The Last Waltz

Portrait by Egon Schiele
Portrait by Egon Schiele

IN 1914, THE AUSTRO-HUNGARIAN EMPIRE was a multicultural and polyglot entity covering 116,000 square miles. Its thirty million inhabitants included what are now Hungarians, Czechs, Slovenes, Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, and Romanians, as well as the Poles of Galicia, the Russians of the western Ukraine, and the Italians of the southern Tyrol and Trieste. By 1918, when World War I ended and the Dual Monarchy was dissolved, Vienna became the capital of a small and fragile republic that had only six million inhabitants and a territory of thirty-two thousand miles. From the hindsight of a century (the centennial of Sarajevo will soon be upon us), the German annexation in 1938 of the recently created pan-German Austria was probably inevitable, as was the coming of the Second World War just twenty years after the end of the First. Increasingly, historians are referring to the events of 1914–45 as the Long War.

The prominence of Vienna as one of the leading cultural capitals of modernism has long been established, but what is less well understood is the astonishing production of major literary works in German by writers from the distant frontier towns of the empire. Joseph Roth (1894–1939), the author of the now-classic Radetzky March (1932), was a native of Lviv, in what is now the Ukraine. Elias Canetti (1905–1994) came from the Danube city of Ruse (now in Bulgaria), and Paul Celan (1920–1970) from Czernowitz, in the Bukovina, a territory incorporated into Romania in 1918, occupied by the Russians in 1944, and now part of the Ukraine. Each of these outposts was more than five hundred miles from the capital, but the rigid control of the centralized government in Vienna meant that middle-class schoolchildren in the distant provinces received a classical German education even as they spoke three or four other languages. Thus the customary labels are misleading: Celan (born Paul Antschel), for example, is usually referred to as a Jewish poet from Romania, Canetti as a Sephardic Jew raised in Bulgaria. But Celan’s mother, Fritzi, was an avid reader of German literature even as Canetti’s mother prided herself on having attended, in her youth, many performances of classical and modern plays at Vienna’s Burgtheater. Both mothers insisted that German be the language spoken at home.

The Jewish link—and this is also true for Kafka in Prague—has obscured the extent to which the decline and fall of the Dual Monarchy also transformed the lives of its non-Jewish population, especially the old landed gentry of its provinces. The leading chronicler of this “other” Austria—an Austria whose mind-set was to have such dire consequences—is surely Gregor von Rezzori. A native, like Celan, of Czernowitz, he was to recall, in his story “Pravda,” the moment in 1919 of being “awakened in the night—the Austrians had marched out, the Rumanians had not yet marched in, people were afraid the Bolsheviks might attack or at least maraud, hordes were already passing through the countryside and plundering the military depots.” And Rezzori, referring to himself in the third person, adds:

He had retained the images of that time all his life; above all, trembling hands—the trembling hands of the nanny waking him up and dressing him, the trembling hands of his mother putting the jewelry in boxes to hide it, the trembling hands of the servants to whom his father—an eternal Don Quixote—distributed pistols.

Born in 1914 to Austrian parents of the minor aristocracy—his father was nominally a civil servant but, by avocation, a passionate hunter—Rezzori halfheartedly studied architecture, then medicine, and finally literature at the University of Vienna, but left in 1930 for Bucharest to take up military service in the new Romania. As a Romanian citizen, he avoided being drafted into the German army in World War II. He worked briefly for Berlin radio, moved to Paris, where he wrote stories and screenplays and acted in various films (including Louis Malle’s A Very Private Affair, with Brigitte Bardot and Marcello Mastroianni), and later settled in Rome. In 1967, he married an elegant Italian baronessa, the gallery owner Beatrice Monti della Corte. After Rezzori’s death in 1998, his widow turned their Tuscany farmhouse into the Santa Maddalena Retreat, a writers’ colony that has played host to such prominent writers as Zadie Smith, Colm Tóibín, and Edmund White.

Handsome and popular, Rezzori lived the charmed life of the postwar international set, at home in the major capitals of Europe. The author of popular—and fairly light—novels and short stories, he appears to be the antithesis of the dark and haunted Paul Celan, Holocaust survivor and uncompromising, elliptical poet—a poet who was never to feel at home anywhere, certainly not in postwar Germany or Austria, nor again in Romania or the Paris where he lived as an exile most of his adult life. In 1969, when Rezzori’s short story “Troth,” written in English under the title “Memoirs of an Anti-Semite” (which became the title for Rezzori’s 1979 volume), was published in the New Yorker, readers not alert to the story’s complex perspective were evidently offended by what they took to be its author’s compliance with the rampant anti-Semitism of Austria in the interwar period. It took an Elie Wiesel, himself a refugee from Bukovina, to insist that Rezzori unflinchingly “addresses the major problems of our time . . . with the disturbing and wonderful magic of a true storyteller.”

With the turn of the twenty-first century and the renewed tensions among the Eastern European nations of the post-Communist era, Rezzori’s moment may have come. The NYRB Classics series has published three Rezzori titles in the last four years. The most recent, An Ermine in Czernopol, was actually the first to be written: Published in German in 1958 under the title The Hussar, Ermine is Rezzori’s earliest attempt to come to terms with the postwar Czernopol (Czernowitz) of the early 1920s, a town that had lost its identity: “A monument on the Ringplatz—renamed Piata Unirii—commemorated Romanian ‘union’ following liberation from the Austrian yoke; a line of hackney cabs could usually be found in its shade, with emaciated horses and rapacious coachmen dozing away.” The new face of Czernopol, as seen by the “we” (the narrator and his siblings) who are its young children (although the novel’s point of view is retrospective), is epitomized by the town’s new prefect, the benign but slightly shady Herr Tarangolian, a parvenu reminiscent of Chekhov’s Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard.

The “Levantine” Tarangolian, with dyed mustache and false “pearly, perfectly regular teeth,” is not a gentleman. That honor is reserved for the ermine of the title, Major Nikolaus Tildy, an aristocratic cavalry officer who exemplifies the code of honor of the former empire. His military occupation gone, Major Tildy, resplendent in his “cornflower-blue uniform, with the wheat ears and gold braid,” becomes involved in a series of duels: He challenges those who insult both his mysterious wife and also her sister, Frau Lyubanarov, who is precisely the whore she is said to be by her detractors. Rezzori’s presentation of Tildy as a latter-day Don Quixote, valiantly preserving his knightly code in the face of endless humiliations, is somewhat contrived: Neither he nor the many ancillary figures—army officers, entrepreneurs, tutors, school mistresses, government officials, servants—who people this novel are rounded characters, and the book’s narrative structure is endlessly digressive and convoluted. But what gives Ermine its piquancy is the narrator’s set of reflections, using the first-person plural, on nationhood, geography, history, and culture. More memoir than novel, more essay than memoir, Ermine is a fascinating study of the “tumult of destruction” and “addictive obliviousness” of a war that was to destroy not only thousands of Austrian lives but the very fabric of the nation’s rigidly stratified and stable society.

In the new Czernopol, the mysterious peasant Săndrel Pasçanu, who has made a fortune in the lumber business and is Tildy’s father-in-law, calls the shots. The old landowning class, to which the narrator himself belongs, no longer counts; the peasants have been increasingly urbanized; the German bureaucrats, long hated in Austria, now hold administrative positions; and Madame Aritonovich’s elegant Institut d’Éducation, recommended to the narrator’s parents by his uncle Sergei, who knew Madame in Saint Petersburg, is admitting an increasing number of Jewish children. Before the war, the narrator explains, “we had heard [Jews] speaking among themselves, but had never spoken with a single one of them.” Now, “we didn’t make the usual discovery that Jews are also people, but rather the reverse, that people are sometimes also Jews. This was one of the most beautiful of the invaluable discoveries that we owed to Madame Aritonovich and her Institut d’Éducation, as well as to our parents’ temporary inattentiveness.” But that “inattentiveness” is indeed “temporary”: When the narrator’s parents become aware of the situation, they immediately withdraw their children from the school. And before long, these children come to accept their parents’ anti-Semitism as a matter of course.

The ermine will die should her coat become soiled. This, the epigraph of the novel (from the Physiologus), is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The fate of the noble Tildy—confined to a mental hospital where he becomes the champion of Count Karl Berlepsch, known as the “insane poet,” and eventually run over by a streetcar following a barroom brawl—is perhaps too neatly designed to be emblematic of the larger failure of the Old Order. The Snows of Yesteryear: Portraits for an Autobiography, published in Germany in 1989, provides a necessary corrective to the nostalgic vision of the earlier novel:

The sinister species in rags that had begun to fill the streets of Czernowitz was a constant reminder that a few hundred kilometers to the east, just beyond the Dniester River, Russia lay waiting, where, for the past two years, the Bolsheviks made short shrift of our kind of people. . . . Gangs of plunderers drifting about had already targeted the ration warehouses of the departed Austrian army as their first objective. Besmirched with lard and plum jam, totally inebriated and with their bellies full, the howling gangs of rabble staggered past our house; they were more or less held in check during the day but became menacing at night. My romantic father provided everyone in the house with firearms. Even Cassandra [the narrator’s nanny] was handed a pistol, which she hid comfortably between her voluminous breasts—with the safety catch off.

Rezzori’s portrait of the monstrous, painfully ugly Carpathian peasant girl, hired as his wet nurse and nanny, whose fairy tales always envision the ultimate union of lovers as “And then the two squatted down and together they crapped on the ground,” is a bravura piece, as are the subsequent chapters called “The Mother,” “The Father,” “The Sister,” and “Bunchy” (the pet name given to Cassandra’s successor, Fraulein Lina Strauss, known as Strausserl— a bunch of flowers, in Austrian dialect). In The Snows of Yesteryear, the nostalgia and high spirits of Ermine give way to biting criticism especially of the author’s father, whose anti-Semitism is so virulent that he refuses to participate in a hunt when a Jewish banker, then president of the local tennis club, is to be included.

Rezzori views this anti-Semitism as the pathology of a defeated and humiliated people in need of a scapegoat. In an unusually frank passage admitting his own youthful complicity, he describes the reaction to the election that brought Hitler to power in Germany:

From our viewpoint, the developments in Germany were welcome: a profusion of optimistic images of youth bursting with health and energy, promising to build a sunny new future—this corresponded to our own political mood. We were irked by the disdain with which we as the German-speaking minority were treated. . . . The bitterness of the defeat suffered with Germany rankled in us, and we felt good when we saw that in Germany, a new self-reliance refused to accept that a people vanquished was a people despised. At the same time, the threatening, even criminal aspects of socialism seemed to be averted; socialism confronted us at all times in the frightening mask of close-by Communism. “Reds” were the enemy per se, throughout the world. . . . As to the anti-Semitism of the upward-striving Third Reich, it was the generally accepted wisdom among non-Jews in the Bukovina at that time that, irrespective of all tolerance and even close personal relations with Jews, it could be only salutary if a damper were placed on the “overbearing arrogance of Jewry.” That this “damper” would bring about the murder of six million Jews no one could foresee.

But suppose it could have been foreseen? Would Rezzori’s Bukovinians have tried to prevent it? In his masterpiece, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, generalities give way to existential situations, presented as fictions but again largely autobiographical. All five stories deal with the narrator’s own conflicted relationships with Jewish individuals, whether rivalry with a neighborhood boy who is a brilliant pianist (“Skushno”), a love affair with the voluptuous older “Black Widow,” who runs a shop in the red-light district in Bucharest (“Youth”), or the betrayal of a trusting schoolmistress he meets at a boardinghouse in Bavaria (“Löwinger’s Rooming House”). In “Troth,” the finest story in the collection, a young university student staying with his strict (and characteristically anti-Semitic) grandmother in a Vienna apartment meets Minka Raubitschek, the charming Jewish girl upstairs, whose cultured parents have recently died of Spanish flu, leaving her plenty of money. Minka is a party girl—a kind of Viennese version of Isherwood’s Sally Bowles, surrounded by lovers and yet curiously innocent. The eighteen-year-old narrator becomes her cavalier, accompanying her to parties and concerts, plays, and even meets the great Karl Kraus at one of Minka’s soirées. This idyll of the early 1930s ends when the young man returns to Romania to do his military service. When he comes back to Austria in 1937, first for a rendezvous with a new mistress, in a newly “awful” Salzburg, “overrun with Jews” who have come from Germany as refugees, everything has changed. The second half of “Troth” depicts the first days of the Anschluss in 1938, as seen through the eyes of a narrator himself not hostile to the Nazis, even though he continues to spend his time with the Jewish Minka.

Citing a journalist friend, Gregor (Rezzori here uses his real name) thinks that “if, as Poldi said, the Germans wanted to conquer Austria, so much the better. The German-speaking peoples would be united again, as they had been in the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne.” But when he accompanies Minka and her friends to a beer cellar where “a huge, rather shabby-looking young man roared in our faces, ‘Juden raus!,’” things become tense. One of the most horrific scenes in this or any Anschluss story I have ever read (and I write as someone herself a refugee from Vienna in March 1938) is the account of the butlers’ school on the Praterstrasse, where Jewish bankers and intellectuals, waiting for their affidavits to go to England (as Minka will soon do), are taught “how to wait on the British”:

I once went there with Minka, and we laughed our heads off. Old stockbrokers were waddling around with aprons about their hips, balancing trays and opening bottles of champagne. My talent for imitating Jews made me invent a sketch in which a Scottish laird, reading in the newspapers about the sad destiny of the Viennese Jews, decides to dismiss all his wonderful Highland servants and replace them with Dr. Pisko-Bettelheim, Jacques Pallinker, Yehudo Nagoschiner, and such. Minka’s house had become a sort of center for the few Jews left in Vienna and some Aryans unfaithful to their new flag, like myself. My sketch was a great success.

That, according to Rezzori’s horrifically flat account, is the way it was. Does the narrator (so hard to distinguish from the author) ever come to recognize his own guilt? Do Minka and her friends ever come to renounce their Jewish self-hatred? It’s hard to say, and there are surely readers who will find “Troth” too cruel—indeed, offensive. Still, as a portrait of everyday life in the Austria of entre deux guerres, “Troth” and similar stories are worth any number of moral tales about the Holocaust. Indeed, Rezzori’s genial good humor masks a darkness that may, after all, relate his writing to that of his fellow native of Czernowitz—Paul Celan.

Marjorie Perloff is the author of numerous books including The Vienna Paradox (New Directions, 2004) and Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (University of Chicago Press, 2010).