I was delighted to come across an announcement a couple of weeks ago from the estimable, admirable New York Review Books that it was publishing — for the first time in English — a novel by Gregor von Rezzori entitled An Ermine in Czernopol, which is to be understood as something of a major event. Rezzori is perhaps best known for his novel, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, but he was a prolific writer and, according to the introduction to the new translation (by the wonderful young German novelist, Daniel Kehlmann) became a kind of star on German television late in his life. A memoir entitled The Snows of Yesteryear is also very special and is also published by New York Review Books.
I am personally fascinated by this kind of mix which the old Europe seemed to offer without apparent effort but which is totally out of fashion today (another such location would be Trieste, at the time Joyce lived there). I am also fascinated on a more personal level because my father was from the same area, and actually became a Romanian citizen, although he didn't speak a word of the language. Many years ago I attended a reading that Rezzori gave at the late,lamented Books & Co. on Madison Avenue and was struck by how similar his accented English was to my father's.
An Ermine in Czernopol is a story told for the most part by the children of a well-to-do home in the town, shortly after the end of World War I, largely as "we" did or saw this or that; the exact number of children is never mentioned, but the (unnamed) narrator is occasionally an "I" and his sister, Tanya, is given an actual name. The story at least nominally focuses on Major Tildy, a former officer in the Austro-Hungarian army now come to Romania to join its fledgling military. But he clings to his old values and winds up challenging a number of people to duels; this is not a sentimental or nostalgic look back at the departed glories of the empire (as in, for example, Joseph Roth's Radetzky March or Sandor Marai's Embers) but more a comic turn — at least until the end — since the Major's wife, whose honor he is constantly defending, has little of it.
But the real story is of the place, the rich fabric of the various ethnic groups, each represented by vivid characters. At the start much seems charming, as it might appear to the children, but the undercurrents grow stronger and the storytelling achieves tremendous power as the novel moves along. In particular, the story of the lumber magnate (perhaps the "would-be" magnate is more correct) Pascanu, a colossal force of nature, is immensely powerful and moving; and the early appearance of anti-semitism of course makes its mark as well.
This is a reach feast of character, of setting, of story. If you don't know the work of Gregor von Rezzori this masterful work provides a wonderful place to start.
— Jeremy Nussbaum