this marvelous fulfillment of a dream she would never have expected to come true, the sudden transformation of an age-old fear into joy…and happiness more blissful than all desire—and so powerful that it tore a moan out of her.
I know that this change in her face was what made me love her.
Rezzori’s erotic writing is at once tender and strongly carnal. Lust is no less an image-maker than love. He sees the Black Widow as “lovable” because of “the age-old Jewish sadness,” as an archaic goddess. (Is that part of the romanticism of the “goyim”?) He examines all aspects of her nature and is merciless to the element of falsity in his own position. She astounds him one day by her awe for her dead husband: he ruled her because he had read deeply into Jewish philosophy and was learned on the difficult subject of free will. The lover is awed too. Did her husband’s religion give him a superior potency? Her “troth” is in his tradition, yet she tears up her husband’s photograph because the young Lothario is jealous.
The liaison turns eventually into a sour comedy, and what brings about the inevitable break is not her Jewishness: he loves that, but he cannot bear it that she is petit bourgeois. He can tolerate her accent; he cannot bear her tastes. What is troth—a powerful myth or has it degenerated into the petty prejudices of manners and class? The final scene has that mingling of the cruel and grotesque which is overwhelmingly and marvelously done. It is he who is humiliated. He is less a man; she is more powerfully a woman.
The attraction of this early erotic career is Rezzori’s very considerable gift for evoking the bazaar-like underground of Rumanian life, its half-Oriental, half-Slavonic crowds. In the next story he is downhill, in a Hungarian-Jewish rooming house and mixed up in the comic quarrels of shabby journalists, circus people, wrestlers, and exiles; the question of troth has a startling severity here. There is an intellectual girl, a secret Jewess who has been brought up as an Armenian Christian and is just back from Hitler’s Germany, where her secret has not been detected. She is hostile to the author and he to her, for she sounds like a prim schoolteacher. But one day he is startled by her courage in contradicting the lazy views of the journalists who have ready-made views about the Nazis’ attitude to the Jews. She is more farseeing:
“It’s my belief—or rather my conviction, based on personal experience…the Nazis are using the so-called Jewish question to cover up far more questionable issues…. A small, harmless religious minority is now being held responsible for a thousand years’ faulty German policy.”
Her family were Sephardic Jews. The author becomes involved with her in a purely friendly job of helping to go through the belongings of her Jewish aunt and Armenian uncle, who had brought her up. It is clear that the couple were obsessively sensual lovers; yet surely this was in conflict with their respective pieties?
“Then you still believe in your severe God of shalts and shalt nots!” I cried in foolish triumph. “He just happens to be named Jehovah!”
“No,” she said with no trace of bombast. “I believe in the devil.”
“You can’t believe in the devil without believing in God.”
That is logical, she says, and if she had “poetic impulses” like Nietzsche, she would say that “God has grown old.” But she adds:
“I’m afraid even the devil has grown senile—or is banality his last and most dangerous disguise?”
Once more, a disgraceful, lonely end to the story, a betrayal of troth. That word “banality” is very much Rezzori’s: perhaps he makes her use it at his expense, for he has the restless wit of the dandy and is something of “a burned-out case.” Still, banality is his word for what is coming to us politically and spiritually.
Troth is betrayed again when he is in Vienna for the Anschluss. He has a brotherly, innocent love with a delightful, tippling, sans gêne Jewish girl called Minka, the daughter of a cultivated musical couple who had died of flu on the same day—“a typical Jewish extravagance, as my grandmother said, because there was no epidemic.” As a Rumanian, the young man felt entitled to be detached about the Anschluss—weren’t many of the Jews Reds? Didn’t the Germans like hunting and have sound ideas about hunting laws? As Minka says to a journalist back from Prague, “Tell him seriously how things look politically. He’s straight out of the Middle Ages, you know. That’s where his father lives, in the Carpathians.” There is farce in the confusion. When Minka is in danger he offers a passport marriage to her but she refuses him. The marriage would hurt his parents, but more to the point, she says, “because of certain goyish qualities of your soul.” She eventually marries a non-Jew and gets to America, where she dies. The author is later on caught by the war in Hamburg. He is now destitute and there is something distinctly ironic in his fate—he is down to the lowest Jewish level, half-starving and glad to be selling old clothes.
Whether his memoir is fact or hanging-in-the-air fiction, it is honest about his exasperation and his compelled affection for his—to him—peculiar Jewish friends, mistresses, and his two wives, half-Jewish and Jewish. He sees their lives and his own with detachment as tragicomedy in which he is the observant yet self-critical “floater”; but guaranteed by his survival as he sits today in fading Rome and Venice married to an Italian lady—the Rezzoris are said to have an Italian strain, which is quite correct for a Rumanian—who quickly laughs when she sees he has picked up a phrase or two, for the sake of the echo of a lost civilization, from her Russian great-aunt. He certainly exposes the shams of casual, façon de parler anti-Semitism, such things as the changes of names, climbing, noting with glee that a certain Mr. Wood became a Lord Halifax (who was climbing then?). One has to note that, as is too common in autobiography, the voices are much more the clever voice of the author than the voice of people in real talk, except in the case of the enchanting Minka. Where he is most striking is in the first story, when he allows the Russian exile Stiassny to elucidate and mock the writer as an adolescent. He calls the boy “one” or “we”:
“With innate generosity, one will overlook the fact that the venerable Herr Uncle’s mother was Hungarian and Frau Aunt Sophie, a cousin of one’s mother—if I am not mistaken—has as much Irish as Rumanian blood in her veins…but then who am I to bring up such things! We are all of mixed blood…children of an imperium of diverse peoples, races, and religions. If, that legendary imperium having disappeared, we did not still, comically enough, feel Austrian, then we would have to own up to being American…but we lack political insight for that.”
Hard on a boy of thirteen, but Stiassny is a wonderfully educative monster.
Where Rezzori has most natural fervor is in his remarkable scenes set in the streets of Bucharest and especially in that account of an evening of “lavender skies”—his most emotive tint—when he sits with the Black Widow, who is upset at being taken to a low-class restaurant. He has a sense of “two great solitudes…two bleaknesses consuming one another”—and perhaps also symbols of the difference between her life and his:
…here the wasteland of the city with its encroaching horrors, its progress, which was decay, the mange of rust and mortar; and there the relentlessly misanthropic vastness and power of nature….
My Jewess must have known this forlornness in the enormity of nature from her native shtetl…. I quite understood how [she] might want to choose the city.
It is to his credit that he sees her as no longer Jewish or even petit bourgeois when, in a temper, he publicly slaps her face. She becomes a hardened human being, frightening in her unanswerable human dignity, as she sees the bliss of her mothering love vanish from her life. The indignant strong-armed men in the crowd rise in her defense and drive him out.
July 16, 1981