An Ermine in Czernopol by Gregor von Rezzori (trans. Philipp Boehm). NYRB Classics, 392 pp., $17.95.
Gregor von Rezzori’s fictitious city Czernopol exists at the edge of civilization, on the border of memory and invention, lying “somewhere in the godforsaken southeastern part of Europe.” In reality it is Czernowitz, in the region known as the Bukovina, ceded by the Ottoman Empire to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1775, then after World War I part of Romania, annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, and now within the borders of Ukraine. Von Rezzori spent his childhood there, as readers of his other autobiographical volumes, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite and The Snows of Yesteryear, will know. An Ermine in Czernopol is the only volume of the trilogy that’s an old-fashioned novel, rather than a set of connected novellas or portraits. It transfigures Czernowitz into Czernopol, seen from a child’s perspective with elements of fairy tale exaggeration. According to the publisher, this is the first complete English translation of An Ermine in Czernopol, which originally appeared in German in 1958, although there was a translation published in the U.S. in 1960 as The Hussar.
Czernopol is a border city, a cultural and linguistic melting pot “where you can find a dozen of the most disparate nationalities and at least half a dozen bitterly feuding faiths—all living in the cynical harmony that is built on mutual aversion and common business dealings.” It’s suspended in history between a feudal past, whose peasants still bring their pungent presence and goods to the city’s market square, and a globalizing modernity whose vanguard has arrived in Czernopol in the form of American jazz, which jostles with the old Viennese waltzes and gypsy music. The city is further divided between the imperial Habsburg past and the chauvinistic nationalism of the new Romanian regime: “Even in its deteriorated state this former grandeur was easy to see and hard to forget, not yet fully surrendered to the garish colors of the new rulers.” In the lull between the world wars there are signs of the catastrophe to come: Nazi demonstrations, swastikas painted on Jewish shops, and, in the climactic set-piece scene, a pogrom sparked off by ethnic tensions over soccer team allegiances.
Despite these ominous signs, the prevailing tone of the novel is one of good-natured amusement, which has something to do with the superior, detached attitude of the narrator’s family—as von Rezzori explains in The Snows of Yesteryear, his parents had come from Vienna, and so, “we considered ourselves as former Austrians in a province with a predominantly Austrian coloring, like those British colonists who remained in India after the end of the Raj.” The tone also has to do with the character of the city, where, “laughter . . . had been elevated to an art form, a folk art of unparalleled authenticity.” It was “the setting for most of the Jewish jokes circulating between Riga and the Levant.” As usual with von Rezzori, some of the best scenes in the novel have to do with his complicated encounters with Jews and the evolution of his attitudes from the traditional anti-Semitism of his family.
The narrator invariably uses the first-person plural—his memories, even his thoughts, are all from the standpoint of him and his siblings, particularly his sister, Tanya—as though recording the development of a fused sensibility. The novel is built around the children’s fascination with a symbolic figure, a hussar, Major Nikolaus Tildy, whom they see riding past their house one winter day, resplendent in a “cornflower-blue” uniform, escorting a horse-drawn sled bearing his fur-wrapped wife like a fairy tale queen. The tableau strikes them with mythological force. To them, this gallant cavalryman of uncertain origin—some say he is Hungarian, others are sure he is German, and his cold, reserved countenance is always described as “English”— represents all the old glory of the empire. He is the embodiment of the chivalric code, a medieval knight defiantly, rigidly standing for the ancient code of honor in a degenerate age: “the manly ideal from a supposedly bygone epoch, a world that had vanished.”
There is a certain ambivalence in the children’s idolization of Tildy, for they recognize that the romantic age of chivalry which he represents has been superseded by the new mechanized trench warfare which has left its devastation around the city, and whose tanks and machine guns have rendered the horse-mounted hussar obsolete: “We had been born into the war and to some extent were spawned by it . . . it lay in the world that surrounded us, a world distressed and distorted, not yet fully revived following the tumult of annihilation.” As fascinating to them as Tildy are the “termite-men,” the German infantry they saw marching past during the war. These soldiers seemed to utterly lack individuality, driven by some inner compulsion to burrow into the mud and blow themselves up in a kind of sacrificial rite, like “explosive larvae.” Perhaps taking a page from the German officer Ernst Jünger’s memoir Storm of Steel, which glorified the new warfare, von Rezzori’s narrator says, “So even in this war we found a new kind of beauty.”
Also contrasting with Tildy is Herr Tarangolian, who, as Prefect of Teskovina, is the head of the province. A friend of the narrator’s family who often visits their home and entertains them with his witty monologues, his ironic tolerance allows him to appreciate and mock the city in all of its disorder, while his impeccable “Levantine” suavity displays a different, more modern kind of chivalry: that of the cosmopolitan dandy and bon vivant. Herr Tarangolian regards Tildy with amusement and exasperation as a quixotic figure, “the last knight,” observing, “He loves bravery, style, élan, it’s in his blood. To ride out in single combat against the slovenliness of a city, of a country—that is truly a deed for hussars, beautiful and mad.”
The novel’s plot turns on the moment when Tildy’s rigid adherence to his warrior’s code collides with the city’s will to laughter. He responds to an insult directed at his notoriously slatternly sister-in-law by challenging the offending wag to a duel. When his civilian opponent refuses to duel Tildy challenges his commanding officer, a gruff colonel who points out with exasperation that the whole city knows the insult is only the truth. The general who heads the Czernopol garrison summons Tildy to his office; sympathetic and trying to be reasonable, he lets slip the same observation as the colonel, and is instantly challenged as well. The general then has Tildy committed to the local insane asylum for evaluation. During this confinement, Tildy becomes an unlikely party to a literary controversy after he seemingly discovers a fellow inmate to be a poet of genius, prompting a violent newspaper polemic over the authenticity of authorship, in which the real-life Viennese critic Karl Kraus champions the mad poet against anti-Semitic propagandists who claim that it’s all a Jewish plot to make a mockery of the purity of German verse.
The novel ends with a sordid denouement of tragically confused chivalry, curiously anticipating Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Although it feels like a cheap pastiche of cinematic clichés, it makes for a fittingly cynical sendoff to the world of yesterday and its last vestiges of dignity.
An Ermine in Czernopol is a hopelessly baggy novel, its plot overweighed with symbolism and missing the taut irony of the self-deprecating reversals that make Memoirs of an Anti-Semite so uncomfortably good. But it does succeed in producing a densely evocative impression of von Rezzori’s home city, which might well have been his chief aim. The old Czernowitz no longer existed by the time he wrote the novel, the Jews had been subjected to the horrors of the Holocaust, and most of the polyglot mix of other nationalities had been driven out. What was left? The epilogue to The Snows of Yesteryear tells of the author’s return visit in 1989, after an absence of more than 50 years; he found the place outwardly the same, the old buildings historically preserved, yet the streets sterile and empty: “The motley ethnic variegation had been replaced by a homogeneous breed of people,” the Ukrainians. The clangorous commerce, the mutual hatreds, and, of course, the laughter—all of it had vanished.
Joshua Lustig is an editor at the Facts on File World News Digest and a contributing editor at Open Letters Monthly.
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