The Snows of Yesteryear (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – 7 May 2009
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About the Author
Gregor von Rezzori (1914-1998) studied at the University of Vienna and for a time lived in Bucharest. Von Rezzori's books include Tales from Maghrebinia, Oedipus Triumphs at Stalingrad, The Hussar, The Death of My Brother Abel, and Anecdotage. He lived with his wife in a village near Florence, Italy, until his death. His Memoirs of an Anti-Semite was reissued by NYRB Classics in 2007.
John Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland, in 1945. He is the author of many novels, including The Book of Evidence, The Untouchable, and Eclipse. Banville's novel The Sea was awarded the 2005 Man Booker Prize. On occasion he writes under the pen name Benjamin Black.
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Pre-WW1, Bukovina was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it was for that reason that Von Rezzori's family - German speaking Austrians - were there. After the war, Bukovina became a part of the kingdom of Romania, but not for long. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact awarded the region to the Soviet Union following the joint German-Soviet advance on Poland in 1939, but Romania took it back as part of the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. The Red Army regained control in 1943-44 and northern Bukovina, encompassing Chernivtsi, was from 1947 formally a part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and since 1991 of independent Ukraine.
The politico-geographic situation of Bukovina, so very much the borderland between various countries and empires, meant that in pre-Soviet times many different language groups dwelt there, each with their different cultural traditions.Read more ›
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Two different aspects of the book make it of special interest. The first has to do with the historical and social milieu in which the author lived his early years, the years covered by THE SNOWS OF YESTERYEAR. Gregor von Rezzori was born in 1914 in Czernowitz, then the capital of the Bukovina, which in turn was one of the autonomous former crown lands of the House of Habsburg and, as such, part of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy. Thus, his formative years coincided with what he calls the "truce between two phases of the European suicide" (i.e, 1919-1939) and the collapse of the bourgeois culture of Mitteleuropa founded on the pillars of property and learning. Rezzori's account of that milieu and those years is among the richer and more rewarding that I have read.
The other noteworthy aspect of the book consists of the family figures around whom he structures his memoir: his mother, father, and sister, and his nanny and his governess. Each of them - at least as portrayed by Rezzori - is a memorable figure. Even works of fiction rarely feature a quintet of such distinctive characters.
To my mind the most memorable (though it is a close call) is Rezzori's father, who regarded himself as a Habsburg aristocrat through and through (the Rezzori family came from Sicily, at a time when it still belonged to the Holy Roman Empire). By profession, he was an architect and art historian, whose work responsibilities involved overseeing the monasteries of the Bukovina as a civil servant. By avocation, he was a hunter, and some of Rezzori's anecdotes are set in the dense forests of the Carpathians, hunting with his father. Although Rezzori elder was a strident anti-Semite and a social conservative, he was not a supporter of Hitler. Shortly after Hitler was appointed Chancellor, he drew his son's attention to a magazine article, replete with pictures of the new Führer, and commented: "It's all very fine and well, Germany rises once more. But have a look at this fellow: I wouldn't hire him as a stable boy!" His political ethos was from the snows of yesteryear, amongst the Habsburgs. "[H]e counted Romanians (after Czechs and Poles) among the body-strippers of the corpse of the defunct Dual Monarchy. Russians, Poles and Ruthenians were mere colonial populations. He saw himself as a leftover functionary of a liquidated empire. `We have been left here as a kind of cultural fertilizer,' was one of his favorite sayings." He stayed away from his daughter when she was dying of Hodgson's disease and he refused to summon his son to his own deathbed; those decisions were "based on the sober conviction that dying is a strictly private matter that cannot be shared with anyone."
(A quick word about Rezzori's governess, a woman born in Pomerania in the 1860's and clearly a major influence in his life. Rezzori gives her name as Lina Strauss and he writes that in the 1890s she had been the "lady companion" of Mark Twain during his years in Florence (at a time long before the death of Twain's beloved wife, Livy). Curiously, in neither my Mark Twain library (which, admittedly, is hardly comprehensive) nor on the Internet can I find any reference to a Lina Strauss as a companion of Twain or a member of the Twain household. If anyone has information to support the association, I would appreciate learning of it either by a comment or by e-mail.)
The book closes with a touching epilogue, dealing with Rezzori's visit in 1989 to Czernowitz (by then re-named Chernovtsy and within the borders of the Ukraine) for the first time in 53 years. After so much effort trying to reconstruct and re-inhabit the past, his visit to the city of his birth and boyhood proved to be another bittersweet exemplification of Thomas Wolfe's adage that you can't go home again. Rezzori published this memoir in 1989. He died in 1998.
Given my own fascination for the Habsburg Empire and Mitteleuropa, I was a natural reader for THE SNOWS OF YESTERYEAR. Nonetheless, at times it dragged, even for me. Rezzori is prone to over-write and over-analyze. Appropriate perhaps for a chronicler of a lost empire, he can be somewhat fusty and ornate in his prose. But for the most part he is clear-headed and unsentimental. What pervades THE SNOWS OF YESTERYEAR is not nostalgia so much as displacement.
The Snows of Yesteryear brings back in glowing colors and radiant light a Central European world that vanished in 1938: the town houses and country estates, the Vienna apartments and the forest preserves of the old Austro-Hungarian aristocracy into which Rezzori was born. The first of the five section of the book is devoted to Cassandra, the weirdly costumed peasant who was Rezzori's wet nurse and nanny, an amazing comic figure who taught him "a salad of Armanian-German-Ruthenian-Polish-Hungarian-Turkish and Yiddish..".and who watched fiercely and hilariously over his fantasy-laden childhood.
Cassandra was in every way a contrast to his mother, the subject of the second section, a neurasthenic, stormy-tempered woman of exquisite beauty and bearing, the "prototype of a lady" who, after much drama and pain, left Rezzori's father, an architectural historian whose imaginative life was wholly absorbed by the world of hunting and shooting.
His father, a bright-natured, old-fashioned, anti-Semitic gentleman was ever bemused by his estranged, unhappy consort, and Rezzori's portrait of him forms a brilliant centerpiece to the book.
The fourth section concerns Rezzori's marvelous older sister, who died tragically when only 21 and whose influence on the author was profound, permanent and deeply ambiguous.
Last comes the inimitable and extraordinary governess Miss Lina Strauss, a once friend of Mark Twain, who was imported to teach young Rezzori as she had done his mother.
The epilogue is a thing of rare beauty: Gregor von Rezzori offers a haunting account of his visit to Czernowitz 53 years after his departure...
In giving us five superb portraits with the greatest psychological subtlety, Rezzori also paints a group picture that is dazzling in its social detail, gripping in its dramatic tension and gloriously evocative of a fascinating bygone world.
Rezorri returns to his old home and finds the vibrancy and life has been squeezed out of the place;made sterile by the drabness of communism after being exterminated in the war.The racial tensions and diversity of customs and languages that gave Bukovinia its vibrancy,wiped out for some skewed political ideal.It makes you realize that-as long as it doesn't boil over into holocaust-racial and social frictions are part of what makes humanity click.
A great book;many of the anecdotes and reflections feature in arguably Rezorris greatest work,'The death of my brother Abel'.
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