REFLEXIONS ON READING IN THE PRESENT TENSE
The writing self: Tightrope and fence
Locked down, locked in, many of us have had time to read more books than ever. Readers, passionate about their own favourite books, are curious to know what writers have been reading during this bleak and lonely period. What was already on their shelves, what did they borrow, buy or read online? In this series, Reflexions: Reading in the present tense, established and younger writers and other creative artists reflect on a text that moved them, intellectually engaged them, frightened them or made them laugh. Our reviewer today is Rustum Kozain who considers ‘Memoirs of an Anti-Semite: A Novel in Five Stories’.
I have been dipping into a selection of autobiographical writing, partly to survey the lay of the land in its contemporary provinces, but also to escape the contemporary by turning to books of an older generation and/or from different parts of the world: Dugmore Boetie’s Familiarity is the Kingdom of the Lost, AS Mopeli-Paulus’s The World and the Cattle, Günter Grass’s Peeling the Onion, Marcel Pagnol’s My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle. And then, Gregor von Rezzori’s Memoirs of an Anti-Semite: A Novel in Five Stories.
Memoirs of an Anti-Semite stands uncomfortably on the tightrope between the autobiographical and the novelistic, or the properly fictional (or, for that matter, the confabulatory, when one thinks of Boetie’s Familiarity). Written or conceptualised probably in the 1960s (one chapter, “Troth”, originally written in English, appeared in The New Yorker in 1969), it has clear connections to the peripatetic life between World War 1 and World War 2 of its author, Von Rezzori (1914-1997). At the same time, it has an unreliable narrator, sometimes contradicting details or the protagonist’s motives, thus suggesting a fictional dimension that calls into question any one-to-one relationship between story and author’s life.
It is not “life writing”, that curious contemporary and denatured label that for me strangely also suggests a rigid moral schema by which contemporary readers may understand the interplay between the writing self and the living self, taking the self that is constructed in and through the writing often as a photorealistic – a truthful – reflection or representation of the author’s person. And then using that to reflect back on a moral evaluation of the story being told: Is this true? Is this what the author thinks or has thought? Is it good? Or is it bad? More disturbingly: Is it problematic?
I am aware that the distinction between the fictional (the made up, the “lying”) and the autobiographical (what really happened, the “truth”) is not clear cut. As the truism that “all writing is biography” suggests, fiction may contain either explicit details about or traces of an author’s life. It may carry the imprint of an author’s life in codes indiscernible even to the author. The autobiographical, conversely, may approach fictionality by, among other things, withholding the truth or veiling it (I exclude the “literary cons” such as Boetie’s Familiarity and James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces). That autobiography relies on inconsistent memory places a further question mark over the presumptive truthfulness of the text. (If we read fiction as [auto]biography, shouldn’t we also consider the fictionality of autobiography?)
But ultimately, when books are framed either as fiction (yes, as fictionalised [auto]biography too), or as autobiography, they disclose differing writing strategies (the use of imagination vs the reliance on memory). These books ask the reader to approach them differently: reading for an insight into a general truth about humanity, say, versus reading to get behind the truth of someone’s life. Memoirs complexifies this relationship between the two, whether one views the distinction between fiction and autobiography as a tightrope or as a fence, difficult or impossible to traverse.
It tells the story of a “Gregor”, in first-person narration in the first four parts, and in third-person narration in the final part, starting with his early adolescence during the late 1920s in and around Czernowitz, a town in the Bukovina region of what is now Ukraine. It moves along to his early adulthood and frustrated sexual fantasies in Bucharest, then on to Vienna and love of sorts in the late 1930s. The last part, with Gregor, now aged and reflecting on his life, the history of Europe, two marriages, and, briefly, his time in Berlin during World War 2 (“cynically watching the world in flames”), plays off in Rome somewhere in the late 1970s.
The five parts can be read as separate, independent stories, but they are unified by the narrator’s sensibility, a sensibility that embodies both the provincial and the urbane, that is witty, charming and poetic, and which can tell a story that instantly takes you along like a fast-flowing river. Here is the opening paragraph from the first part, “Skushno”:
“Skushno is a Russian word that is difficult to translate. It means more than dreary boredom: a spiritual void that sucks you in like a vague but intensely urgent longing. When I was thirteen, at a phase that educators used to call the awkward age, my parents were at their wits’ end. We lived in Bukovina, today an almost astronomically remote province in south-eastern Europe. The story I am telling seems distant – not only in space but also in time – as if I’d merely dreamed it. Yet it begins as a very ordinary story.”
This “very ordinary story” is of the boy, in and out of trouble at school and expelled from “schools of the then Kingdom of Rumania, whose subjects we had become upon the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the first great war”, being sent to live with his Uncle Hubert (Hubi) and Aunt Sophie in “one of those hamlets with tongue-twisting names”. His relatives live as “feudal lord and lady”, part-Italian, part-German propertied descendants of earlier colonial settlers, and he is to spend summer there studying for make-up examinations to get back into the school authorities’ good books.
The boy becomes besotted with his uncle-by-marriage, for him a model of masculinity: a hunter, an alumnus of the University of Tübingen in Germany (but never completed his degree) and full of German nationalist passion. At one stage, Aunt Sophie has to alter some clothes for the boy so that he can mimic Hubi’s old university fraternity uniform when he and his uncle sing old German drinking songs. But part of the household includes Stiassny, a refugee and exile from post-revolutionary Russia, and one of Von Rezzori’s most memorably drawn characters. Stiassny is one of those archetypal characters of the time (and perhaps of all times). He arrived seeking relief through temporary accommodation and dependent on some distant and vague familial generosity from Aunt Sophie, but seems to have settled as a permanent (and non-paying) member of the household. He constantly complains about almost everything in the household, veiled by a self-deprecating trick in his rants and raves. Mid-rant, he might state “but who am I to [complain or criticise or suggest]” as a prelude to intensifying his complaint.
The boy himself is prone to self-doubt and is a fast learner. One is struck by his – or the narrator’s – storytelling abilities that at once inhabit the world of the child as naïf, but also exhibit an intelligence that can describe moments as shot through with skushno, without unsettling our immersion in the storytelling. That is, part of Von Rezzori’s gift is to portray the boy as both naïve and mature without breaking the spell of the storytelling.
This, it seems, is a necessary strategy – although I wouldn’t suggest it as something deliberate or programmatic – in a book that is also filled with shocking anti-Semitism. From the othering through exoticising (clothing, pleasing physical appearance) to the most dehumanised stereotypes (lice-ridden children, displeasing physical appearance, crude misogyny about the sexual abilities of Jewish women), the story and (non-Jewish) characters exhibit this racism as if it’s the most “ordinary” thing in the world. Anti-Semitism is indeed the constant social context in which the story occurs, as well as uppermost in the narrator’s mind. As Stanley Kauffmann puts it in a review in The New York Times in 1981, “such attitudes provide the chief dynamics” of the book. Part of that dynamic is the tension between these racist social mores, shared by the boy, and the constant undermining of them.
As early as the first chapter, for instance, when Gregor is still a boy, the antinomy between the dreams of purity of ethno-nationalism and the reality of a mixed world is deconstructed by Stiassny in a deliciously sarcastic rant that covers two-and-a-half pages.
Gregor himself, becoming friends with the Jewish doctor’s son, Wulf, has to confront the collapse of any stereotype he might hold of his new friend. Throughout the book, Gregor, the narrator, is assailed by similar thought processes: understanding his privileged position but also undermining himself and that privilege by contrast and comparison to Jewish others, including at some point a lover.
So, while anti-Semitism occurs, appears, is described, and forms the milieu in the story without a moral hiccough, challenges of the racism occur in the same “natural” way. It is only natural that the worldly Stiassny would show up the dreams of purity of his racist relatives. That is, there is no morally upright character that conveniently enters on cue – and as foil for the author’s moral point of view – to deconstruct Hubi and Sophie’s anti-Semitism. The criticism happens as if natural, from within. That is, as “natural” as the anti-Semitism appears throughout the book, so do critiques thereof.
There is no post-World War 2 Von Rezzori to provide any ironic treatment, not only of his protagonist and other characters’ racism, but of the “casual” racism in descriptive passages. The mutant form – a memoir that is a novel – seems to allow this in that it provides the scope for the confessional without the mechanical, automatic demand that the author dons a hair shirt, as one might expect from the autobiographical.
The novelistic allows a portrayal of the world “as it is” without the author’s moral intervention. While the book does not cover World War 2 itself, it gives one a sense of the main cultural and political forces gathering in Europe and which would ultimately lead to the Holocaust. But I believe that Von Rezzori’s strategy in not ironising the anti-Semitism, in making it a “natural” part of a story told with understatement (but nevertheless deeply immersive), asks questions about characters’ unwitting involvement in such cultural forces.
Contemporary “life-writing” often seems obsessed with the confessional to the extent that the confessional mode starts to lose its gravitas and becomes an empty gesture simply by repetition. Or the confessions of one or other guilty behaviour are rendered in writing so overwrought that one starts doubting the credibility of the confessor or even the veracity of the guilty behaviour. One may even baulk at the vanity of such projects. As Stanley Kauffmann says: “It is through Mr Von Rezzori’s art, rather than through any vanity or apology of Gregor’s, that we are enlightened.”
Von Rezzori’s book suggests that there is a way in which an author and a protagonist’s complicity in something like racism can bear scrutiny without the racism being bowdlerised, on the one hand, and which would amount to a denial of sorts, or it being the substrate, on the other hand, for a writer’s predictable, self-regarding moralising. Being so immersive, the story also brings the reader into that complicity, as well as into the complexity of living. DM/MC/ML
Rustum Kozain is a poet living in Cape Town. He has published two prize-winning collections of poetry, This Carting Life and Groundwork, and two high school anthologies of short fiction and poetry. His poetry has appeared widely in national and international journals and has been translated into French, Italian, Indonesian and Spanish. He is the poetry editor of the Johannesburg Review of Books and a freelance editor.
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