I thought I was going to write a bit about Gregor von Rezzori’s The Snows of Yesteryear (1989) a couple of days ago. Luckily for me, time is an illusion. Just is the Wheel of Life, as the holy man keeps saying in Kipling’s Kim. Rezzori’s memoir has some curious and coincidental similarities with Kipling’s novel.
Rezzori was a child of empire. Home was Czernowitz in Bukovina, successively Austro-Hungarian, Romanian, Soviet, and now Ukrainian. But Rezzori’s family was Austrian, his father a colonial administrator with an aesthetic job (cataloguing and maintaining artistic and architectural treasures in remote Orthodox monasteries – how Austrian), his mother a high-strung neurotic (also very Austrian). The parents are a terrible mismatch, the family a disaster, but it is the only one Rezzori had.
Rezzori’s memoir superficially resemble Elias Canetti’s childhood memoir, The Tongue Set Free (1977), another story of a boy from the Austrian imperial provinces, with two crucial differences. First, young Rezzori had no intellectual aptitude at all, unlike the reading-obsessed future Nobel Prize-winner. The next to last chapter in the memoir is about the governess (“Bunchy”) who finally succeeded in cramming some Austrian Bildung an Kultur into the young nitwit, but for most of the book it is a mystery how he turns into the man writing the sentences on the page.
Second, Rezzori was born in 1914, nine years after Canetti, so the only Austria he ever knew was the one that was in crisis, or shattered, part of his family’s history but not his own. “We did not live our own lives,” Rezzori writes about his teenage years. “Our lives were being lived by our period” (222).
None of this is a reason to read Rezzori’s book. I am just – still – sorting through my little heap of Austrian discoveries.
No, the reason is to meet Rezzori’s family. Each chapter is devoted to a family member, ending with that governess and beginning with his beloved nurse Cassandra, a native of Bukovina:
When she joined the household, it was said, she was hardly more than a beast. They had peeled her out of her peasant garb and had instantly consigned the shirt, the wrap skirt, , the sleeveless sheepskin jacket and the leather buskins to the flames. But clad in city clothes, she looked so utterly absurd as to be frightening. (5)
She spoke no German but rather “expressed herself in snatches of Romanian, Ruthenian, Polish, and Hungarian, as well as Turkish and Yiddish, assisted by a grotesque, grimacing mimicry and a primitive, graphic body language that made everyone laugh and that everyone understood (8).” Rezzori wrote in German, but his nurse’s strange Creole was his first language. How unlikely it all is.
The book was translated by H. F. Broch de Rotherman. The original title is Blumen im Schee, “Flowers in the Snow,” a reference to the most poignant scene and image in the book (it is at the end of the “Cassandra” chapter), much better than the Villon cliché.