Set in a profane and beautiful world of uncertain values—a world that resembles ours but is in fact post-World War I Bucovina—Gregor von Rezzori’s An Ermine in Czernopol is a delight.
Ninety-eight years ago, Vienna was preparing for carnival. This season, which lasted until the beginning of Lent, was kicked off in style by Countess Jenny von Haugwitz, whose automobile-themed ball in the Directoire salon of the Hotel Imperial saw guests dressed as Rolls-Royces and Mercedes-Benzes. The Bank Employees’ Club threw a Banknote Forgers’ Fest, which turned out to be almost as memorable as its Bankruptcy Ball of the year before. Nor were festivities confined to the upper classes. The Laundresses’ Ball of 1914 was quite an affair, even if the girls did join a protest march the next morning rather than return home with eligible gentlemen on their arms.
Vienna on the brink of the Great War was decadent, decadent in something like the way that Berlin would be between the world wars, in the way that New York was in the disco seventies, in the way Istanbul is now under Erdogan. But Vienna outdid all these latecomers in the excess of its enthusiasms, and, uniquely among the foregoing examples, combined sociocultural ferment with the rigid militarism of ancient dynastic tradition. The Habsburgs endured. Indeed, in January 1914 the imperial family had just celebrated the birth of Archduke Franz Joseph’s daughter. It would have seemed even to the most astute and cultured observer that whatever radical energies were coruscating through the capital at the time were little more than St. Elmo’s fire playing about the unsinkable rigging of the ship of state. The seeming madness of carnival was thus a reassurance and reinforcement of empire.
Of course Princip’s bullet was soon to reveal how brittle the crystalline splendor of the Austrian Empire was, which in four years’ time would collapse in glittering fragments, leaving far-flung vassal states like Bucovina to fend for themselves. The end of empire spelled an end to old certainties. The febrile art of Kokoschka and Schoenberg then seemed to express the spirit of the time, and in the coming years the lethal politics of Hitler and Stalin (both of whom sojourned in Vienna before the war) increasingly took center stage.
The central character of Gregor von Rezzori’s novel, An Ermine in Czernopol, now available in English in a handsome paperback from NYRB Classics, has no place in the new order, or lack thereof, that prevails following the war. An officer in a vanished army, “the manly ideal from a supposedly bygone epoch,” Major Nikolaus Tildy clings to the double eagle of the Habsburg order he once served. He is the ermine of the title, and, as we are informed by the frontispiece quote from the Physiologus, “The ermine will die should her coat become soiled.” Tildy’s coat is his reputation. Throughout the novel, it’s in danger of being soiled—in fact, it is soiled—by his sister-in-law’s constant indiscretions. But rather than turn against his family, Tildy rounds on those who call her what she is. He goes so far as to challenge his commanding officer to a duel over the point. He tilts at the windmills of plain truth.
Rezzori, though, is too subtle and mischievous an author to plunge us immediately into the drama of Major Tildy. First, he introduces us to Czernopol, a mean-spirited ethnic melting pot that stands in for Czernowitz, the capital of his homeland Bucovina. It’s a city that has made of schadenfreude a national pastime. Here the reader, like Rezzori’s youthful narrator who speaks as a “we,” is exposed “to a rich gallery of people, as colorful and aromatic as a bouquet of grasses and fresh meadow flowers.” These include the cynical and wise prefect Tarangolian, the eldritch Widow Morar, and the witty writer Năstase, whom Tildy in vain challenges to a duel.
But a shadow lies over this circus. “Back then it wasn’t unusual for us to be afraid,” says the child-narrator, “since our hearts were still burdened with the memory of the war”:
houses destroyed by shells, soldiers’ graves scattered across the country, and dead horses with hideously bloated bodies, limbs jutting out stiff as wood, ants trickling through their eye sockets like red tears.
Tildy has been through this vale of tears. His bearing is that of the camp, and derives from a close familiarity with boot and horse. He is proud, inflexible—a living embodiment of “the glory of the sunken Austro-Hungarian Empire.” To the children of the novel, this makes him “the angel dressed in armor, the imperial sword-bearer”—but in Czernopol, aesthetics count for little. Recent history is, if not buried, then laid out on a slab in the open air. We are given to understand that Tildy does not belong. In this new world, the old forms and usages can only impede him, but he refuses to give them up.
His repeated attempts to defend the honor of his wife and sister-in-law by resort to martial means are terribly funny and also tragic, as are the actions of all men who have been carried out of their proper time. He is diminished when he becomes entangled in farcical events. The context of his actions changes from one of high drama to one of low comedy, and this dislocation irrevocably alters their meaning: “The hussar had dismounted and was rooting in the mud.”
There are many examples in European fiction of the noble-spirited, virtuous and slightly priggish hero who is set against a vulgar reality. In this tradition, which includes The Sorrows of Young Werther and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Rezzori’s novel stands somewhat apart, not only in its large and insistent cast of secondary characters but in its humor. One looks in vain for real humor in A Portrait of the Artist. Stephen takes himself seriously, as lonely intellectual young men will do. Gales of black laughter sweep through Rezzori’s novel. Only Tildy abstains from the general merriment.
Another swerve from the tradition is that Tildy is not an extraordinary individual. “His one great virtue was something beyond his own control; it was the legacy of the world he came from, a vanished world.” The children finally must accept the illusory nature of their outsize vision of the hussar. His one great virtue dooms him in a world that has no use for him or his principles. Horse and rider are lost for want of a kingdom.
Rezzori’s novel is enjoyable for the sly elegance of his language and for the lively rogue’s gallery he peoples his Czernopol with. It’s valuable for the baroque, nostalgic, ironic yet clear-eyed recreation of a world now long gone, stamped to death beneath the Nazi jackboot. But literature of the first rank must speak to us of our own time as well, must in some way convict or console us in our humanness, and this Rezzori’s novel does; for our world, like the profane and achingly beautiful one he depicts, is a world of uncertain values, a world of upheaval, “a world that has too many claims to validity, too many equivalences, too many relativities.” To revive this novel for a wide readership, there’s no time like the present.