The Snows of Yesteryear

An ember among the cinders of a bygone empire, Gregor von Rezzori’s The Snows of Yesteryear is a memoir that doesn’t lack for the emotional and observational reticulations proper to a classic novel. In the telling of his story, the renowned author of Memoirs of an Anti-Semite leans less on the blunt scythe of chronology than on the “fine-webbed ramifications” suited to an impressionistic imagination. Born close to the outset of the First World War in Czernowitz, Bukovina (now Chernovtsy, Ukraine), a region that in his lifetime (1914-98) passed from the ownership of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Romania to the Soviet Union, Rezzori came to manhood in an unsettled household. He lived amid eccentric personalities like his mother, who forbade her children to sit on the ground lest “vapors emanating from the soil” induce “infant paralysis,” and his wet-nurse, an illiterate woman who conversed in a hodgepodge of languages, whose linguistic idiosyncrasies sprouted “newly minted with every sentence.” Like weathervanes of history, the erratic fortunes of his family mark the currents that blew throughout Europe during the first half of the 20th century. The life-giving kernel of this book is summed up in Rezzori’s observation that “where unrest leads to grief and grief gives rise to lament, poetry blossoms.”