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 the Raj.
The milieu that Rezzori writes of so vividly is that quintessential Mitteleuropa which disappeared into the maelstrom of World War II. In his moving epilogue to the book he recounts a visit paid to his birthplace in old age:
Naturally I had to assume that the Ukrainian Chernovtsy of 1989, cleansed of its hodgepodge of Swabian Germans, Romanians, Poles, Jews, Prussians, Slovaks, and Armenians, could no longer be the Czernowitz or Cern aut¸i that I had last visited in 1936.
At first he is astonished to find how much the present-day city resembles the one that he knew more than half a century before. Presently, however, he comes to recognize that this clean, freshly painted, composed, and sober city is merely a simulacrum, a “cunning model of a provincial town.” The words that spring to his mind are “sterile,” “lacquered,” “antiseptic.” The city’s once demonic nature has been tamed:
Nothing could be detected now of the restlessly vivacious, cynically bold and melancholically skeptical spirit that had distinguished the children of this town.
As Thomas Wolfe’s angel assures, you can’t go home again.
The writer, of course, snail-like, carries his home with him. The Snows of Yesteryear is not so much an effort of Proustian remembering as an attempt to reconstitute a vanished world—in this context one thinks of Roman Vishniak’s heartbreaking photographs of the Jews of Eastern Europe in the 1930s—and in particular to conjure into life the five figures who loom most immensely and most dearly in Rezzori’s memory of his early years. He begins and ends with portraits of two family servants, as unlike each other as could be possible. The first, Cassandra, baby Gregor’s wet nurse and later governess of sorts, is a beloved but feral creature, a descendant probably of the Dacian people who fought the Roman armies through the Carpathian wildernesses; he associates her with
the melancholy spaces of a landscape peopled with peasants and shepherds through which the silver band of a river meanders lazily, edged by hills and mountains shaded by forests.
It is Cassandra who gave the book its original, German, title, Blumen im Schnee, after the blossoms she would make for him when he was a child by printing overlapping circles in the fresh-fallen snow with the bottom of a milk can, a beautiful, simple image characteristic both of the remembered woman and of the remembering author.
The separate portraits of Rezzori’s mother and father that make up the heart of the book are tender, skeptical, penetrating, and, at key moments, devastatingly candid. Rezzori, a lover of women but at heart a man’s man, cleaves naturally to the father, forgiving him his many faults, the large as well as the small, including his fierce and unrelenting anti-Semitism. Both parents harbored unfulfilled ambitions, the mother to be a pediatrician, the father a chemist, and these disappointments shadowed their lives to the end.
Rezzori senior, tall, vigorous, handsome, was an obsessive hunter—“I often thought,” his son writes, “that his all-consuming passion for hunting was in reality an escape to and a shelter from the reminder of a truer and unrealized vocation.” He was also an amateur painter, a very bad one, it seems, suffering from “a disarming mediocrity in matters of taste.” Although the author presents his father always in sunniest mode—there are marvelous vignettes of the various means he employed for thwarting his wife’s society aspirations—the overall portrait is of a tragic figure lost in time. An admirer of Nietzsche, Rezzori père saw himself, his son writes, “as a representative of the world of the Baroque who had landed in the wrong century.”
If the portrait of his father has a touch of the heroic, Rezzori cannot stop himself from showing up his mother’s pettiness and narrowness of mind, her essential fear of the world, above all her spurious hankering after the “grand life” of parties and fashionable balls and suave men in tailcoats bowing low over her silk-gloved hand. Yet he has a deep and loving sympathy for her plight as a woman of her time, brought up by unbending parents and trapped in a marriage from which what little love there might once have been had quickly and entirely evaporated. The unrealized dream of leading a fulfilled and useful life as a doctor had, the son writes, with a true pang of sorrow, “curdled into a bitter residue at the bottom of her soul.”
Of his sister, who was older than he by four years and who died at twenty-two, Rezzori writes that for all the years after her death not one went by in which she was not present to him “in an almost corporeal way.” Yet his portrait of her is amused as well as loving, as sharp as it is fond, and tinted here and there by astringent washes of resentment. In his chapter of mourning for his lost sister Rezzori displays a wonderful control both of his material and his prose style. He is never mawkish, never strives for the grand flourish; he keeps his distance, content to achieve his effects by the lightest of brushstrokes. The result is a measured celebration of a life cut short, and a portrait of a clever, brave, and large-hearted young woman whom the ancient Stoics would have welcomed as one of their own:
For fifty-six years—a whole life span—there has not been for me a single happy or unhappy moment, neither success nor failure, no significant or even halfway noteworthy occurrence on which she might not have commented. She is mute but she is there. My life is a wordless dialogue with her, to which she remains unmoved: I monologize in front of her. In the sequence of images in which I experience myself in life, she is included in every situation, as the watermark in the paper bearing a picture.
Indeed, the stoic note is struck throughout, and nowhere more resoundingly than in the wonderful closing portrait of Miss Lina Strauss, otherwise known as Bunchy—one of the meanings of the German word Strauss is “bunch of flowers”—the Pomeranian tutor who first taught Rezzori’s mother and then young Rezzori himself, and who remained his friend and mentor until her death at a grand age. Bunchy had led a remarkable life. She had lived for many years in New York and Florence, and had been a good friend, and perhaps more than a good friend, of Mark Twain’s. She brought to the Rezzori household “a more civil tone,” and probably imbued young Gregor with something of her own civilized and culturally sophisticated outlook on the world and its not always appealing inhabitants. He recalls the regular postcards she would send him in later years, usually with reproductions of paintings by the Tuscan masters, and remarks, beautifully, how “the golden background of those Annunciations lined the place in my psyche where her name was embedded.”
Flakes of that gold leaf adhere to every page of von Rezzori’s wonderful, luminous memoir. The Snows of Yesteryear may deal with a lost world but in its affirmation of the necessity of clear sight, humor, warmth, and a jealously maintained sense of due proportion, it is a welcome reproof for the laxities of our time. Writing of his sister, Rezzori remarks the matter in which they felt “an identical, close affinity,” namely,
the perceptive handling of unavoidable losses. We knew the fabric that fed the poetics of our life; we knew the value of those myths into which lost realities are transformed.
By a seemingly selfless concentration upon the figures that surrounded him in his earliest years, Rezzori manages to portray vividly both a public world that has gone and a private self that endures. In a haunting passage he recalls a Joycean epiphany experienced on a long-ago “brooding Romanian summer afternoon,” when he sat by a window above an enclosed garden, raptly attentive to the music of what happens. There was an ancient vine, and summer flies that “threaded the hour,” and a sleeping cat, and soaring swallows.
I had before me an 1873 issue of Over Land and Sea. From its yellowed pages rose a subtly musty whiff. A foxed steel engraving of a three-master with reefed sails in a small palm-fanned harbor in front of a background of steep volcanic cones—this lured my imagination into the airy remoteness of spiced shores. But there remained a floating core of consciousness filled with nothing but a transparent void—I would have called it my “I,” had I been asked—that was neither here nor there but, instead, in an anguished and tormenting nowhere.