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Reading Gregor von Rezzori

By Arnon Grunberg

A Dutch newspaper asked me to review the recently published Dutch translation of Gregor von Rezzori's Memoirs of an Anti-Semite. I have to admit that the name Rezzori vaguely rang a bell, but that was about it. He is much better known in the US, where Memoirs of an Anti-Semite was published in the New York Review of Books classics series, than in the Netherlands or Germany.

On April 26, 1969, the New Yorker published Rezzori's story íMemoirs of Anti-Semite." It was translated into English by the author. He was disappointed by the reception of his work in Germany, where he was commercially successful but didn't receive much literary recognition.

The story later became part of the collection by the same name. In the German edition it's subtitled ía novel in five stories,ë but the Dutch publisher decided to omit the word ínovel.ë Not completely unjustified: the book might be a little bit more than a collection of short stories, but it's definitely less than a novel.

In her introduction to the American edition, Deborah Eisenberg writes, íIn any case, there can be few books rooted in a more profound ugliness than Gregor von Rezzori's Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, which so vividly, so feelingly, so elegantly, with such tender care, anarchic humor, and shocking honesty portrays the crucible of Central Europe during the first half of the twentieth century, with its catastrophically toxic compound of cultural elements and historical impulses.ë

With all respect to Deborah Eisenberg, Rezzori's book is surprisingly void of ugliness compared to most modern literature. There's no real violence, and not much alienation. The ugliness is more outside the book, in the head of the reader who knows what happened to the world Rezzori describes.

And the anti-Semitism that was promised in the (in my opinion brilliant) title?

There are hints of an almost íbenignë anti-Semitism that was widespread back then, but that can also be found in many nineteenth century novels.

Surprisingly, it is the preference of the narrator--who very much resembles Rezzori--for Jewish women.

The narrator goes so far as to claim that he is better at telling Jewish jokes than most Jews. A slightly uncomfortable statement indeed, but altogether a statement that points more in the direction of philo-Semitism than anti-Semitism.

Love, of course, can be as dangerous as hate.

Rezori died in 1998. Shortly before his death, he started the Santa Maddalena for Writers and Botanists.

To this day, writers can get a grant to work quietly for a couple of weeks in Rezzori's villa near Florence.

Rezzoi described himself as a man who liked to laugh.

Published Aug 18, 2008   Copyright 2008 Arnon Grunberg

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