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.