Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Family Mosaic

The Snows of YesteryearThe Snows of Yesteryear 
by Gregor von Rezzori

"I do not tire of urging Cassandra to embellish our entire path with a border of flowering marks, an adornment of our tracks which I wish all the more to be continuous and without gaps, since I know full well that these tracks will soon be blown away by the wind and covered by the next snow, ultimately to be dissolved entirely in spring with the melting of the snow and thus fated to disappear forever."(p 54)

Among the many memoirs I have read this is one of the most beautiful and meaningful. Gregor Von Rezzori has an uncanny ability to create beautiful metaphors that convey a sense of both place and history. It is this that sets his memoir apart from the others. The memoir is subtitled "portraits for an autobiography". Thus Von Rezzori structures the memoir around the members of his family with chapters titled simply "The Mother", "The Father", and "The Sister". These are his portraits and it is only when he wrote two chapters about people close to him as family, but not related, that he gave them names, "Cassandra" and "Bunchy"; these being the childhood appellations by which they were known to him and his family. The result of this organization by family portrait provides a chronological mosaic made up of vignettes melded together by his memory.

The memoir ends with the disappearance of his beloved homeland with the onset of the second world war. Stemming from the aftermath of the Great War this provides a historical context for his personal story. Thus the themes of the memoir are under girded with the sense of a world destroyed, collapsed, and faded into an age that becomes his "yesteryear". Von Rezzori describes them metaphorically in the introduction to "The Mother":
"The mermaid is blind; her world has turned to rubbish. The chest contains the tinsel of a forgotten carnival of long ago. And the mermaid herself is rotting."(p 55)
The expectations that were so vivid and bold when he was young become the "golden mists" of the past. Yet amidst this story of decline there is much humor and lovely details, for the author shared the Rabelaisian exuberance of moments with his father, the pride taken in learning how to hunt, and the sweet, if rare, moments when his Mother showered him with all the love that she had hidden from him through her habitual neglect of her family. He also shares intimate moments with his sister, describing their similarities and differences: "I envied her for being our father's favorite; she despised the blind infatuation my mother showed me, suffered maternal injustices with mute pride and devalued her mother's preference in my own eyes. She was a graceful girl, when I was a small oaf; she was a precociously exemplary young lady while I was still a lout." (p 204)

The memoir ends with a short epilogue where, among other things, the adult Gregor Von Rezzori (who has become an accomplished journalist, media personality, and author) shares his personal return to his birthplace of Czernowitz and found that "it wasn't the Czernowitz whose vision I had carried in me for half a century". He found like so many who grow up and leave their home of birth that you literally cannot go home again for the place you left is different than the myth your mind has created and hidden by the mists of time. The story of this memoir is ultimately one of dissolution of both an idea and an ideal. It is memorable for the beauty and love that was experienced by this often lonely man. It is this that shines through and creates a glowing memoir of a yesterday that will remain forever impressed upon all who read it.

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Brian Joseph said...

The MOST beautiful and meaningful memoir that you ever read sounds like a such an impressive statement. This one does sound moving and grand.

I had never heard of Rezzor before. I Googled him. His works seem like they are worth exploring.

James said...

Thanks for your observation. It is certainly "one of the most beautiful" memoirs I have ever read.
I would compare it to Nabokov's Speak, Memory or Burning the Days by James Salter in its vivid vignettes and beautiful style.
I would also highly recommend Von Rezzori's novel, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, that provides a unique perspective on the history of eastern Europe in the first half of the twentieth century.