Book Review : Seeking the Self in Postwar Europe

Times Book Critic

The Death of My Brother Abel by Gregor von Rezzori, translated by Joachim Neugroschel (Elizabeth Sifton Books, Viking: $19.95)

Visit Avignon, Perugia, Chester, and what the naked eye actually sees are housing projects, railroad yards and Wimpy bars serving British misconstruction of the hamburger. Meanwhile, the clothed or educated eye is seeing the Provencal capital, the Umbrian treasure house and medieval walls overlooking the Welsh Marches.

What is the relation among these things? What life remains in the treasures, what thread of history remains in what is alive?

It is the theme, more or less, of Gregor von Rezzori’s dense and obsessive novel. “The Death of My Brother Abel” is the work of a Middle-European septuagenarian who lived through the tailings of Europe’s political, economic and cultural glory and its final collapse in World War II.

“I seek myself in the airports, the highways, gas stations, Hilton hotels, supermarkets, movie studios, office high-rises of Madrid, Rome, Munich, Copenhagen, Milan, West Berlin, Paris. In seeking myself I seek a European continuity . . . to be found neither in the well-preserved remnants of the past in today’s European cities nor in their modern aspects.”


Wandering Through Upheaval

The narrator, plainly the author’s alter ego, is wandering through the long upheaval of his life, convinced that whatever meaning or meaninglessness is there reflects what, if anything, remains in our present age of 2,000 years of Western Civilization.

On one level, the book is a long, deliberately disjointed memoir of the narrator’s life. Illegitimate son of an Austrian courtesan and a Romanian aristocrat, he was brought up by his mother’s lower-middle-class family in Vienna in the years before the Anschluss. He was plucked out of this depressing existence and into high society by becoming the lover of a rich German Jewess married to a high-ranking British diplomat.

He serves briefly in the Romanian army, drifts to wartime Germany where he manages to live very well, then joins a circle of postwar intellectuals, becoming a successful screenwriter and a frustrated novelist.

“The Death of My Brother Abel” is, in fact, the frustrated novel. For 20 years, the narrator carries around folders containing a growing mound of notes and reflections, jotted down between love affairs, traveling and writing for the film producers whom he despises.

Ruptured Personality

The book is essentially a novel about the narrator’s inability to write a novel. His search for continuity in a ruptured world is paralleled by his sense of himself as a ruptured personality. There is no order, no pattern, no theme in our recent history, he complains; and therefore any attempt to compress reality into a narrative is a lie.

He pictures himself as a film editor working with rushes: the myriad fragments of a colorful life and an unceasing torrent of reflection and questioning. But he does not edit; he simply delivers the rushes to us. To edit is to assert meaning, and if there is no meaning to our history, there is no value in the assertion.

There are some fascinating bits of narrative in Von Rezzori’s novel. He portrays the sour hysteria of Vienna awaiting Hitler; the floating pleasures of super-rich Middle Europeans awaiting the end of their world, and an account of what it was like to live in Germany in the first year or two after the war.

Building From Ground Zero

Everyone was cold, hungry and digging out of the rubble, yet, he tells us, there was a beginnings of human solidarity, a sense of building from ground zero after the destruction of Hitler’s mad vision of order. Soon enough, he continues, reconstruction and profiteering established a distasteful new order of their own.

But the narrator’s alienation from his own memories alienates us as well. The more so, since he swamps them with a flood of self-examination and querulous speculation. Refusing to discard anything, he writes down everything that occurs--or recurs--to him. There is a lively intelligence at work, along with a keen if dandified irony, and a justifiable despair.

But the means used by the author to convey this despair undermines itself. To give coherence and form to the story, his narrator insists, would be to prettify its message. Only by being unable to write it can he tell it as it is. Reality as the writer’s block, in other words. But 632 pages of writer’s block--concluding with the ominous words: “END OF BOOK ONE"--is a great deal to pummel us with.