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Chaos and the old order

28 January 2012

10:00 AM

28 January 2012

10:00 AM

An Ermine in Czernopol Gregor von Rezzori, translated by Philip Boehm

New York Review of Books, pp.380, 9.99

If Gregor von Rezzori is known to English language readers, it is likely to be through his tense, disturbing novel Memoirs of an Anti-Semite (partly written in English), and/or his ravishing memoir Snows of Yesteryear. Rezzori was born in 1914 in Czernowitz in Bukovina, when it belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the first world war he became a citizen of Romania, from where, as a so-called ethnic German, he was ‘repatriated’ to Germany during the second world war.

From the 1960s he lived in Italy, at Santa Maddalena, the home that he shared with his second wife near Florence, which she has since set up as a writers’ retreat. In the garden there is a porphyry pyramid, a monument to the deceased writer on which is inscribed ‘citizen of Czernopol’. Although clearly modelled on Czernowitz (which is now in the Ukraine), Czernopol is a fictitious place. The inscription suggests that the world Rezzori came from is now so obscure that it survives only as myth. It may also indicate a belief that, if he were to be remembered, it should primarily be for An Ermine in Czernopol.

‘Here you can find a dozen of the most disparate nationalities and at least half a dozen bitterly feuding faiths — all living in the most cynical harmony that is built on mutual aversion and common business dealings,’ says Herr Tarangolian, the sophisticated prefect of Czernopol. It is a teeming, contradictory city, a place of irony, laughter, tastelessness and ‘extraordinary intelligence’, portrayed through the shifting lens of a child’s view recalled at an unspecified later date.

The narrative turns on the behaviour of Major Tildy, a former hussar in the Austro-Hungarian army. Fearless and totally humourless, he embodies the codes of chivalry and honour that characterised the old order, and he wishes to impose them on the chaos he sees around him. When an impertinent scribbler insults his sister-in-law’s virtue in public, Tildy challenges him to a duel. In an attempt to sort out the mess, the colonel explains to Tildy that while his action was understandable, even commendable, it was nevertheless misplaced, since ‘every rascal off the street knows she’s a harlot, and can prove it.’

Tildy predictably challenges him to a duel. The divisional commander tries to smooth things out, but his concluding remark, ‘It would be a very strange place indeed to keep your honour hidden, Major Tildy — between the legs of your sister-in-law’, elicits the same response from the absurd Tildy, and the latter is confined to a lunatic asylum.

These comic events take place against a cast of gorgeously described characters through whom Rezzori examines German, Jewish and other identities. The novel is a sensuous celebration of the variety and detail of life, and of the distinctive perceptions of childhood, which readers will be inclined to compare with Proust. It is a profound reflection on a period that generated the anti-Semitic pogroms which culminated in the Nazis, though it does not in any way feel dated.

While New York Review of Books should be congratulated for publishing Philip Boehm’s magnificent new translation, it is negligent of them to say nothing of this stunning book’s publishing history. Nowhere do we learn that it was first published in German in 1958, and that it was in fact published in English in 1960 under the title The Hussar, in a poor translation which the author abhorred. It is time that it now tookits rightful place among the classics of 20th-century literature.

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