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An Ermine in Czernopol (New York Review…

An Ermine in Czernopol (New York Review Books Classics) (2004)

by Gregor von Rezzori

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What a book: complex, difficult and singular in many ways, though von Rezzori's humor, affection and intellect shine through. It is a book of amazing breadth and depth.

Its structure is unusual. The narrator uses the "we" voice, speaking for himself and his siblings but also at times for the collective citizenry of the fictionalized, and no-longer-extant, city of Czernopol. And the story is not conventionally constructed brick by brick, or step by step, but rather seems to add layer upon layer until we understand what happened. Each chapter brings either a new person or a new incident that together give us the story of the narrator, the city and its inhabitants.

The putative central character is a Major Tildy, whom the narrator introduces as the "hero" of the tale. But if there is a real hero, it is the city itself, a curious but admirable melting pot soon to be besieged by the looming forces of Naziism and modernity. If there is a real heart, it is the magical atmosphere of a childhood which, like the city itself, is soon inevitably and irredeemably to be lost.

I loved it, but the book isn't for everyone. Reading it was at times a painstaking process. But I think it's something of a masterpiece. It's obvious that the book was a challenge to translate, so kudos to the translator for making the effort, and kudos to NYRB for making this available. ( )
  Laura400 | Aug 19, 2012 |
Czernopol is really Czernowitz, a town at the eastern edge of the Austro-Hungarian empire that was famed as a crossroads where Romanians, Germans, Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, and Jews mixed and lived in relative harmony until it became part of Romania after the first world war and gradually began coming apart under the stresses of the interwar period. (It is now Chernivtsi, in Ukraine.) It is during this interwar period that this novel takes place, told by a boy/young man, writing mainly as "we" to represent all the children his family, but written as an older man looking back at those vanished years.

The ermine in the title is Major Tildy, a one-time hussar in the Austro-Hungarian army now attached to the Romanian army in Czernopol. The story begins with his entrance into the town on horseback, completely enthralling the children who look upon him as the perfect romantic knight and become fascinated with him and his family. including his wife who is one of two daughters (one by his wife, one by his mistress) of the mysterious richest man in town. He swiftly gets into serious trouble, challenging several people including, ultimately, his superior officer, to duels to defend the long-lost honor of his sister-in-law, and winds up in the local insane asylum for most of the book, until his dramatic reappearance at the end.

Thus, the novel becomes an examination of the character and characters of Czernopol, and von Rezzori's brilliant and witty writing introduces the readers to people as varied as the gleefully gossipy old widow who looks after Major Tildy's wife, who has become a drug addict; the urbane and sophisticated prefect of the town who woos one of the children's aunts and who eventually is instrumental in getting them enrolled in a school run by the delightfully freewheeling Madame Antonovitch; a drunken professor and his massively and happily unfaithful wife, the aforementioned sister-in-law; a classmate who vividly mimics his hard-working father, a storekeeper, and his man-about-town older brother; a resident of the insane asylum who may or may not be writing lovely German poems; and too many more to mention. Von Rezzori interweaves their stories with the growing awareness of the children, and occasionally of the young man individually, of the realities of life and what is going on around them.

Into this world of tradition and controlled chaos, wit and cynicism, comes a shadow, the beginnings of the Nazi era. But even before the swastika scrawlers slink into the book, there have been hints of antisemitism. And the antisemitism portrayed in this book is varied. Not only is it the vile, overt antisemitism of Feuer, a local German, and some of the newspapers, that leads ultimately to a minipogrom, but it is also the everyday kind, which even "respectable" people breathe in with the air, discussing whether people they know are really Jews, viewing them stereotypically as peddlers and cheaters, and creating an environment in which a Jewish child knows that she would not be welcome in the narrator's family's house. But there is still a third kind of antisemitism, expressed by the narrator (and perhaps by the author who, disturbingly, was a radio announcer in Berlin during the second world war, surely a job that must have required the permission of the Nazis, if not party membership), and that is the unconscious, and almost admiring, kind, in which the narrator speaks of "the preformed characteristics of an ancient race" and reports that they discovered (his italics) "that people are sometimes also Jews" not that "Jews are also people". Perhaps this is the best that could be hoped for from someone of his time and place.

In the end, this is a story of a lost and largely beautiful world that coincides with the narrator's loss of childhood and the world's shock at the horrors of the Nazi era, still yet to come. As the narrator looks back, he seems to agree with the prefect, Herr Tarangolian, that it is better to be "witty" than "just." This is an extremely witty, sometimes funny, beautifully characterized, and deeply insightful novel, both psychologically and sociologically, and yet it rarely loses its love, apparently typical of Czernopol, of a joke. And what of Major Tildy, that the representative of the past, of the rigor and honor of the Austro-Hungarian army? Released from the insane asylum, he reaches a tragic and almost farcial end.
16 vote rebeccanyc | Feb 6, 2012 |
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added by Laura400 | editNew York Times, John Wray (Mar 2, 2012)

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Gregor von Rezzoriprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Boehm, PhilipTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kehlman, DanielIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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There are other realities besides and beyond our own, which is the only one we know, and therefore the only one we think exists.
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"Set just after World War I, An Ermine in Czernopol centers on the tragicomic fate of Tildy, an erstwhile officer in the army of the now-defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire, determined to defend the virtue of his cheating wife at any cost. Rezzori surrounds Tildy with a host of fantastic characters, engaging us in a kaleidoscopic experience of a city where nothing is as it appears--a city of discordant voices, of wild ugliness and heartbreaking disappointment, in which, however, 'laughter was everywhere, part of the air we breathed, a crackling tension in the atmosphere, always ready to erupt in showers of sparks or discharge itself in thunderous peals.'"--P. [4] of cover.… (more)

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