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The Snows of Yesteryear: Portraits for an Autobiography (1989)

by Gregor von Rezzori

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273776,320 (4.04)29
Gregor von Rezzori was born in Czernowitz, a onetime provincial capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that was later to be absorbed successively into Romania, the USSR, and the Ukraine--a town that was everywhere and nowhere, with a population of astonishing diversity. Growing up after World War I and the collapse of the empire, Rezzori lived in a twilit world suspended between the formalities of the old nineteenth-century order which had shaped his aristocratic parents and the innovations, uncertainties, and raw terror of the new century. The haunted atmosphere of this dying world is beautifully rendered in the pages of The Snows of Yesteryear. The book is a series of portraits--amused, fond, sometimes appalling--of Rezzori's family: his hysterical and histrionic mother, disappointed by marriage, destructively obsessed with her children's health and breeding; his father, a flinty reactionary, whose only real love was hunting; his haughty older sister, fated to die before thirty; his earthy nursemaid, who introduced Rezzori to the power of storytelling and the inevitability of death; and a beloved governess, Bunchy. Telling their stories, Rezzori tells his own, holding his early life to the light like a crystal until it shines for us with a prismatic brilliance.… (more)
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Showing 5 of 5
This is a gorgeous memoir written as series of portraits of the author's family: Cassandra (his nurse), The Mother, The Father, The Sister, and Bunchy (his governess). It is also a memoir of a dissolving world and culture, set in the Bukovina and Vienna, in the years between the first and second World Wars.

Bukovina, Rezzori's birthplace and homeland, had been populated by a widely variegated mix of tribes, ethnicities and religions, administered under the control of the Austrian Empire.
According to the website of the Bukovina Society of America:

"Bukovina, on the eastern slopes of the Carpathian mountains, was once the heart of the Romanian Principality of Moldavia (Moldova), with the city of Suceava being made its capital in 1388. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Painted Monasteries of Arbora, Dragomirna, Humor, Moldovita, Putna, Sucevita, and Voronet were constructed under the patronage of Stefan the Great and his son Petru Rares. With their famous exterior frescoes, these monasteries remain some of the greatest cultural treasures of Romania, today.

Along with the rest of Romania, Bukovina fell under the control of the Ottoman Turks. It remained in Turkish control until it was occupied by the Russians, in 1769, then by the Austrians, in 1774. With the Treaty of Constantinople in 1775, control of Bukovina was given to the Austrian Empire. Administered as a district of the province of Galicia between 1786-1849, Bukovina was granted the status of an separate crown land and duchy in 1849. When the Austrian Empire was reorganized into the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, in the Compromise of 1867, Bukovina, like Galicia, remained under Austrian administration, while the neighboring province of Transylvania was placed under Hungarian rule.

During World War I, Bukovina became a battlefield between Austrian and Russian troops. Although the Russians were finally driven out in 1917, Austria would lose Bukovina with the war, ceding the province to Romania in the Treaty of St. Germain.

On June 28, 1940, northern Bukovina was occupied by troops from the Soviet Union. It would change hands again during the course of World War II, but this half of Bukovina ended back in Soviet hands, and is today the Chernivetska oblast of Ukraine. Southern Bukovina is now part of Suceava county, Romania."
http://www.conflicts.rem33.com/images/Ukraine/bukovina.htm

Rezzori's family belonged to the ruling Austrian bourgeosie. His father continued to capably administer the oversight of the Painted Monasteries with the transition to Romanian rule, although his obsessive passion was for hunting. His mother, displaced from her genteel Viennese family, was neurotic and unreliable, with a guilt-ridden sense of duty and germophobia. Four years older than her brother, his sister, adored by her father, at times succmbed to a mocking superiority, although the siblings shared a sense of their absurd situation:

We lived in Bukovina -- more radically than would have the case elseshere -- as the flotsam of the European class struggle, which is what the two great wars really were. Our childhood was spent among slightly mad and dislocated personalities in a period that also was mad and dislocated and fille with unrest. And where unrest leads to grief and grief gives rise to lament, poetry blossoms.

The Snows of Yesteryear is a haunting and haunted vision full of exquisitely observed details and nuances. ( )
2 vote janeajones | Jul 13, 2016 |
Four stars is more accurate as the book was very well written. But I have so many other favorites it wouldn't be fair to give it more than three that basically says "I liked it". My problem with the book was my own unfamiliarity with the writer and his works and the fact that world history is not something I am too concerned with even in light of its importance. I do enjoy personal history which there was plenty of in this book, but the wars and politics of the time probably bother me more than interest me. I had difficulty connecting to all the different characters and never became emotionally involved with any of them. But I do know how respected and admired Gregor von Rezzori is to some and I wish I felt differently about this fine work. ( )
  MSarki | Mar 31, 2013 |
Among the many memoirs I have read this is one of the most beautiful and meaningful. It is Gregor Von Rezzori's uncanny ability to create beautiful metaphors that convey a sense of both place and history that sets this memoir apart from the others.
He structures the memoir around the members of his family with chapters titled simply The Mother, The Father,and The Sister. Only for the two chapters about people close to him as family, but not related, did he give names, Cassandra and Bunchy. The result of this organization is a chronological mosaic made up of vignettes melded together by his memory.

The memoir ends with the disappearance of his beloved homeland with the onset of the second world war. Thus the themes of the memoir are under girded with the sense of a world destroyed, collapsed, and faded into an age that becomes "yesteryear". His memories are described metaphorically in the introduction to "The Mother":
"The mermaid is blind; her world has turned to rubbish. The chest contains the tinsel of a forgotten carnival of long ago. And the mermaid herself is rotting."(p 55)
The expectations that were so vivid and bold when he was young become the "golden mists" of the past. Yet amidst this story of decline there is much humor and lovely stories, for the author shared the Rabelaisian exuberance of moments with his father, the pride taken in learning how to hunt, and the sweet, if rare, moments when his Mother showered him with all the love that she had hidden from him through her more typical neglect of her family.

The story of this memoir is ultimately one of dissolution of both an idea and an ideal. The beauty and love that was experienced by this often lonely man shines through and makes this a glowing memoir of a yesterday that will remain forever impressed upon all who read it. ( )
1 vote jwhenderson | Feb 8, 2011 |
Part autobiography, part perceptive and unsentimental portraits of the important adults in the author's childhood, part a portrait of a vanished world (a remote corner of central Europe in the period between the two world wars), this is an elegantly written, strangely compelling work. It also drove me to the dictionary frequently!
1 vote rebeccanyc | Apr 21, 2010 |
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Mais où sont les neiges d'antan? - François Villon
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For Beatrice with love and in unending gratitude
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Swarms of waxwings have settled in the ripe clusters of rowanberries.
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Gregor von Rezzori was born in Czernowitz, a onetime provincial capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that was later to be absorbed successively into Romania, the USSR, and the Ukraine--a town that was everywhere and nowhere, with a population of astonishing diversity. Growing up after World War I and the collapse of the empire, Rezzori lived in a twilit world suspended between the formalities of the old nineteenth-century order which had shaped his aristocratic parents and the innovations, uncertainties, and raw terror of the new century. The haunted atmosphere of this dying world is beautifully rendered in the pages of The Snows of Yesteryear. The book is a series of portraits--amused, fond, sometimes appalling--of Rezzori's family: his hysterical and histrionic mother, disappointed by marriage, destructively obsessed with her children's health and breeding; his father, a flinty reactionary, whose only real love was hunting; his haughty older sister, fated to die before thirty; his earthy nursemaid, who introduced Rezzori to the power of storytelling and the inevitability of death; and a beloved governess, Bunchy. Telling their stories, Rezzori tells his own, holding his early life to the light like a crystal until it shines for us with a prismatic brilliance.

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