My first ever NYRB read was my first book of 2010 – Simenon’s Dirty Snow. It was a pleasure both to read and to hold because NYRB books are fine objects in themselves, with lovely cover art and spines that do not crease! It was only a matter of time before I read more and this week’s Spotlight Series on NYRB has provided me with an opportunity to do just that.
Gregor von Rezzori was unknown to me before Tom at a Common Reader began championing his works last year. With reviews like these, I had to take a look. As I have suddenly started reading and enjoying memoirs, I decided I’d begin with Rezzori’s memoir, published when he was 75 years of age.
Focused in the main on his childhood and young adulthood, the distance in years may account for the emotional distancing from the events, inherent in the structure. The story is not told chronologically. Subtitled Portraits for an Autobiography, The Snows of Yesteryear is a series of character portraits of his wetnurse, his mother, his father, his sister and his governess. Born into an aristocratic family just before the outbreak of World War I, von Rezzori’s childhood was populated with a cast of colourful central characters and ran concurrently with the passing of a social order. While the characters take centre stage, with the boy here and there flickering into view, the world falls apart and The Snows of Yesteryear documents it all without ever appearing to provide a history lesson.
The geography helps as von Rezzori’s home town of Czernowitz, at the time of his birth was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Later it was absorbed successively into Romania and the USSR. It is now Chernovtsy, part of the Ukraine. The political upheavals which brought chaos to the individual lives of von Rezzori’s family mirrored by domestic and personal tragedies which added even more. The portraits are honest, humourous, affectionate, sometimes judgemental, often forgiving. And when not the latter, tinged with regret.
I did not find this an easy read. The structure hindered the narrative flow; von Rezzori sometimes stopping in the middle of an interesting story because it related better to a future portrait. Neither did I find it a comfortable read. Some of the painful incidents resonating closely with those in my own life – proving that humanity remains flawed even after all these years.
The language and imagery are rich and precise. No doubting the intelligence of the author. I’ll wager this was a nightmare to translate from the German so an admiring round of applause to the achievement of H F Broch de Rothermann.
Will I now progress to Rezzori’s fiction? NYRB have The Memoirs of An Anti-Semite in their catalogue, a title with little appeal up to now. However, now that I know the story of Rezzori’s father, I’m curious to see how he fictionalised it. Guess which book arrived in the post yesterday!