The Anomie Within

Abel and Cain By Gregor von Rezzori, Translated From German By David Dollenmayer, Joachim Neugroschel, and Marshall Yarbrough, Introduction by Joshua Cohen. New York: New York Book Review. 880 Pages. $25

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” begins L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between. There is a hazy sense in which Hartley’s iconic opening applies to every life: The passage from childhood to adulthood always involves a kind of expatriation. But for Romanian(ish) writer Gregor von Rezzori, the force of Hartley’s formulation is literal. Rezzori’s past is at least three different countries, and things are done differently in each of them.

Rezzori was born in 1914 in what was then Czernowitz, a Romanian outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His parents were Sicilian aristocrats, dutiful Hapsburg subjects who spoke High German at home. Bred for a life of luxurious cosmopolitanism, Rezzori could scrape by in English, Romanian, Italian, French, Ukrainian, Yiddish, and Polish. His polyglotism served him well when the empire he was born to govern collapsed. In 1918, his birthplace was briefly reborn as Romanian Cernăuți. In 1944, it assumed its current identity as the Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi. When Rezzori returned years later, he could no longer find the house he grew up in. “You must never undertake the search for time lost in the spirit of nostalgic tourism,” he concludes in his 1989 memoir, The Snows of Yesteryear. He remained stateless for much of his adult life.

What was it like in the lost lands of Rezzori’s youth? Mostly, it seems, it was light there. In Rezzori’s loosely autobiographical novel An Ermine in Czernopol (1958), his narrator eulogizes a childhood in which “everything seemed sharper, brighter, and more intense.” In The Snows of Yesteryear, Rezzori announces that “with the end of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, a light was extinguished that until then had bathed the days in a golden sheen.” And in Abel and Cain, a nearly nine-hundred-page colossus out from New York Review Books this spring, another wistful Pan-European reports that his first memories are full of “light falling obliquely through a large window, slanting across a bright room.”

Even the spring of 1938, when Hitler marched into Vienna, was eerily luminous. The early days of Nazism were blessed with “Hitler weather,” “an icy cold blue sky and a Sunday glow.” Is the harsh glint of “Hitler weather” part of what Rezzori, in the guise of his narrators, misses? He never says as much. But after all his talk of glitter and glow, I can’t help but wonder.

Abel and Cain weds two subsidiary books that have never before been published as a single volume. The first, The Death of My Brother Abel, was released in German in 1976 and translated into faulty English in 1985. The second, Cain, is something of an afterthought: Originally published two years after Rezzori’s 1998 death, it has not appeared in English translation until now. The joint product is too discursive to summarize, and I’m sure that Rezzori, or at least his narratorial ambassador, would accept the charge of plotlessness with pride. Aristides Subicz, the protagonist of The Death of My Brother Abel, balks when a sleazy literary agent asks him for a three-sentence recap of the book he has been writing fitfully for decades. By way of reply, he rants for close to six hundred pages, most of them crammed with complaint.

Subicz is a gentile, patrician Portnoy. He reviles and envies his ex-friend, the commercially successful novelist Nagel (who may be a caricature of Nobel Prize winner and sometime Nazi collaborator Günter Grass). He wonders if it is possible or profitable to write in the wake of giants like Musil. (In this he resembles Rezzori, who once told an interviewer, “I can’t read ten lines of Robert Musil and keep on writing, I stop for a week at least.”) With cutting irony (and sometimes begrudging reverence) he recalls his beautiful mother and her many suitors, his so-called “uncles.” Foremost among these is Uncle Ferdinand, his probable father and an inhabitant of the “beau monde of the monstrously rich,” with their “many beautiful houses in all the most beautiful places on this wondrously beautiful earth; their parks and shooting grounds; their oceangoing yachts, polo ponies, Rolls-Royces, and Bugattis.”

The few people Subicz loves without any trace of condescension are dead. His mistress, a Jewish heiress named Stella, perished in the Holocaust. His editor and champion, tortured literatus Johannes Schwab, drank himself to death. What Subicz craves is not a story that can be summed up in three sentences but a wholesale resurrection—not just of his friends, but also of the extinct European animal. “I, for my part, am haunted by the loss of a full half of my life. I would like to conjure up the vanished reality of that half,” he confesses. At fashionable Theosophist séances in the ’20s, Subicz’s petit bourgeois relatives summoned spirits, and Abel and Cain makes a similar effort to recover both the departed and the zeitgeist that died out with them. Subicz wonders, as he writes Schwab back to life, if “the demonic power of words on the page has awakened a dead man.”

But he also fears the inverse—that he has committed a murder. For years, he is tormented by guilty nightmares in which he bludgeons an old woman to death. Whom exactly does Subicz believe he has killed? There are many candidates. He supports himself by writing movies that he takes to be strangling literature. (Rezzori, too, paid his bills with screenplays.) Stella is hauled off to a concentration camp because she makes an ill-advised effort to rendezvous with him in Nazified Berlin. He is indirectly responsible for the death of his cousin Wolfgang, who contracts a fatal infection after the oak leaves Subicz has stuffed into his rifle, per German military tradition, cause the gun to backfire.

But only one person is Subicz’s “spiritual brother,” so only one person could be the Abel to his Cain. The ultimate casualty in Abel and Cain is Schwab. Schwab is not, Subicz hastens to remind himself, “merely a personification of my literary conscience: he is. He is S., my dead friend.” Still, Subicz colonizes—and thereby cannibalizes—Schwab, whom he misrepresents in his writing. In Cain, a two-hundred-page footnote to The Death of My Brother Abel, Schwab takes his meager revenge: In a series of notes for a novel that he dies without finishing, he reveals that he planned to write about Subicz in exchange. The murder, it seems, is mutual.

So writing both mangles and memorializes. It immortalizes its subjects, but it also flattens them into characters. East German novelist and dissident Christa Wolf noted as much in The Quest for Christa T. (1968), a slim slip of a novel that predates The Death of My Brother Abel by eight years. Wolf’s narrator insists she would gladly exchange her commemorative efforts for the live substance of her dead friend. “If I were to have to invent her, I wouldn’t change her. I’d let her live,” she writes.

The Quest for Christa T. is an elegant elegy to its namesake, and it accomplishes in two hundred pages what Rezzori takes a small eternity to never quite achieve. Abel and Cain is fat with cliché-curdled reflections on the violence implicit in fiction. Subicz’s many meditations on the futility of literature after Joyce are prompted not by the kind of world-historical concerns that inspired Adorno to ask if we can pen poetry after Auschwitz, but by Subicz’s worries (justified, as it turns out) that he will not measure up. “Why bother with a novel today? What else remained to be said?” he whines. “Why write at all, nowadays?” he gripes twenty pages later. “We are told on all sides that the novel is dead, and that’s because its last great theme is exhausted,” he continues a hundred pages after that. And so on and on—and on and on.

There is no doubt that Rezzori is an important writer, maybe even a great one. He is well worth reading for the pleasure of his tangled language alone. Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, his best-known book, merits its reputation as a tour de force. But Subicz is a mean-spirited mouthpiece. He calls the movie producers he works for “piglets.” He is almost unbelievably uncharitable toward his ex-wife, whom he dismisses as mercenary for worrying about unliterary trivialities like starving to death in undersupplied postwar Hamburg. He is consistently and gratuitously sexist. He subjects the women he sleeps with to tirades that even he acknowledges are tiresome. He is always chattering, he admits, “tormented, pigheaded, and persistent, at some then-beloved female. Sputtering verbal figures wrung from necessity: aphorisms, sublimated from my spiritual ordeal.” This is as good a summary of Abel and Cain as any—and in just two sentences!

The book is salvaged, insofar as it is salvaged, by its occasional outbursts of love—and by the feats of observation that love can sometimes occasion. Subicz catches his aunt lost in thought and muses, “She hears herself like a faraway melody.” He remarks that a buzzer makes a sound like “a wasp squashed under a shoe.” He praises the “sparkle of frost flowers” blooming on winter windowpanes.

But even Subicz’s love is suspect. He lapses into tenderness only when he invokes his enchanted childhood, an idyll that elapsed in the gemütlich old Austrian Empire. The pristine scenes of Alpine life—the elaborate teas served on tiered trays, the hunts in the frost-fringed forests, the jingling of the Christmas sleighs that glide past houses I can only presume are half-timbered—are indeed seductive. A bell peals from a church nestled in the foothills on every other page. We spend hours in Uncle Ferdinand’s lavish bathroom, which is stocked with prewarmed towels. “Our souls lived in that old world of faraway times, when Nuremberg was renowned for its Lebkuchen and its toy boxes, not for its trials and the subsequent gallows,” writes Subicz. Before the spectacle of the death camps, “the gingerbread houses crowded in intricate confusion around the cute dignity of the stepped town-hall gables, shadowed by the heavenward soaring of cathedrals.”

Is he joking? Rezzori’s nostalgia resurfaces so often and so vehemently that it cannot be wholly facetious. He remarks with apparent sincerity that the years between two world wars comprised “a time, a lifetime, more stimulating than could ever have been experienced before or after.” Is the conflation of private and historical losses innocuous? Or does Rezzori miss the lacquered world he once lived in because the inequalities that prevailed there were so much to his benefit? Francine du Plessix Gray once observed that he retained a “majestic courtly manner,” which “made him look as if he were perennially hosting a reception in some Middle European palace.” It’s only natural that he mourns the palace that would have been his birthright—if only those pesky gallows hadn’t pockmarked Nuremberg’s Ruritanian skyline.

Subicz tries to justify his Hapsburg hagiography by criticizing the dynasty’s successors: He inveighs with predictable vitriol against the Americanization transforming Europe into “Yurop.” “Hamburg is no longer what surrounds me here,” he writes from an anonymous high-rise. “It could just as well be Detroit or Sofia or even Minsk. It is purely and simply suburbia, a geographic superreality with no precise location.” Today, he laments, “all we have is a supranational style, and this style is American.” But was the international republic of the “monstrously rich,” where Subicz spent his formative years, any less homogenous? Subicz himself reports that its denizens frequented the same resorts, wore the same clothing, and spoke the same hodgepodge of languages.

My point is not that Rezzori should renounce all the charms of his childhood, which was, no doubt, very charming. Nor do I hope to impose on every prewar memory a retroactive taint. My point is just that a nine-hundred-page book can vindicate its self-importance only if it succeeds as an aesthetic exercise. As Rezzori noted with despairing jealousy, Musil’s tomes pass the test. But Abel and Cain cannot justify the demands that it makes on its readers. It is often beautiful, but it is frequently as kitschy as a cuckoo clock. Subicz shamelessly mythologizes “a Europe that might still be European”—but I doubt if this European Europe was really so golden for everyone. Better rain than the brutal—and banal—luminescence of Hitler weather.

Becca Rothfeld is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Harvard.