An Ermine in Czernopol
Gregor Von Rezzori
“Like the halo encrusted with precious stones of a Byzantine saint”: that’s how Gregor Von Rezzori defines the explosion of the “tremendous experience of love” on his novel An Ermine in Czernopol, published in German in 1958 and first part of a trilogy completed by Memoirs of an Anti-Semite and The Snows of Yesteryear. Aristocrat, scriptwriter, actor and intellectual, Von Rezzori died in 1998, at 84, when he was beginning to be acknowledged as “the Proust of the German language”, a definition both contradictory and absurd. Firstly, because the combination is impossible: it tries to unite –through a contemptuous formula– the melancholy of the first French post-war period and a mid-European tragic sentiment, in this case surrounded by a grotesque halo. And secondly because memory, Von Rezzori says, is not that Proustian merry-go-round that ends up integrating the past within the present, as if time did not exist, but a distant setting, petrified within memory itself and observed from a distance, that at the same time mystifies and deforms it. Something like a Kafkian landscape described by Max Ophüls, Von Rezzori’s Czernopol, in fact the Czernowitz where he was born, is a bustling universe that hides its insignificance behind a cascade of turbulent incidents unified around a melancholic figure: major Tildy, Austro-Hungarian army ex officer confined, now that World War I has ended, in the last corner of the ex empire.
The narrator, now an adult, evokes his childhood in the bosom of a noble family, surrounded by his parents and siblings. And he does so from a perspective that is not his own. Most of the events described belong to the point of view of mister Tarangolian, the prefect of the region who acts as a kind of torrential storyteller filtered by a childish outlook. Others reach the reader through a complex narrative labyrinth which bares a great resemblance to the oral tradition: someone tells something they have heard from a third party or that they have been told and, thus, it acquires legendary hints when presented before the spectators-listeners. And in this way, the group of characters and situations reveals its ultimately mythical character, elaborated anew time and time again by a game of narrative mirrors that never allows us to see the main reality. It is not strange, then, that in the eye of the hurricane we might find Tildy, pretending to preserve purity at all costs in this theatre of appearances. In fact, compelled by the slightest provocation, Tildy amasses challenges and duels to which nobody responds, and is destined to an abysmal fall into madness, to such a point that the character ends up gradually disappearing towards the margins of the novel, engulfed by the puppets that have hastened his destiny.
Two parallel strategies, thus, allow Von Rezzori to draw a collective dissolution: of a life style, of an outlook on childhood and of a particular sense of morals. On the one hand, things are never what they seem to be. On the other, the way in which they are presented to the reader ends up being a sort of kaleidoscope producing vertiginous visions, deformed, unread and engraved with fire in his/her memory. Before the appearance of Tildy’s wife on a sleigh, for example, even the direct look of the narrator and his brothers turns reality into an image “outside time (…), a symbol the interpretation of which we might never grasp”. And the hussar riding a horse himself becomes, in the eyes of the children, an “ostentatious baroque figure”. Both words are not used by chance, since the baroque is nothing more than an image reflecting another image constructed by another image. And at that moment, An Ermine in Czernopol is revealed as a particularly diabolic artefact: evoking a past time that transports us to the present and which confronts two visions of Europe that in fact are not so different, the in-between war Mitteleuropa and the one of the economic miracle after Auschwitz and Hiroshima, at the height of which Von Rezzori’s novel was written and published.
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But books never walk alone. And I still ask myself why during a trip to Palermo in a summer that was too hot all I could think of was this novel by Von Rezzori. We never know how memory works, how chance makes connections between what we have seen and known, how we can mentally link a 20th century author and a building that was finished three centuries earlier. But in this association of images, what I remembered of An Ermine in Czernopol and the ones that came to mind in that city, it was fundamental that the first local church we visited was the Martorana, at via Maqueda. “Like the halo encrusted with precious stones of a Byzantine saint”: the sentence started going around in my head as soon as I set foot inside it and saw the mosaics that experts date between 1143 and 1151. But first, before entering the medieval church, we had to go through a kind of atrium built between the 16th and 17th centuries, after many reformations. That combination of shapes and styles makes the church seem, like so many other in Palermo, not so much built to hold mass, but to be looked at. From any angle it can be observed, contemplated, spied on, peeped at on the front, from the corner of the eye, sideways, obliquely. And not only the visitor can do this, but also the many characters that populate any painting, column, tableau, mosaic or altarpiece, often dating from different ages.
At the Martorana, for example, there is a matroneum, that is, the place in which nuns were enclosed in the contiguous cloister so that they could attend the religious services, power spectacles and also from which, without a doubt, they observed the dames of the court sitting elegantly before the altar. On that same atrium, the Virgin of the Rosary painted by Giuseppe Salerno, the “lame from Gangi”, contemplated them too. On the cycle of frescos Glory of the Benedict Order, located under the choir and painted by Olivio Sozzi, there is one known as The Virgin in Heavenly Triumph and in which each figure looks to the side while one of them, with a book and a plume in his hands, raises his head towards the visitor. And in the Byzantine mosaics, encrusted with precious stones, those looks multiply. On the dome, a pantocrator appears within a circle that contains a Greek inscription while around him four crawling angels seem impervious to his eyes made of stone. The arches show one of the foundational myths of origin, the four fundamental episodes in the life of the Virgin. On the Annunciation, an angel extends his arm towards Mary, who looks at him from the other end with a half-raised hand, as if she were trying to stop his miraculous influence. In Nativity, the Virgin offers her child to the spectator’s eyes, that quickly meet her own, while her hands lovingly embrace the body of the child, from which there arises a star that seems to be propelled by the same energy moving the dove on the Annunciation.
On the Presentation in the Temple, another current unites little Jesus, trying to get away from his mother’s arms, with old Simeon, waiting for him expectantly on the other side. And on the centre of the Death of the Virgin, Jesus Christ elevates his soul in the shape of a child while she closes her eyes and all present lower their eyes as a sign of mourning.
From these four mosaics we can gather many different meanings: the transmission of an invisible force that spreads from one to the other as if to unite them conceptually; the child that emanates from the virginal corpse and tries to ascend to the heavens after her death, creating with this a narrative circle; the spaces between the main figures and secondary characters that work as a nexus unit with the viewer… But if I’ve remembered this visit so much afterwards and it has always been side by side with An Ermine in Czernopol, beyond that first impression that indissolubly united both narratives in my head, it is for another reason. I have written “narratives” and I do not mean this as a metaphor. The detection, on my behalf, of a first contact point, as I have been able to deduce later on, probably came from the narrative character of this church and not precisely in the sense a Romanesque building expresses this. At the Martorana, the narrative comes from the mixture, not from the unity of style. Of course, Sozzi’s frescos and, above all, the Byzantine mosaics have their own internal narrative order, but what interested me the most was the story emanating from the whole, the way in which time passes when we move from one space to the next: the time of the story we are told and the time of History showing. The look of the man with the open book imaginarily crosses the pantocrator’s, or the Virgin’s while her child is born. The same happens with Rezzori’s book: the time of the writing scrutinises the time of the narrative, the point of view of the narrator is built “en abyme” through many other points of view, the childish outlook transforms reality and all this creates a different story that has to do at the same time with another narrative that appears as the only possible one.
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Some time after I looked for, on the novel, a passage I had underlined during my first reading of it and which I had frequently remembered afterwards: “But what I really believe in –says the narrator– is that we are not really able to understand the world. We only interpret it, and it is much better when we do so in the most simple way”. And then I started to understand something, albeit not all. Maybe the Baroque, in Von Rezzori and the Martorana, is not a group of traits that characterise an era, but rather a feeling that can circulate and re-appear through the naves of a church, the chapters of a novel, the mysterious channels uniting one and the other, the overlapping produced in our memory, the centuries that separate all this muddle without ever disentangling it. And maybe it is not due to any techniques or structures, but a consequence of time passing and turning everything too confusing in the end to be understood. So much so that, to do so, we need, every now and then, little epiphanies. Like the one that popped up to me at the Martorana, in a summer that was too hot.