Gregor von Rezzori - The Snows of Yesteryear
There are plenty of good books which you gulp down and forget. And then there are those rare excellent books which are made and meant to stay so that you choose to take your time to read them. The Snows of Yesteryear belongs to the latter.
I'm not an avid reader of self biographies, but I'm always glad to read one of them when the name of the writer justifies it which is to say when the author did something in literature. (ok, I reckon how Open by Andre Agassi doesn't quite belong here).
Now, Speak Memory by Vladimir Nabokov and Witold Gombrowicz's Polish Memories are both superb books. On the same subject, I've reasons to believe that I will enjoy those three self-biographic volumes by Canetti as soon as I have enough time to dig into them.
The thing is, Gregor von Rezzori did a better job than Nabokov and Gombrowicz in writing about his childhood. Mark my words.
One of the chief reasons why I liked The Snows of Yesteryear so much is that von Rezzori doesn't focus on himself as much as Nabokov (quite obviously) and Gombrowicz did. That and the fact that the author chose to select his memories very carefully thus giving the book a very distinctive frame were beautiful writing goes straight to the point and every unexpected detour does lead to a specific episode.
The Snows of Yesteryear is shaped by people, spiced up by places and smells of history.
Von Rezzori here baked a delicious madeleine which brings back to life the five most important characters of his childhood: his mother, father, sister, wet nurse and governess.
Whereas it's the opening poignant lines of the chapter dedicated to his sister which cannot left anyone untouched, I believe that von Rezzori is particularly masterful when writing about his 'savage' wet nurse, Cassandra, and on his teacher/governess, Mrs Strauss - also known as Bunchy.
There you have an oddity. The emotional detachment von Rezzori felt for his long bygone mother and father when he wrote this book as an elderly man is less noticeable when the author remembers about Cassandra and Bunchy. As a matter of fact these two women did have a deeper influence on the future novelist's early life than his parents who were either overworried about him or hopelessly distant.
At a first glance, Gregor von Rezzori certainly had a privileged childhood. Son of a rich man of distant Italian origins but who praised his Germanness and a proud servant of a collapsing Habsburg Empire, von Rezzori grew up in a world of country houses, city mansions and holidays in spa towns or by the Carinthian lakes. His mum was a fashionable woman ruling over a half dozen servants while his father was a dedicated hunter who enjoyed conversating in Latin (and, accidentally despised the Jews).
And yet, the von Rezzoris didn't fit the usual Belle Epoque picture of an uptown bourgeois Austro-Hungarian family giving parties, going to the opera, blaming the Versailles Treaty and - alas! - flirting with antisemitism.
Living in multicultural but troubled Bukovina, the family was forced to leave their home and belongings behind more than once during young Gregor's childhood. Suffice is to say that in the short span of thirty years, von Rezzori's hometown of Czernowitz passed from Austria to Romania to Soviet Union only to become an Ukrainian city back in 1991 under its current name of Chernivtsi.
The Snows of Yesteryear is much more than family history and an elderly novelist reminiscing on his childhood, it's a document of extraordinary importance to understand why a single town is known by six different names: Czernowitz, Chernivtsi, Chernovtsy, Cernauti, Czerniowce and Czernopol.