MEMOIRS OF AN ANTI-SEMITE by Gregor von Rezzori


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The title is ironic--almost, but not quite, to the point of being misleading. Yes, the narrator of these five linked stories of mittel-Europa sensibility (spanning the period from before the First to after the Second World War) is someone who, by caste alone, distrusts Jews with unconscious ease. He is raised in the Bukovina section of Rumania. He endures an independent, tumultuous teenage (""At nineteen, life is a drama threatening to become a tragedy every fifteen minutes"") in Bucharest. He's present at Anschluss in Vienna in 1937. So this narrator, by dint of his high German ancestry, sees the Jews in general as naturally lowly. Yet, for all that, he keeps getting intimately involved with them as individuals. A piano-prodigy friend of boyhood in the Bukovina, Wolf Goldmann, rejects the narrator's paternalistic protection after a prank goes awry: ""'Who are you?' he snapped. 'My guardian? Are you totally meshuggah?' His ram-face was as red and twisted as if he were holding it very close to a strong fire. 'Get a load of the goyish heroism? What's the big deal, a piece of glass! My father'll pay for it.'"" The young narrator's startlingly ardent mistress is a Bucharest cosmetics-shop owner, a woman in commerce--that Jewish ""existence disfigured by the compulsive notion of success, by competition against the ups and downs of the economy."" A fellow-boarder in a Bucharest rooming-house, another Jewish woman, teaches him a lesson about pure faith and real loyalty. And in Vienna, still another Jewish woman becomes, again, his Virgil. By running himself and his prejudices headlong into these largely female walls of racial contradiction, the narrator repeatedly shatters his self-image. Yet for all the voluptuously rich atmospheres of dead Europe in these stories--and despite all the transformations of prejudice into psychic inadequacy into lessons learned--von Rezzori's book rarely is more striking than the sort of elegant, philosophical soft-porn of a book like In Praise of Older Women. Really more about the self-abasement of the male than of the non-Jew, this group of elegant, rarified tales never goes beyond a certain minor-key effectiveness, a cafÉ-society regret.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1981
Publisher: Viking