Saturday, January 29, 2011

Memoir as Novel

Memoirs of an 

"The story I am telling seems as distant --  not only in space but also in time -- as if I'd merely dreamed it."

Rezzori's novel reads as if written with the authority of a memoir yet it is imbued with the "golden haze of myth" (p 243). The aroma of the dying embers of the fire that destroyed the empire into which the narrator was born fills each chapter of his life and rises to form a cloud that stands between him and his past and stands between the reader and the reality of his life, fiction though it may be. Moments of hilarity abound like the episode when the young boy of Czernowitz tries to improvise a uniform that will transform him into a young fraternity cadet. His humiliation is evident to all but himself yet this moment of humor is quickly transformed in the horrible reality of class and racial consciousness that bare the dark side of the world of our young memoirist.
The young boy grows into a gregarious dreamer whose artistic talent is wasted on crepe-paper window decorations and dreams that lay fallow in the byways of Bucharest. His thoughts ran to romantic melodrama: "At nineteen life is a drama threatening to become a tragedy every fifteen minutes." (p 72) His relations with women, torn between the unattainable ideal and his frequent lust for the gutter, lead him to philosophical meditations: "This brought up the question of free will, and that was his existential conflict." (p 119).
The final chapter, "Pravda" is the most shocking and revelatory section of the novel.  At age sixty we are in the consciousness of this observer of change:  "had he fallen into a deep slumber back then like Rip Van Winkle and awakened only in the world of today, he would go crazy with despair: what has happened to this world between then, 1919, and today 1979, is so incredible, has changed it so radically that one can scarcely believe the same person lived in both epochs.
Thus we are thrust with the narrator into the modern world, a new epoch, and one in which the question: What is truth? is both more difficult and more important than ever.  This is in his thoughts as we see the themes of the earlier sections reemerge in light of this radical age.
Rezzori uses colors and mood motifs with a veritable pastiche of breathtaking prose to hold the adventures and musings of the memoirist together and control the pace of the story. Hauntingly beautiful when it is not horrifying this is a monument to the writer's art and simply a great book.

Memoirs of an Anti-Semite by Gregor von Rezzori. New York Review Books. 2008 (1981)

View all my reviews

No comments: