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The Snows of Yesteryear: Portraits for an Autobiography (Penguin Modern Classics) Paperback – 6 May 2010
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One of those rare and lovely books . . . in the precision and quality of Rezzori's prose, in his passion for the perfect detail, and in his power to capture the reader's heart (Alan Furst)
[The series] sheds remarkable light on the literature, culture and politics of the region...anyone coming fresh to the field will be captivated by the richness, variety, humour and pathos of a classic literature that, through a shared historical experience, transcends national and linguistic boundaries. (CJ Schüler Independent on Sunday)
This [series] is a wonderful idea ... They are absurdist parables, by turns hilarious, unsettling and enigmatic. (Nicholas Lezard Guardian)
I urge you to go and read them. (Adam Thirlwell New Statesman)
This new series of Central European Classics is important well beyond simply providing 'good reads'. (Stephen Vizinczey Daily Telegraph)
About the Author
Gregor von Rezzori (1914-1988) was born in the Austro-Hungarian province of Bukovina (now part of Ukraine). At different points in his life he was a citizen of the Habsburg Empire, Romania, the Soviet Union and Austria, with a substantial interval of statelessness. He lived the latter part of his life in Italy.
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The author grew up with the myth of that lost bygone `golden and miraculous' world of `property and learning', characterized by an unbridgeable gulf between the so-called educated classes and the so-called common people.
The author is still not capable to bridge this gap: `A species of man arose from that ghostly landscape of bomb craters and trenches whose bestiality was unconstrained. A free field was given to the Hitlers and Stalins.' He forgets to mention that the `landed aristocracy' itself was responsible for the outbreak of WW I and their own downfall.
Female archetypes, death
The author grew up among three archetype embodiments of the female: a nanny (`brood-warm, protectively enveloping motherliness'), his sister (`the airy, spiritual, nimbly evasive figure of the nymph') and his mother (`interplay of all arch female characteristics: sensual excitement, the fitful capriciousness of the potential mistress, vacillating between stormy tenderness and pretended indifference, between lovingly passionate empathy and cruelly punishing iciness.'
His nanny taught him the all important lesson that `we all have to die one day.' From then on, `I took up life as if it were but a succession of leave-takings in the course of a long journey.'
His mother's life was a long journey of disappointments. Her secretly entertained dream of becoming a pediatrician could not be realized by a girl of her class. After one too many waltzes during her first ball, she knew herself to have been cheated of life's happiness. All her life she had true obsessions and outbreaks of impotent rages. She kept all her energy for her son: `it was an amorous relationship, a love-affair.'
His father was `a solitary to the point of melancholia', `a leftover functionary of a liquidated empire.' His view of the world was that of `a medieval woodcut': the huntsmen and the others. Anything to do with soldiering was repugnant to him. Socially unacceptable were all those in trade, and totally despicable was anyone dealing in money.
With his sharply delineated psychological portraits, Gregor von Rezzori evocates the lost world of an enormous empire, dominated and ruled by the landed aristocracy.
It made this aristocracy (and his parents) `sleepwalkers in an alienated present', `members of a dying and largely already superannuated class.'
Not to be missed.
And yet the book lacks a consistent honesty in that the stories told at the various ages of the writer do not always ring true. We are drowned in detail - detail that would not be available to a young boy, but which is intended to issue from his consciousness. It is hard to disentangle the self indulgence of the writer from the urge to inform an audience and for me, the book became difficult to pick up, rather than put down - the latter being the initial promise of this beautifully crafted personal wisdom.
The key characters are dramatically evoked, and with each the story acquires quite a new angle. At the same time we are drawn into
a particular part of a multicultural Romania at a particular time of great historical upheaval. I found it a most engrossing and revealing account right up to the very end.