Danses Macabres

Gregor von Rezzori’s ‘Abel and Cain’
Members of Romania's Iron Guard, 1940 (Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo)

When I think back on myself,” said Gregor von Rezzori in a 1991 Salmagundi interview, “I shiver with disgust.” This is true of most thinking people, but perhaps especially for the author of Abel and Cain, twin novels composed from the 1960s through the 1990s, now available as a single volume for the first time in English. These novels tell the story of the scriptwriter Aristides Subicz, challenged by an international book agent to describe his own life story in three sentences. Subicz’s rebellion against that mandate drives him to write the story of the European twentieth century as an autobiography and, in so doing, explore the mechanics of complicity: the way whole societies rationalize their butchery, the way the zeitgeist marionettes our arms and legs, our horror at the work of our own hands.

Born in a contested province of Romania/Ukraine, Rezzori made his name as a writer after World War II thanks to the burlesque Tales of Maghrebinia (a kind of Mandeville’s Travels of Eastern Europe) and his Idiot’s Guide to German Society. Rezzori wrote serious work alongside these entertainments, bristling all the while at how much more attention the entertainments won him. Though he can be both grimly and frivolously funny, nothing could be more grave than the themes Rezzori isolates in his major novels—An Ermine in Czernopol, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, and Abel and Cain, the just-published omnibus volume of The Death of My Brother Abel (1976) and its posthumous sequel, Cain. The Death of My Brother Abel is already a long book (675 pages in this edition), and Cain only complicates matters: stories don’t tie up, compromised characters compromise themselves more elaborately, sublimated guilt floats toward the surface. The combined novel is sticky, comfortless stuff: stories about a reality where “everyone carries the murderer inside himself and is simultaneously a murderer’s victim”; where “the demonic, you see, can be tackled with neither medication nor scalpels”; where the most famous stories are the most clichéd, those soothing to “healthy folk sensibility”; and in which a March day of fine weather in 1938 can witness “the illumination of total emptiness.”

The narrator, Subicz, is born into the childhood of a Bond villain. The illegitimate son of a courtesan in Bessarabia, he’s raised by a family of Nazi-sympathizing mystics and petit bourgeois in Vienna. A strange old uncle educates him on the casually sinister etiquette of café society and the world of his mother’s lovers, frivolous tycoons like Bully Olivera, “a tiny, roly-poly, mercurial South American who played outstanding polo and poker and, it was said, owed his immense fortune to the slave labor of entire tribes of half-starved, lice-ridden Indians.” Learning at their feet, Subicz develops decadent tastes and a conscience like a maze. He learns by heart the “morbid charms and kitschy beauty” of the fading Hapsburg Empire, charms that would be sanitized and standardized after the war into a kind of Disneyland Europe, a “supranational style” fit for American and Americanized consumers. The old empires have fallen; the murderous interlude of ethnic nationalism has given way to a new empire, “the same corrupt world, the same world of money—only in a cunningly new, brightly promising, insidiously abstract way.” Subicz repeatedly quotes Matthew 25:29: For to everyone who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough; but anyone who has not, will be deprived even of what he has. Though Subicz lives above his means it isn’t riches per se he longs for; it’s literary glory.

From four overstuffed folders, in a hotel room in 1968, Subicz assembles his manuscript, the one the agent Brodney asked him to summarize in three sentences. The Death of My Brother Abel is comprised of the first three folders, Cain the last. The deeper Subicz digs into his own story, tossing up fossils and imploring our admiration, the more obvious it becomes that this story can’t be told with the pulp gimmickry of show business. Instead, every time Subicz holds a trinket or a bit of bone up to the light, “every tale hatches ten others: hybrid cell growth that cannot be contained in any form.” The narrative dashes backward and forward in time; it stutters, it returns to the same stories.

The most formative of these stories involves his first love. After his mother’s suicide, Subicz commences a romance with the wealthy Stella Stern, Jewish and adventurous. Stella’s complicit husband arranges for Subicz to travel outside a rapidly militarizing Reich, but Stella tries to visit her lover and is kidnapped into a concentration camp. Subicz spends the war wandering the bombed-out fatherland as a stateless person, a “déraciné par excellence” and “professional literary flunky.” Stella dies in the camp. Subicz blames himself. In a sense, she saves his life: after the war, her husband lands Subicz an exculpating role testifying at Nuremberg. Had Stella not died in the camps, Subicz may not have been held so blameless. The irony eats at him. He takes Nuremberg to be a travesty where “outside, the people are starving, selling their little sister or their dead son’s Knight’s Cross for a carton of Lucky Strikes.” As observed by Subicz, the proceedings amount to mere ritual; the revenge the occasion demands, the sense of justice, never fully arrives.

Later, in the rubble of Hamburg, Subicz falls in with a band of intellectuals with religious and humanistic ideas about how Germany can be rebuilt. No matter. Capital finds the ruined country: “the rubble fields are gilded, they once again have a tangible reality value. New buildings are sure to proliferate shortly: business fortresses, office palaces, tenement barracks.” There Subicz befriends Schwab, a promising German writer too anxious to write a book of his own. Schwab takes a job at a publishing house, supports Subicz’s work on a grand novel, falls prey to drug addiction, and dies.

The Schwab-Subicz relationship is clearly intended to be a major thread in the book, perhaps the major thread—which is why it’s disappointing Schwab remains so much of a cypher. His most prominent roles are drinking and taking pills and listening to Subicz’s often delightful monologues. In Cain, the novel becomes metatextual; the Subicz we know may be a complete invention of the real author, Schwab. Why? Because Schwab really is German, really is ground down by guilt, really is a forgotten man, a man who moved in lockstep with the zeitgeist; he invents Subicz as a literary character, a way of symbolically freeing himself from complicity. Right at the moment the reader yearns for some kind of resolution, the story becomes a house of mirrors.

 

If the archetype of the contemporary novel is a chase, Rezzori’s novels are danses macabres.

Apart from the metafictional thread woven into it, Cain recapitulates much of Abel: more childhood (“our first impressions are not only our own: they are bathed in the light of our parents’ heyday”), more of Subicz’s life as a ladies’ man (there are plenty of sex scenes in the Henry Miller mode, about which, suffice it to say, you probably had to be there) and more of Operation Gomorrah, which Subicz witnessed in 1943 (“I watched many roofs collapse into the honeyed light of the flames that fell from the rafters like a woman’s loosened hair”).

That echo of Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge” is no accident (“your golden hair Margareta / Your ashen hair Shulamite”). Celan and Rezzori were childhood neighbors, though Celan was six years younger. The preeminent poet of the Holocaust and one of the preeminent novelists of complicity both came of age in a city called Czernowitz, in a province called the Bukovina, a regional capital of the Hapsburg Empire. In Rezzori’s telling, once upon a time, the Bukovina pullulated with life. There were Germans, Italians, Ukrainians, Jews, Roma, and Romanians, all living and working in the “cynical harmony that is built on mutual aversion and common business dealings.” Just as in our own multiethnic state, minority groups fall victim to needless prejudice. In Czernowitz it was the Jews who were most scorned, secretly hated, openly hated, or regarded—as Rezzori explains of the anti-Semitism of his aristocratic forbearers—with ubiquitous suspicion and contempt.

This is the world of Rezzori’s first masterpiece, An Ermine in Czernopol, published in 1958. In the fictionalized Czernowitz of the novel, children of a mid-level government official grow up enchanted in the way all children are enchanted, by the beautiful and terrifying strangeness of the world. The characters, at least at first, are the people of a fairy tale: a noble Hussar, his princess wife, a hunchbacked maid full of secrets.

The narrators of Ermine were too young to remember WWI, but know it anyway. In what today we might call a manifestation of epigenetic memory, Rezzori describes how he and his sister “carried the war inside us, the tumult of destruction and annihilation, the addictive obliviousness it contained.” Unlike most of Rezzori’s characters, this brother and sister are lucky enough to escape the bigotry that would otherwise be their birthright. The hate of the bigots of Czernowitz is not an ordinary hate. It is an anti-Semitism that, like American racism, didn’t rise up as an afterthought but rather built the rest of society to suit it; the narrators of Ermine “came to converse with our friends in the first place, and only later, quite a bit later—did we find out that they were Jews. So we didn’t make the usual discovery that Jews are also people, but rather the reverse, that people are sometimes also Jews.” This is a revelation denied to their father, their aunts and uncles, the rising right-wing of the town.

To say An Ermine in Czernopol ends with disenchantment is a grotesque understatement. It ends with the “Petrescu-pogrom,” an evening of murder and shattered glass inspired not by blood-libel, but by petty jealousy and the sheer pleasure of hating. Early in the book, describing the way the narrators’ father ignores a caravan of Jews passing through town, the narrators show us a man “avoiding contact because he didn’t want to give up an animosity of his own making.” His disgust, absent a target at which to direct itself, would have pointed back at its maker: “His anger was setting the stage for his hate, and insuring that these people were worthy of his detestation.”

Following the events of Ermine, the real Czernowitz witnessed the rise of Romania’s Iron Guard, a fascist paramilitary group. Invading Russians “repatriated” the German population in 1940; not long after, the Iron Guard transported most of the Jewish population to camps and worked them to death, Paul Celan’s family among them. When Russian soldiers returned, the town’s remaining Jews left for Israel and the Poles were deported to Poland. Today, the city belongs to Ukraine: Ukrainians live there and a few Romanians too. The multiethnic home Rezzori knew is gone—only the buildings remain.

 

There are strange delights in these books; Rezzori is as eloquent as Nabokov.

And what of the citizens who, if they didn’t engineer all this human cleansing, at least allowed it to happen, even tacitly encouraged it? Rezzori made the mind of a bigot the subject of his subsequent major work, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite. Replete with the deceptive trappings of autofiction (the narrator’s name is Gregor and his life story closely parallels Rezzori’s), it tells the story of a young man so steeped in the hatred around him that he takes it in at a not-quite-conscious level. His best friend in childhood, several loves, two wives, and the whole of his social circle in 1930s Vienna are Jews (often accomplished, often wary), but Gregor can’t shed his vestigial bias. It comes out in odd moments. A petty argument with his girlfriend turns, without warning, into an anti-Semitic tirade. He’s angry at himself later—he sounded like his father. Shamefully, he comes to realize, “I basically thought the way he did. I hung on the threads of my background and upbringing like a fly in a spiderweb.”

Self pity? What bigot would go without it? And then the Anschluss:

… how could I have prevented what all the other Austrians obviously welcomed? I felt frightfully sorry for Minka and all our friends, but it was not my fault that they happened to be Jews, and in the event that they got into serious trouble I could use my connections with the SS to help them out again.

Contemporary American readers would need to be pretty self-deceiving to avoid reading these Memoirs with a kind of sickly guilt that crests, sooner rather than later, into stark recognition. It’s not anti-Semitism per se we’ll recognize, though we might. No citizen of a nation built on the oppression of black and brown people can fail to see a little of himself in Gregor. And therein lies Rezzori’s great talent as a writer, and the source of our discomfort. He describes the way society manufactures bigots: the bigotry first and everything else only later, dependent on the bigotry for its existence. Without the bigotry, what’s left of the self?

Like Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, Abel and Cain also climaxes in Vienna in 1938. There Aristides Subicz employs a word we rarely use anymore but maybe should: zeitgeist. Although after the war, “every single German claims never to have been a Nazi,” Hitler and his lieutenants alone can’t stand responsible for the events of 1938–45. That’s why Nuremberg was a “catharsis that never happened.” Those defendants couldn’t have broken Europe on their own. What activates latent evil is what we carry—perhaps without knowing it, perhaps while loathing it—in our hearts.

Abel and Cain is more self-consciously literary than Ermine or Memoirs, which is saying a lot. If the archetype of the contemporary novel is a chase, Rezzori’s novels are danses macabres. There are strange delights in these books; Rezzori is as eloquent as Nabokov, if more roundabout. Dip into anything he wrote, and you’ll come to feel as though the book could go on sugaring your coffee all night, half making you sick with horror—and, worse, recognition—for a moment or two or three before unfolding more elaborate jokes, allegories, admonitions. Like his other books, Abel and Cain feels it could go on endlessly; unlike the others, it does. This is not a reason to avoid the book, but it’s a reason to reach for Ermine and Memoirs first.

Abel and Cain
Gregor von Rezzori
translated from the German by David Dollenmayer, Joachim Neugroschel, and Marshall Yarbrough
NYRB Classics, $24.95, 864 pp.

Published in the August 9, 2019 issue: 

John Cotter is author of the novel Under the Small Lights. His writing has appeared in Guernica, Bookforum, and Electric Literature, and will appear shortly in Raritan and Washington Square Review.

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