Dan's Reviews > The Snows of Yesteryear

The Snows of Yesteryear by Gregor von Rezzori
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Dec 12, 11

bookshelves: 2011

gregor von rezzori is creeping his way to the top of my most-exciting-authors list. he has an astounding ability to arrange his thoughts with insight and poetry, and he manages to do so while remaining a few paces away from the threshold of self-indulgence and "purple prose."

the snows of yesteryear (that's blumen im schnee in german, or "flowers in the snow") is more directly autobiographical than his also amazing memoirs of an anti-semite, but the two make a perfect pair in the long run. with even deeper intimacy, snows examines the peculiar, multifaceted personalities that populated his youth in czernowitz, which during his lifetime began as an outpost of the austria-hungarian empire, then became part of romania, was eventually claimed by the soviet union and, following its collapse, is now currently part of the ukraine. rezzori's precarious upbringing as the pseudo-aristocratic child of a dying empire filled his head with all sorts of contradictory (and often hilarious) prejudices, which he examines with merciless scrutiny and sensitivity.

the book is split into five sections, each devoted to a different figure from his life. three are devoted to direct members of his family (mother, father and sister), and two involve servants. the first chapter, devoted to his servant cassandra, is probably the memoir's highlight, because it sets the stage for his various obsessions (race, class, cultural idiosyncrasies, child care, superstition) and offers him the strongest figure through which to unravel the chauvinism at the root of his own psychological development. cassandra is described in terms that would never be used in any such inquiry today ("simian," for example), and rezzori's assessment of the cultural sphere in czerowitz is often quite curmudgeonly. but his warts-and-all approach also avoids a lot of the obvious sentimentality implied by the memoir form (and the book's awkwardly-translated title, while we're at it). rezzori's tough love is so insistently introspective that his cruelest thoughts are often circular in form. as soon as he shares them, he immediately pivots to the roots of his own biases - and applies the same scalpel to his own life story. surprisingly enough, this approach is never cool or detached. in the case of cassandra, she emerges as a character of great strength without confirming to the "magical" stereotypes of idealized otherness.
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