The New York Times Book Review
An Ermine in Czernopolby Gregor Von Rezzori, Daniel Kehlmann, Philip Boehm
An NYRB Classics Original
Set just after World War I, An Ermine in Czernopol centers on the tragicomic fate of Tildy, an erstwhile officer in the army of the now-defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire, determined to defend the virtue of his cheating sister-in-law at any cost. Rezzori surrounds Tildy with a host of fantastic characters, engaging us in a kaleidoscopic… See more details below
An NYRB Classics Original
Set just after World War I, An Ermine in Czernopol centers on the tragicomic fate of Tildy, an erstwhile officer in the army of the now-defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire, determined to defend the virtue of his cheating sister-in-law at any cost. Rezzori surrounds Tildy with a host of fantastic characters, engaging us in a kaleidoscopic experience of a city where nothing is as it appears—a city of discordant voices, of wild ugliness and heartbreaking disappointment, in which, however, “laughter was everywhere, part of the air we breathed, a crackling tension in the atmosphere, always ready to erupt in showers of sparks or discharge itself in thunderous peals.”
The New York Times Book Review
This beautiful, impressive early novel by von Rezzori (The Snows of Yesteryear), generously translated by Boehm, takes place in the fictional town of Czernopol, where pairs of Dalmatians run gracefully between coach wheels, the premature removal of a jacket constitutes a grave faux pas, and an old miser keeps two wives-one blue-blooded princess, one common peasant girl-under the same roof. Austrian officer Nikolaus Tildy's aristocratic elegance and trials on behalf of his wife, the beautiful, afflicted Tamara, capture the imagination of child narrator (and his sister) Tanya. While Tildy's story is compelling, von Rezzori's greatest achievements are his meditations on the nature of childhood, especially "that inviolable majesty of the child" and its gradual erosion as the once fascinating, mysterious world begins to reveal itself as a place of "crude banality," which ceases to inspire any longing. In its near-mythical treatment of childhood, the book recalls Nabokov's Speak Memory, or Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows.
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".. Gregor von Rezzori's mid-20th-century masterpiece….has been likened by the novelist John Banville to both The Tin Drum and One Hundred Years of Solitude, although a more instructive comparison might be to the European novels of Vladimir Nabokov…in a luminous new translation by Philip Boehm…" - John Wray, The New York Times Book Review
"The last great remembrancer of a region that has vanished from the map and mind of Europe." Michael Ignatieff, The New York Review of Books
"This wonderful bookliterally, a book full of wonderswhich lived for too long in shadow, has been brought fully to light by Philip Boehm's lustrous new translation. An Ermine of Czernopol may at last take its place on the shelf alongside The Tin Drum and One Hundred Years of Solitude." John Banville
“The novelist and memoirist Gregor von Rezzori was one of the last and most redoubtable links with a Mid-to-Eastern European world, rich in history and character, complex in nationality and ethnic allegiance, that has gone forever, devoured or dispersed through successive waves of rapaciously competitive nationalism…von Rezzori’s flair for language which he cultivated almost like a collector, with the occasional, carefully planted esoteric word that matched John Updike’s love for the look and the sound of rare words.” –The Independent (London)
"Any reader of European literature who has not read Gregor Von Rezzori has commited the unthinkable. This is the rare writer who writes with unmatched beauty and skill while celebrating the joys of life." Gary Shteyngart
“Gregor von Rezzori’s novels…have won him many admirers and a reputation as a writer of brilliance and of highest ambition. He has been likened by critics both there and in Europe to Mann, Grass, and Musil.” –BOMB magazine
“A philosophical novel on the nature of reality…nearly always intellectual exciting. Author von Rezzori writes with aphoristic flair and a hint of childlike wonder. He has produced a flashing novel of ideas, a species that ranks in rarity with the Tasmanian wolf and the Komodo dragon.” –TIME magazine
“To his admirers the silver-haired citizen of the world is a superb hewer of mocking phrases, a master of erudite allegory that springs from this quasi-aristo youth in the defunct Austro-Hungarian empire.” –The Toronto Star
"This beautiful, impressive early novel by von Rezzori (The Snows of Yesteryear), generously translated by Boehm, takes place in the fictional town of Czernopol...von Rezzori's greatest achievements are his meditations on the nature of childhood, especially 'that inviolable majesty of the child' and its gradual erosion as the once fascinating, mysterious world begins to reveal itself as a place of 'crude banality,' which ceases to inspire any longing. In its near-mythical treatment of childhood, the book recalls Nabokov's Speak Memory, or Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows." Publishers Weekly
Lost worlds and cities emerge from under von Rezzori’s pen, simultaneously beautifully remembered and richly imagined. Only the truly great writers can do that.”
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AN ERMINE IN CZERNOPOL
By GREGOR VON REZZORI
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKSCopyright © 1966 Gregor von Rezzori
All right reserved.
Chapter OneConcerning the Phenomenology of the City of Czernopol
If you were to ask me to explain in no more words than I have fingers on one hand what elevated Czernopol above other cities of the earth, I would have to say: Lowliness was never a fault.
After all, there were rich people and there were poor people, just like everywhere else. And the rich were neither richer nor grander nor more hard-hearted than elsewhere. But the poor inhabited a poverty that you, happy child of socially hygienic circumstances, cannot possibly imagine. There were beggars in Czernopol—swarms of beggars—with pustules and abscesses in colors that would have astounded even Matthias Grünewald, men whose mutilations and malformations would have caused Hieronymus Bosch to question his own sanity, and they appeared, as I said, en masse, or, to put it more precisely, in hordes that crept and crawled, slithered and slid right beside you, so as to encircle you, cling to you, clamber on top of you—as if to drag you down to their lowly level, encrusted with filth and swarming with lice, as though you had stepped on one of their nests and stirred up the entire colony. Hardly a pleasant sight, to be sure. But not a single soul in Czernopol felt moved to undertake any action, as common parlance significantly puts it, either for or against—and the two are hard to separate.
No, on the contrary, if we had been deprived of this daily spectacle we would undoubtedly have sensed that something was missing. In some medieval way it belonged to our picture of the world, a world in which God was assigned not only—I'm tempted to say not merely—the role of gentle Creator. So for us it went without saying that whoever wasn't quick enough to avoid being accosted in the first place would strike back and kick away without mercy at the festering stumps and the torsos ridden with painful lesions; in any case this was a far more customary reaction than presuming to implement some sweeping welfare program in the name of humanitarianism, or just plain humanity. In Czernopol, aesthetic considerations were lowest on the list.
You will be tempted to call that cynical, and I have no intention of contradicting you. I could of course counter that Czernopol, like everywhere else, had its share of bad people, and I'm quite sure there were good people as well. In all probability the bad ones were not much more wicked or depraved than anywhere else; as for the good people, they may have once included in their midst someone as pure as a saint—what am I saying!—an angel. But I never heard of any angels in Czernopol, except perhaps for Herr Perko, he who was called "the angel of the emigrants," and where Herr Perko is concerned, I'd rather you judge for yourself, later on. Of course there were also the common souls, who were neither good nor evil but simply lowly—there were plenty of those, whole swarms and colonies. Yet you can probably no more imagine their lowliness than you can envision the godforsaken misery of the poor. To continue: Nor was it customary to kiss these beggars on the forehead in blessing, as Dostoyevsky envisioned, or to bow down before them, as if their extreme lowliness were a sign of their being chosen. Oh no. One simply kicked their shins, or their vastly more sensitive body parts, whenever the opportunity presented itself—but at least one spared their face, and that, please understand me correctly, meant they were free within their lowliness. Naturally they didn't feel particularly elevated, but at least they had no cause to stoop any lower. They were the way they were, but they were that way without blame or fault.
I realize that all this likely infringes on your good taste. But once again: taste was not a consideration in Czernopol. Those who struggled to maintain fictions of that sort were at best viewed with the ironic bemusement reserved for the bizarre, and stared at like some outlandish foreigner. More often they were shrugged off as being out of touch with reality, dismissed as extravagantly eccentric, or left as easy marks for the local wits and wags, who always found listeners eager to laugh. Meanwhile, the poor souls truly born with such a discriminating personality simply perished, without fanfare or flourish: they didn't even have the laughers on their side.
And that's saying something. Because if I had to name a second distinguishing feature about Czernopol, it would be its humor, or, more precisely, its laughter. Because laughter was everywhere, part of the air we breathed, a crackling tension in the atmosphere, always ready to erupt in showers of sparks, or to discharge itself in great thunderous peals. Its full range of nuance and timbre and tone lies somewhere beyond description. In this regard, at least, the city was quite cultured, although the culture was a very specific one, for laughter in Czernopol had been elevated to an art form, a folk art of unparalleled authenticity, stemming from a broad tradition, and widely cultivated to a degree of finesse, sophistication, and extraordinary piquancy—an art form understood and appreciated by all, drawing as it did from everyday life, and well endowed with the most vivid references, not to mention all manner of innuendoes. Nowhere but Czernopol could you find such an infallible sense of style, which could take a single laugh emitted in a large throng—a small group, a quartet, a trio, or a duet—and develop it into an elaborate interplay of voice and chorus, like Gregorian chant, and which resonated with the architecture until finally reaching its conclusion.
Just so there's no misunderstanding: I'm not talking about catharsis or some other purifying process. It's true that, every now and then, somewhere in Czernopol you might hear a simpleminded side-splitting guffaw, and then you would incline your ears to listen—after all, as I said, laughter was truly an art, so it was only natural that it should wind up both its own object and its own proximate cause. And for us there was nothing more laughable than those laughers whose hearty booming aspired to liberation. We had countless ways of laughing, but nothing of that sort. We laughed skillfully, artistically, indecently—but without the faintest intent of finding relief for, or release from, our compulsion. As a result, our laughter defied the words most often used to denote its various shadings—we did not roar, bellow, whinny, bleat, or blat, but rather performed a kind of smirk or sneer for which our language has, sadly, no expression (just as it has no way to convey true human laughter, for which it mistakenly borrows terms from zoology instead): a quick exhale dispatched through the nose, with scarcely sound or grimace. Because while Czernopol may not have been a good or beautiful city, it was, without doubt, an extraordinarily intelligent one.
This should not be construed to mean we had lost all vestige of loftier transcendence, however. It's well known that some types of silliness can verge on the sublime: short-circuited connections that spark back and forth for ages without producing any perceptible phenomena—except for the sharp trace of ozone they leave in the air. A rabbi joke, to take one example, or some top-rate prank, might strike us as inspirational, even uplifting.
As a result, Czernopolites had a particular soft spot for stupidity, since they placed a certain value on anything exotic, which they viewed with a tender, heartfelt irony. The city's top fools never failed to elicit flesh enthusiasm, happy astonishment, wide eyes, gaping mouths, and gleeful shouts of amazement—like grotesque monsters in the retinue of some Oriental envoy, bearing fabulous presents from distant potentates to the ruler of the world. Except our fools were part of the public domain: they belonged to the general populace, and commanded the same affection as city mascots. They had nicknames, too, that had arisen with the leavening of satire, such as those of enormous bells—"Big Ben" or "Old Pummerin"—whose sound and legend are known to every child because they have grown up with the city and shared its fate. Or like an especially powerful cannon from a regiment of Landsknecht soldiers.
The last comparison is probably more apt, because Czernopol was animated by a similar spirit—not exactly soldierly, mind you, but more reminiscent of those earlier mercenaries, with all their train and baggage. Herr Tarangolian, who as Prefect of Tescovina was the province's highest official, as well as one of the keenest analysts of its capital city—presumably because he was its most fervent admirer—enjoyed discoursing extensively on the subject.
"The world we inhabit," as he used to say, "is a world of such contradictions that it makes America look like a nation of materialistic bumbleheads. We, for our part, have been forced to become true cosmopolitans—and in the most extreme and dangerous manner, namely through our inexhaustible tolerance. But please don't call us nihilists. There is nothing we reject, absolutely nothing, and that's exactly the point. So if it's also true that there's nothing we accept—and I mean nothing—it's simply because we accept everything. We live amidst so many contradictions that we scarcely can find anything to hold against anybody. So what about order, you ask. I beg you, what city could possibly have more faith in order than our own? Czernopol is governed by a rigid bureaucracy, which, having inherited the most ossifted system in the history of the world—in other words, the Austrian one that we supplanted—now sports its own brand of narrow nationalism, although under no circumstances is it willing to admit this. That it continues to be inefficient as well as ineffective is due only in small part to the long-established and well-honed system of bribery people are always fussing about. A far greater cause is the utter lack of resistance, the general compliance of the governed, which verges on the miraculous. This not only takes the sting out of every rule and regulation, but also dampens any impulse or momentum. In this matter Gandhi's followers could learn something from us—namely, irony. After all, even the most passive resistance is still resistance. But what can you do with a city that laughs at everything? What can you make of a world in which a rabbi capable of working wonders yields the sidewalk to some double-breasted dandy of a cavalry lieutenant, closing his eyes so as not to be tempted by the beauty of the man's clothes. Or where the citizens resort almost to violence in protesting the dismissal of a crooked public official, because his deceit was too blatantly obvious to deserve punishment! You probably consider this an Oriental practice, but let me assure you: it is completely European, Baroque to be exact, and not merely because it is so vividly explicit, but rather because of the unconditional belief in the necessity of form—and, consequently, in order of all kinds—along with the equally unconditional need to poke fun at same. Naturally this is bound to lead to catastrophe. But let's be fair: What else is left for us? In a world that has too many claims to validity, too many equivalences, too many relativities, a world that fashions life out of the grotesque and converts life into the grotesque—isn't such an appreciation of the comic, the droll, a physiological necessity, something analogous to the internal pressure in our bodies that allows us to withstand the weight of the atmosphere? Hah!
"Hah!" said Herr Tarangolian, giving his delicate, heavily ringed, hand, with the nails filed into yellow, almond-shaped claws, a casually elegant flip—like a magician who, having performed his amazing trick, would now like to demonstrate that such speed and dexterity, while not exactly witchcraft, clearly approach limits where rational laws do not apply. "Hah! I tell you, we are modern—modern to the point of having no history. Because the sequence of pogroms, in which we will ultimately let our various tensions play out—or perhaps I should say when we will kill them off—is unlikely to produce any history. Or, rather, it will not produce any more history. We have too much history already—inside us, behind us. This city is officially less than three hundred years old and yet you can find anything and everything under its roofs, whatever each new mass migration deposited on our shores, from the Aeolian invasions in Pella to the Brusilov Offensive. My guess is that about one-third of our population is illiterate, and the other two-thirds are clearly unlettered and ignorant: in fact only one in ten thousand could qualify as educated. That said, we do have coursing through our veins a spiritual inheritance that runs from Euclid to Einstein, from Thales to Sigmund Freud. I know of no other city that is more alert, more aware. Here 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. Nowhere are the fanatics more tolerant, and nowhere are tolerant people more dangerous, than here in Czernopol. Nowhere is there less sense of shame and nowhere are people less naive. I tell you, we are modern to the point of living in the future. Because if you live in a world so full of disdain and contempt, armed with nothing but your own scorned existence, then you are bound to develop a certain insouciance where your only loyalty is to yourself. A present moment that denies both past and future, but is completely committed to the here and now. This is far more than what you might call amor fati. Just look around and you'll see that our city, this permanent settlement of nomads—to coin an oxymoron—has less in common with the pioneer spirit than with what might be called 'the recklessness of saints.'"
Chapter TwoThe Landscape of Tescovina; Herr Tarangolian the Prefect
As I tell you the following story, you'll have to permit me to mention myself now and then, because its hero and central character is inextricably bound to our—that is to say, my and my siblings'—childhood. By the same token, it would be impossible to sift out the people who told me about these contexts and connections, and my storytelling would suffer if you were to insist I keep myself entirely out of the tale like a good narrator. Besides, please bear in mind that no one with anything to say ever said anything about anybody but himself.
As I have mentioned, we spent a portion of our childhood in Czernopol. Actually we spent the greater part of every year in the country, though not in the wholesome way in which people tend to imagine this way of life. We wound up there entirely by chance: at one point someone from our family came into a bit of land—the measurements weren't very exact; it was simply part of the landscape whose expanse was generally accepted as beyond estimation—and we didn't consider the property particularly worthy of mention. Nor was agriculture a family passion, whereby character and essence might take root and in turn find reinforcement, a pursuit that lends staunchness of character and an enviable steadiness of spirit. We were happy to leave farming to the people we considered had been called to that way of life, namely the farmers, and if some of our family did tarry in the country nevertheless, it was for reasons, or should I say excuses: because the fathers were so keen on hunting, for example, or because the fresh air and good milk were healthy for the children, or else, as was unfortunately the case with us, because shoddy household management and constant debts didn't permit anything better. As it was, we tried not to extend these stays too long, and eagerly returned to the city at the first opportunity.
Excerpted from AN ERMINE IN CZERNOPOL by GREGOR VON REZZORI Copyright © 1966 by Gregor von Rezzori. Excerpted by permission of NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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