Claudio Magris: Gregor von Rezzori, Epigone and Precursor
Gregor von Rezzori: Epigone, Precursor
May 26th, 2007
“I don’t ask you to approve of this, I ask you merely to understand.”
Toward the end of The Ermine in Cernopol, when Mr. Tarangolian, the prefect of Teskovina, takes leave of the narrator’s family, announcing his departure from the province (fated to be put off indefinitely), the narrator, too—the elusive and restless flatus vocis that is always about to get lost in the hubbub of the marketplace, of the voices it picks up, tangles with, and invents, to dissolve like a face reflected in rippling water—takes his leave, after a long illness. He takes leave of childhood and of the city, Tchernopol, that is its substance and mirage, a Christmas tree decorated with balls of many colors that turn out to be soap bubbles. He has to enter life, as relatives and teachers tell him, insistently praising the joys that await him. But, listening to them, he has the impression that those imminent and heralded pleasures do not concern him; it seems to him that they are talking about the goods sold at the emporium of Dobrowolski & Dobrowolski.
What does it mean to enter life, enter reality? Where are you before you go into that emporium which puts on display so many things to buy and consume; where are you left if—like the elusive, illicit character who in Rezzori’s novels and memoirs says “I,” with the sad, sly expression of one doing something illegal—you never go in, if you stay outside, in the open, an alien? Undeniably outside is the “man without a country” who is, in different guises, Rezzori’s character, his alter ego but also his double, stuntman and ghost writer, the creature and the creator of that alternation and exchange of the real and the false, that “amusing and disturbing” game immortalized in The Ermine, in the immortal Mr. Tarangolian.
Gregor von Rezzori is an extraordinary poet of the gap that, for modern man, has opened up between the “I” and life, and because of which it is no longer his life but, rather, a territory that he is unable to enter, to penetrate, a state of alienation that he loves with a passionate, disenchanted love; he is continuously fleeing something that he has never possessed and that hence is not his, that he feels he does not belong to, yet is nostalgic for, as if he had lost it. This is a theme that has been strongly present in European—and especially Central European—sensibility and literature. Hofmannsthal, in a youthful lyric, weeps over “a regret for life / without name, mute in me”; for Richard Beer-Hofmann “life, mute at the edge of a steep bank, gazes down at us as we depart from it”; for the inhabitants of the village of Oblomovka, in Goncharov’s Oblomov, life flows beside them like a river, and they sit on its banks and contemplate it; Niels Lyhne, in Jens Peter Jacobsen’s novel, seems to be diving into the stream of life, and yet is sitting on the shore, casting his line to catch this or that, always waiting to sail off over “the Spanish main of life,” and listening to the “coins of life jingling” in his pocket, without being able to get them out and spend them. Rilke, in a letter to Lou Andreas-Salomé, asks “When is the present?,” that is, the only life that concretely exists, that we are always waiting for and instead is consumed, as Carlo Michelstaedter writes, because we sacrifice it to the future, in the hope that it will pass quickly, as we wait for the results from the doctor, the outcome of the elections, marriage or divorce, wishing that today will become tomorrow as soon as possible, and so living not to live but to have lived already, to be a little closer to death, to die.
The quotations could continue, since they attest to one of the fundamental reasons for the trauma with which literature experienced, between the end of the nineteenth century and the first three decades of the twentieth, the epochal turning point of civilization—the split between life and the life brilliantly captured by the young Lukács. Rezzori is a lover of life, though he knows it’s unreal, and certainly not of death—if anything he’s a suitor, who flirts with it, only to deceive and abandon it, for as long as possible. He was derisive even in the face of his own death, Tilman Spengler wrote, seeing him, on the day of his funeral, as a mocking supervisor of the dignity of the scene. The Dead in Their Places is the title of a book of his inspired by working on the set of Louis Malle’s Viva Maria!; after the lunch break, the extras lie down on the ground.
Rezzori is not an epigone of this tradition; he is, rather, a precursor who—through self-irony, good breeding, savoir-faire, and worldly charm—plays at being the epigone, in part to avoid unpleasant responsibilities. But he also senses that, in the decades that separate him from the great modernist literature, another mutation of society and the individual took place, and is still taking place; meaner and more radical, it makes reality and the “I” even more like the goods at Dobrowolski & Dobrowolski in Tchernopol, goods that are, in turn, even more generic and anonymous.
When Rezzori spoke of picturesque Hapsburg Tchernopol, and its fabulous Orient, he was speaking, in advance, of our West of today, where the interchangeability of true and false stamped on the face of Mr. Tarangolian, and in his “fathomless, melancholy” eyes, finds a broad curved fun-house mirror. Frequently in the course of daily life, and with a sudden pang of nostalgia, I think of Grisha; for example, one afternoon in a small mountain town in Friuli—an incident that I recounted in my book Microcosms—I turned to an employee at the local library to ask if it had a book by a nineteenth-century poet who had written a Hymn to Matter, and this man asked me, “But you, whom do you represent?,” unable to conceive that someone might be looking for a book, wandering around on his own account.
Of course, I could have said that I represented many categories: bipeds, teachers, spouses, fathers, sons, travelers, mortals, drivers, but… And I wondered what Grisha would have said. Maybe he would have said that he represented “former”s, as the two of us discussed in a conversation published some years ago in the Corriere della Sera. “I believe,” he said then, “that the consciousness of being an ‘ex’ or ‘former’ is an advantage for a writer—not to indulge in any myths about the former Austria-Hungary, but in a more profound sense, which invests life in itself…. To feel oneself ‘former’ is, in general, a condition of modern man. Certainly we’ve had a particularly intense experience of it, which perhaps allows us to be particularly sensitive to dislocation, to the loss of one’s world, to disorientation. Perhaps you would be, too, if you weren’t from Trieste.”
Rezzori, born in 1914 (on the eve of the end of his world, which he didn’t experience but invented and re-created) in Hapsburg Czernowitz, wore that identity with undeniable passion, following the canon of Austro-Hungarian tradition, of the country (Cacania, Maghrebinia, Taroccania) whose purely “imaginary” name Baron Andrian-Werburg denounced as early as 1848; a country where “Austrian,” according to Musil, meant “Austro-Hungarian minus the Hungarian,” and, more than elsewhere, reality appeared to be “hot air,” founded on nothing; a country where Urzidil said he was “hinternational”; “the first country,” Musil again, “whose credit God took away, along with the useful illusion of having a mission to fulfill,” and that went to ruin for its lack of a precise name, its “inexpressibility.”
Rezzori is a great poet of the Hapsburg Empire, and this is a key to his fascination, especially in “The Ermine”: “There still seemed to be a reflection of the glory of the sunken dual monarchy in the late summer sunsets, and the broad ponderous country roads cut through the melancholy vastness like dams of fiscal sobriety, roads of infantry marches and the mail-coach era, straight as a die, saturated with sweat, powdery with dust, lined with gigantic poplars in whose shimmering, windswept crowns the falcons nested. The incongruous tollgates of new boundaries freshly shot up out of the ground had not been able to stop them. There they lay like the exhalations of a long breath, imperturbable, aimed unswervingly at a distance for which the minor key of the shepherd’s pipe seemed to express longing.”
The fantastic Teskovina, the imaginary (but not too) land of The Ermine, in other words Bukovina, is the heart, the essence, of the Hapsburg Babel, of its concrete carnality and iridescent unreality, which gleams at night like the wet wood of the fable, so luminously bright, but in the morning is revealed to be putrescent, the shine of rot. Tchernopol-Czernowitz, Rezzori writes, is the former capital of the former duchy of Bukovina, ceded by the former Ottoman Empire to the former Hapsburg Empire and included in the former kingdom of Galicia, later one of the former lands of the crown of the Hapsburgs, then a former Romanian and former Soviet city. A fabulous world, the crucible of an extraordinary culture: Austrian-German-Romanian-Ukrainian, and, above all, Jewish, along with some smaller elements. A world from which an extraordinary literature emerged: Paul Celan, the incarnation of that absolute, and its self-destruction, from which Rezzori escaped with the elegance of a dancer who in a crowded room avoids by a hair the couples swept along by the rhythm; many writers and mediators of “hinternational” culture and humanism; eclectic figures like Klara Blum, a militant Communist German Jew in Vienna, Moscow, and then China, where she struggled for the revolution, established the study of German language and literature in China, searched her whole life for her Chinese husband, who disappeared in Stalin’s purges, and remained faithful to Communism and Maoism even after being persecuted by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution—a tragically real character who might seem to have been invented by Rezzori.
Mitteleuropa is a world of “former”s and a former world, as Predrag Matvejevich has written. An Austrian writer, Rezzori became a Romanian citizen at four, in 1918; later he was stateless, and not only, as he said, jokingly, because that would give him a better chance of receiving the Nobel Prize, which had never, in the rotation of states and nations, been given to anyone of that nationality. “Foreigner by profession,” as the first-person narrator says of himself in The Death of My Brother Abel, and “a polyglot homme à tout faire,” he—who, him? him, the man we loved, with his passion for shining countless pairs of shoes, or the genius writer, or one of his characters, or that other which inhabits each of us, a shifty, often embarrassing co-tenant?—he is “a man without a country.”
Within the amiable worldliness of the Austrian gentleman—who, out of modesty and to avoid his destiny, sometimes hides his intelligence behind the mask of Count Boby or some specimen from the Guide for Idiots Through German Society—lies the tragedy of the House of Atreus, the curse of suffering that is repeated through the ages, piercing, ferocious, even when it sinks to the level of caricature, sophisticated inanity, or media simulations. “The noble epigone who is in us, who knows the whole story by heart, from its origins, and silently weeps over it,” as he puts it in the splendid Oedipus at Stalingrad.
Impure origins, falsification that coincides with the beginning; even the unforgettable “bloody and frosty” sunrise, “cloud masses brushing fiery skies, heralds rising silently,” that appears, in one great passage, on the morning of the hunt, in Oedipus, could be a special effect of lighting on a movie set, but not on that account does it lose its sensual concreteness or its poetry, which is always torn from the stage of the world and its misunderstanding. From its origins: in the Odyssey, during the banquet given by the Phaeacians in honor of Ulysses, the bard sings of Ulysses’ deeds and the hero weeps—the noble epigone who weeps in us—because he understands that those deeds no longer belong to him; they are no longer his unique, unspeakable experience but already an entertainment for impersonal consumption, the script for a series with a large audience.
The Austrian without a country belongs to the house of Atreus because Austrian civilization—so anti-tragic, ironic, baroque—became a tragedy after it ended: not in 1918 but in 1938, with the Anschluss, and with an experience of the Anschluss that Rezzori portrayed in his masterpiece Memoirs of an Anti-Semite. The first-person narrator of The Death of My Brother Abel—who tries to rediscover his identity by writing, which is, in turn, a spreading outward from the center—says that he lost the first half of his life in Vienna, and that he ought to look for it there, and never find it again. “You will, I hope, understand me when I say that I lost it precisely because that half is present there. Like Vienna as a whole, that half is present as a dream. A dream preserved in a museum. Vienna and I, we are both timeless, a dead man’s dream in a dead city’s dream. On March 12 of the year 1938 Vienna died before my eyes and, with it, my then living and lived self. But we still keep on dreaming our selves. Vienna and I belong together for all time—but no longer to me.”
That is the mutilation of civilization, of the “I,” a mutilation more serious than the missing arm of another character in that novel; a mutilation that is not only the enormous barbarity of Nazism and the Shoah but of the entire world, of all the horrors and acts of violence that the Shoah subsumes to the highest power. The chameleon-like weakness of the “I” can in some cases be a technique of flight, but it becomes a failing on the moral plane when horror and violence require a strong “I,” capable of fighting and even of perishing in this “good fight,” to quote St. Paul; and capable, above all, of making firm, clear choices, the evangelical “yes yes, no no.” It’s the opposite of the alternation of true and false that is so enthralling in Mr. Tarangolian but so unintentionally complicit when suffering, humiliation, human annihilation, extermination are in play.
Grisha knows that he wasn’t a hero, and that he shares this passivity—this guilty “guiltlessness,” Broch would say—with millions of secondary actors in the tragedy (with many of us), innocent because they did no evil (something they’ve always had a horror of), were not stained by even some small act of cowardice, but guilty because they didn’t—we didn’t—confront the Leviathan with their bare hands, which made it possible for him to wallow in his slaughterhouse. Repeatedly, and especially in his last works of memoir (relatively and, as he says, “unreliably” autobiographical)—The Snows of Yesteryear, On My Traces, Anecdotagel—Rezzori settles accounts with this phenomenon. He does so completely and at the same time with an evasive reticence before the triumphant Evil, a reticence that is his and that of a whole generation. He does it without a sense of guilt—because he knows he’s dealing with an epochal fact, of which he is a secondary feature—and without any humanitarian anti-Nazi rhetoric, an alibi that would be too comfortable for someone who from the start, in a Hapsburg childhood ignorant of what would happen later, felt genuinely distant from the Germans, alien in Germany. But he does it with a total lucidity that exposes, in himself and in others, the mechanics of an objective—even if passive, indignant, and innocent—complicity with the horror.
If in the autobiographical or pseudo-autobiographical writings all this emerges with illuminating clarity, their fantastic re-elaboration into a creative masterpiece, the brilliant Memoirs of an Anti-Semite (sometimes thoughtlessly taken for autobiography, as its greatest interpreter, Andrea Landolfi, reminds us), makes us understand, as do few other texts, how that horror could take place and not meet true resistance in so many persons of right feeling, friends or lovers of Jews, admirers of the grand Jewish civilization in which they felt they shared and by which they were enthralled, incapable of committing or even imagining violence against Jews: and yet steeped in anti-Jewish prejudices (if in themselves innocuous, or almost), in that murky sense of Jewish differentness (even if the difference is slight), which formed a humus that in itself would never have generated Auschwitz but in which the seeds of Auschwitz found a soil they could thrive in.
Rezzori is perfectly aware that he, too, in a small way, sinks into that humus. In Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, the anti-Semitism of the “I” that remembers is portrayed with its disturbing spontaneity, which is almost innocent because it’s natural, and hence objectively so much more compromised. It’s obvious that this first-person narrator is a fictitious, invented character, and not the author. But he’s a great character precisely in that the author has had the courage to attribute to him the latencies, the submerged and buried prejudices, the hidden nuances that characterize an entire generation, a class, a culture to which he, too, belongs, and so it concerns him, although only as a representative who, while aware of how base that world is, is not able to break with it, knowing that he has in himself a touch of the baseness that he denounces and despises. He is a patron of Charley’s bar in Berlin and a habitué of the jeunesse doré of Tchernopol, which are not exactly centers of resistance; though he is an ironic and even disdainful habitué, he is nevertheless a habitué.
But Rezzori knows this and he lays it bare, and it’s in this that his great moral contribution consists; more than saving him, it contributes to saving others, because it helps them to understand—a necessary premise—what it is they have to fight. Chiusano, a great admirer of Rezzori, emphasized the moral element in his writing, which often plays with the frivolous and superficial aspects of existence. Grisha has a rare quality that constitutes the poetry of his finest pages: disenchantment, awareness. I think he didn’t object to playing occasionally like a high-stakes gambler, in life—with a false deck, if necessary—but he always realized it and never lied to himself, as most of us do. “You can try to fool others,” I said to him one night in Munich, after we had been to the theater to see the great Charlie Rivel, and his irresistible, melancholy comedy, “but not yourself; if you sin, you know you’re sinning and you don’t elaborate ideologies and theories—as people often tend to do—to sugarcoat the pill and justify the wrong.” Perhaps for this same reason, I seemed to feel sometimes that—despite the difference in our ages, habits, and values—he was a friend and companion, a schoolmate. Besides, for me and my friends in Trieste, when we were young, the characters in The Ermine became emblematic figures, categories on the basis of which we classified people: we said, for example, this guy is a Turturiuk, that one a Petrescu…
Rezzori’s identification with futility, which implies an objective portrait of its potential evil—of the banality next to evil, as Hannah Arendt might say—concerns both his life and his writing, their closeness and their difference, their blurry and sometimes impassable border. Charley’s bar, the Olympus of Berlin snobs, which is marvelously portrayed in Oedipus, is a world that not only Baron Traugott von Jassikowsky but also the author risks falling into, putting on and taking off various personalities, as if they were clothes dictated by fashion to the viveur. There is in Rezzori something of the intense but pliant, ready-to-compromise fascination of the Venice that he speaks of in one of his stories, an indulgence that introduces into certain passages the brilliant tone of worldly conversation. The emotional, grieving poet of The Ermine, Oedipus, and Memoirs cohabits not only with the charming but overeffusive writer of Abel but also with the too witty conversationalist of self-assured tales like In gehobenen Kreisen and others, including many of the Maghrebinian stories.
But, as he said in our Corriere conversation, “the moral commitment, for a writer, is honesty, to express oneself, to bear witness and not preach, to show things rather than suggest or impose a position. For a writer, judgment has to originate in the representation and not be pasted on from the outside.” And this is what he was able to do wonderfully in Oedipus and, above all, in Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, a book essential to understanding concretely, physically, on one’s skin, the distant, apparently innocuous genesis of supreme Evil. The first-person narrator, the “I,” who, bewildered and upset, follows the cortege that is celebrating the Anschluss in Vienna is a memorable portrait that explains how what happened could at the time happen. As Madame Aritonovich says to little Tanya, in The Ermine, “I don’t ask you to approve of this, I ask you only to understand.”
The “I” looks for the lost part of itself, which it seems to feel somewhere, just as Nagel, in Abel, has the sensation of moving the fingers of his right hand, even though the entire arm was amputated. He looks for it “wherever I might find it: in countries, landscapes, clouds, cities—yes indeed, especially cities that, at times, with their lights, fragrances, noises, colors, forms, moods, sometimes resurrect in me the totality of moods, forms, colors, noises, fragrances, light effects of an entire era (abruptly, with painful bliss and, alas, only for a fleeting microsecond).”
Here, too, he and I found an elective affinity, because I also believe that the world is a mirror of our face and that, as we pass through it, we leave bits of ourselves in places and landscapes, but also in the hearts and eyes of certain people, like shreds of a garment torn by brambles during our flight. Borges said it better than anyone else, in a parable that I took as the epigraph for Microcosms, in which, as in Danube, the “I” looks for itself, finds itself, vanishes in the scenes of its odyssey: “A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.”
One of Rezzori’s books of memoirs, The Snows of Yesteryear, has as its subtitle “Portraits for an autobiography that I will never write.” The “I” looks for itself in portraits of others, in things, in the stories that happen not to him but around him. It’s the only true form of talking about oneself: only through what we recount of others—men or women, friends or enemies, landscapes, events, experiences no matter whose they are, animals, wars, the dead, sorrows, our passions or those of others—can we make something of ourselves understood, our loves, our gods, our phobias, our obsessions.
It’s in his last work, the novel Cain, that Rezzori brings to a climax this game of mirrors between the I and others, with three characters who say “I”—as Landolfi observes—and, with the merging of the unfinished novel and the nonexistent cinematographic subject, the smiling ballet of profound grief. Novel as construction or deconstruction? Hard to say which of the two is the higher form. In The Ermine Mr. Tarangolian admires a maple leaf that has withered away to become a lovely filigree of fine veins: that leaf is paradoxically the idea and the reality of itself; it is supreme beauty, the essence of art, but that art is the result of destruction. “Ah,” exclaims the prefect, “ah, I say to you—learn to love destruction!”
The continual shifting and adjusting of perspectives and backdrops is a technique of subtraction and so of resistance to the abstraction that increasingly swallows up the “I,” whose only profession can be that of “contemporary, extra in a drama with an unknown epilogue. A half dozen directors, twenty million prompters.” Writing penetrates this impersonality, removing it from vagueness but also helping to make the “I” an anonymous bundle of perceptions. When, in Oedipus, Baron Traugott prepares to write his article on fashion, he stares at the “virgin pages of his notebook with that tense absence of thought which anyone with a literary gift must be able to produce in order to tease from the depths of his mind the first melodious syllable of the decisive opening sentences. This is, as you surely know, a condition of total self-surrender . . . a forcing-inside-out-and-back-again of the sensorial, a process you may imagine pictorially as the expansion of the personality into a tender-fleshed cavity in which the senses, wary and aroused, probe in all directions like the feelers of a snail on the move. Through the gaping wants and needs of this vaguely defined interior space, visions drift, dreamlike and melodiously enticing, like Rhine maidens on an opera stage, while beneath them the words, melted into raw bell metal, are rolled about by slowly undulating, constantly groping and testing tentacles, continuously sifted and separated, assessed and rejected. The author himself is totally immersed and commingled in all this like a fermenting agent, and he is, without any will on his part, put at the disposal of the work that is coming into being.”
Rezzori, Marino Freschi has written, transforms Mitteleurope into language. The old Austria, a land of artifice, a montage of quotations and, especially, anachronisms, gave Rezzori a sense of the world as “a misunderstanding” and, above all, as an “intermediate sphere of reality… that strange aquarium light in which we lived and didn’t live, which was time, but not our time.”
That time which is not his is also not ours, and yet it is ours: that of recent years, of today, of the transformation of the world that is now taking place, aggravating the “delirium of the many” that, according to Musil, is our essence. And Rezzori, the epigone of the nonexistent yet flesh-and-blood Teskovina, is a precursor of what the Western world is becoming and living through now: a metamorphosis of society that invests feelings, values, judgments, and man himself, his nature, his physical substance, so that he becomes truly another—the Nietzschean “over-man,” a new anthropological stage beyond the frontier of the humanistic individual, the millenarian I. Things themselves, the objective world, seem to dissolve; it has been said that the abstract and immaterial bit is replacing the atom—corporeal, physical reality. Experience seems to belong to everyone and to no one, the “I” seems to be broken into fragments and reproducible at will. Virtuality replaces reality, in a process that changes the feelings, the perceptions of the individual and therefore his nature, changing his history and his way of recounting it. Perhaps an anthropological mutation is taking place, much more rapid than those of the preceding millennia and centuries, which is producing a new, still unknown type of man, damaged in his individuality, generic and interchangeable, like the ancient figures of myth, which are and are not individuals, which are everyone and no one.
Rezzori is the poet of an abstract “intermediate sphere of reality,” which is also where we live today; the marketplace of Tchernopol is a craftsman’s studio where the replicants who are now masters of a world civilization are constructed, without being taken too seriously. The capital of this civilization is not Tchernopol or Vienna but New York—“New York, New York!,” no less familiar to Rezzori than the other two and perhaps, deep down, not so different from them, in the seductiveness of its self-representation. Digital immortality and impersonal cloning are promised to all, and what the writer says in Oedipus is valid for us today: “None of us will die, don’t worry. How could we? We don’t even exist, my friend.”
Charley’s bar, the focus of snobbish Berliners and their futile life between the two wars, thus becomes the mirror of our ephemerality, and of the unreality that has become and is becoming more and more palpable. It’s a reality that exists only in its multiple images in newspapers and on television screens, images that immediately disappear and are replaced but are also preserved forever, contained in a diskette; immortality guaranteed by the ephemeral, universe and lives preserved not in the infinite memory of God but in a key of the information system, Danilo Kis’s entire encyclopedia of the dead (of the living dead) in a couple of cubic centimeters.
The fatuity of fashion and the most transient eroticism become passionate self-deception in order to endure this unsustainable transience, while the lava that will cover and harden everything is already boiling up somewhere. All we can do is to use futility—and if necessary superficiality—to cheat the melancholy that grips the heart, the painful solitude, the void that engulfs everything, the empty darkness of the night in which “the garland of the days hung like crumpled paper of many colors.” What does the insipid pop song you hear everywhere promise or threaten? “Fior di sambuco, fiore di rosa, quando vedo la mia sposa . . . (Elderberry flower, flower of the rose, when I see my bride . . .).” Amid this devastation of the heart, the meticulous, passionate care taken to choose a stupid tie can resemble the amorous follies of a top model like Gloria, who is described—evoked, invented? the author has always proclaimed his “unreliability”—by Rezzori in the memoir entitled On My Traces: beautiful, artificial, and tragic in the fragility of her artifice and her star’s conventionality, which in vain protects that fragility. Rezzori is a profound poet of eros in all its various facets, from sex that is brutally immediate to sex that is comically perverse, from the fleeting adventure that contains the eternity of a moment to the deep tenderness of a shared existence, from small, sneaky deceptions to that nostalgic and total perdition which resembles death, because, demanding totality, it is always accompanied by the knowledge of its excruciating incompleteness, by the awareness that—as he says in Abel—“the meeting of two beings is like the collision of two billiard balls: there’s always just one point of one that touches one point of the other.”
Love—the most transitory, as well as love that lasts a lifetime—is the longing to save existence from its plunge into the void, as when Mr. Tarangolian, before he leaves, lets his eyes wander over objects and faces to absorb the sight, to place those points in a geometric system that his memory can use like a typographical symbol, until the entire reality of the room seems to converge and condense into the lighted tip of the cigar.
But if eros borders platonically on the void, it is also an element of concreteness; Rezzori’s page becomes solid, bloody, earthy when he brings into play flesh, objects, odors, bodies, hunger, desire, things you hold in your hand, like the guns in the unforgettable passages about hunting. Sensuality, the guarantor of the tangible and all its complications, exalting and disastrous, is the key to life, a truth that Judaism knows better than any other culture. “You goyim always try to act like you ain’t got no potz and your women ain’t got no cunt between their legs,” says Wolf, in Memoirs of an Anti-Semite. If in The Death of My Brother Abel the “I” also disintegrates, especially as it tries to write its own disintegration—in a shipwreck that engulfs the novel itself—sex, unlike writing, gives substance, if barely, to things and the individuals who handle them.
The protagonist of Abel disintegrates because he tries, by writing, to impose order. This is mortal. In fact Major Tildy, too, in The Ermine, “wants to re-establish order around himself,” but all order resembles and leads to death, just as the uniform columns of soldiers—in the great chapter on the German Army—break up during the battle to reassemble afterward in the perfect symmetry of the rows of crosses in the cemeteries.
Absolute love, too, love-perditio, is mortal. It’s the attempt to vanquish solitude, to reach total relationship and not just the single point of contact between the billiard balls; to reach the infinite, or, rather, destruction. Escape, for Rezzori, hardly a friend of the absolute, lies “in asymptote. The ability to approach the always antagonistic hyperboles of thesis and antithesis, without identifying oneself with either; to transfer evidence to the realm of infinity.”
Love annihilates. The person—going back etymologically to the ancient theater—is a mask; Tildy falls when beyond and behind the mask of Mititika Pjowartschjuk, the Ruthenian prostitute, he glimpses the void. Tildy is in love with Mititika, and love removes him from the particular—his solid handbook of values and forms—to turn him to the universal, and that is death. Love permits the ultimate recognition, which opens up a void behind the mask of Mititika and behind the possible faces that the mask allows to be fleetingly seen. Tildy throws himself into the abyss that gapes beyond the girl’s lovely, lost, myopic eyes, to find the deep, hidden nucleus of his I, the truth of his being. But being itself is a mask, a bottomless void. If one doesn’t want to suffer in prison, Tildy thinks, one has to love one’s prison, the forms that keep us prisoners. But it’s too late; the hero of form abandons himself to the universal, to love, to the formless, and is annihilated, “loses his own face.” The tram that crushes him, reducing him to a bloody pulp, is the seal of ridicule that life places on his passion, the “exalted banality of death” that crowns his attempt to “insert a face in the frame of the mask.”
Rezzori’s charm is also the smile with which “the Mitteleuropean’s spreading, catastrophic impotence” glides elegantly over itself. His friendship was a great gift to me, and I am honored that one of his best stories, Skushno, was dedicated to me. It has a character, Dr. Stiassny, who is a descendant of my beloved Mr. Tarangolian, and who may even have had his origin in various conversations we had, I no longer know whether in Vienna, Trieste, Munich, or New York. I met Rezzori in 1965, in Rome. He was giving a lecture, or, rather, a reading of some passages at the Goethe Institute, in Via del Corso; it was, as they say, a great evening, with many guests from the worlds of society and culture. I arrived in a private’s uniform, because I was doing my military service in Rome, and although I had already published The Hapsburg Myth, I wasn’t even a corporal. I recall the embarrassment of a general who didn’t know if he should use the familiar “tu” form, as was customary for officers with soldiers, or treat me with more respect, and so he was silent while we spoke in German. Then, since I had to return to the barracks, he had me driven back in his car, one of those big blue cars belonging to headquarters, with a flag, and at the barracks, which I had left a few hours earlier after sweeping the dormitory, my fellow-soldiers saw me return with the general’s driver… like Cinderella at midnight, though it must have been nine-thirty. It could almost be one of Grisha’s Maghrebinian stories.
I could recall many things, confidences, conspiracies, slightly mischievous collaborations; he always showed great style, even in his weaknesses or at funny moments. He and some of his aristocratic friends came for lunch at our house in Trieste; we had been at dinner at his friends’ the evening before, and Marisa’s risotto, he admitted, beat the princely cuisine by a mile: a small victory of the bourgeoisie over the aristocracy. I remember a conference in Alpbach in 1977. Rezzori was participating in a round table, along with three shy yet aggressive avant-garde members of the Graz group, three very good writers. Genuine and impudent in their provocative, anguished sincerity, they spoke about art and unhappiness, they flaunted the drama of their work and mockingly parodied the cultural institution that at that moment was celebrating them. Rezzori sat apart, accepting with a smile his neglect by the audience in favor of the three young experimental poets. In contrast to their unsettled, sincere adolescence he represented the skeptical wisdom of one who does not take the world or, especially, himself very seriously, the settled melancholy of one who inhabits the inauthentic and at times expresses it.
Affable, nonchalant, and aloof, Grisha uttered some conventionally polite phrases that had nothing to do with himself or his work, concealing his poetic intelligence rather than show off. If he had been at a gambling table or a party, rather than a round table, he probably would have bankrupted the other three at poker or flirted outrageously with their girlfriends. Meanwhile the audience addressed to the three deniers of traditional literature questions about inspiration, poetry, artistic creation. The halo of poet hovered, in the hall, over these interpreters of dissent; the muses kissed the immediate, ingenuous, bold proposal for a poetry that, consumed in an instant, believes it is changing reality, not the cynical, resigned agony of the narrator who, even though his word lasts a little longer, doesn’t think it saves the world. The three represented the relentless arrogance of purity, Rezzori the persuasive wisdom that everything, in life, concludes and resolves—as he himself said on another occasion—in the pure passage of time. How does he put it in Oedipus? “Ah, reality!”
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein