Fascism and Fracture: On Gregor von Rezzori’s "Abel and Cain"

Fascism and Fracture: On Gregor von Rezzori’s "Abel and Cain"

Gregor von Rezzori | Abel and Cain | NYRB Classics | June 4, 2019 | 864 Pages | Translated from the German by David Dollenmayer, Joachim Neugroschel, and Marshall Yarbrough


“But everything is over. If I were really a writer, I would have to be able to prevent the war” – Anonymous, quoted in Elias Canetti, The Writers Profession, 1976.

Abel and Cain  is Rezzori’s most ambitious novel, clocking it at some 860 pages, mixing reflections, film scripts, poems, and letters into the main body of a paranoid and repetitive text. 

The book’s style, ambition and playful attitude brings up questions about the function of the novel,  and the slipperiness of reality. There are questions about why Abel and Cain strikes such a postmodernist style when Rezzori is so often  resolutely modernist. And of course, there are questions about who the narrator even is, or if we can solve such a mystery. Abel and Cain invokes these questions from within the setting of post-WWII Europe. The novel’s slipperiness is its point, its message. It is an attempt to come to terms with what remains, or indeed doesn’t remain, after the ravages of fascism. 

Abel and Cain opens with a false start, recounting a short tale of a prostitute who, despite her best intentions, falls for a client. The story (as well as the novel)opens with the lines “I ran after him.” The story - but not the novel - closes with “I really hurried. But he was already gone.” These two lines bracket the false start of the novel yet also encapsulate its overriding theme. For as the narrator will tell us again and again, he is incomplete. When the novel, or its first section, starts proper the reader is greeted with this opener: “As if he had been cast away among the lotus eaters, he seemed to have forgotten his fatherland.” Yet this sense of loss is not some general and vague ennui, it has a specific cause and root, one that structures the reflections in the book. Barely twenty pages in, the narrator tells us: “I am seeking a lost part of myself, the other half of what was originally a pair. I lost it at some point or other - I suspect on an icy-clear day in Vienna, March 1938.” The event alluded to here is of no less historical significance than Anschluss.

By centring Anschluss in the narrator’s decentring, Rezzori turns Abel and Cain into both a prequel and a sequel to his  better known work Memoirs of an Anti-Semite. The fundamental brilliance of Memoirs was to paint a picture of living under the rise of anti-Semitism and fascism whilst being unaffected and complicit. To recount the experience of fascism’s rise as neither Nazi nor victim.

Rezzori uses this perspective to great effect. In Memoirs he paints a picture of walking into the darkness of World War II, almost literally. In the chapter ‘Troth’, Rezzori’s narrator recounts the march in favour of Anschluss. Unaware of what is going on, he literal joins ranks with Nazis out of ignorance: 

“I tried to break through between the blocks, but I did not succeed. Two or three times I asked a bystander what was going on, and got no answer. Impatient, fearing I would be late for the appointment with my beloved, I squeezed myself into the last row of a marching block and marched with them.
‘What the hell are we marching for?’ I asked the man beside me.
Anschluss,’ he barked.
Well that literally meant “connection” and that was exactly what I was looking for.”

In Abel and Cain the narrator describes the same event. Yet he has the benefit of hindsight, and the knowledge gained from this hindsight is devastating. Compare the above passage with the description of the Anschluss march in Abel: “The coagulated flood of iron men smashed the groves of on the Rausthausplatz and soiled the monument to Riter Von Sonnethal, presumably because..[they]..smelled a Jew in the name.” Heading the marchers are the employees of the Municipal Street Car company and behind them they “pulled the monstrous thing along behind them: a worm as black as nightshade, crawling along on thousands of legs, aglint with the will-o’-the-wisps of thousands of eyes in which the pale fire of the hour of decision was glowing.” Ignorance truly is bliss. 

What is the significance of this event for the two narrators, for Rezzori himself? Anschluss is the moment that Rezzori or his narrators-or both,originally citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, become implicated in the horrors of WWII. Wrestling with this, with the guilt of even mild complicity, becomes the theme of Abel and Cain.

In this way Memoirs and Abel and Cain form a unified project: one of man before the fall (Memoirs), the other of man after the fall (Abel and Cain). One of the reasons the narrator is so hard to pin down, so slippery and imprecise, is because he is fractured. This fracturing stems from his awareness of his own complicity in the end of the world. This guilt shatters the narrator, he becomes uncertain and divided. The narrator, reflecting on the difference between him now and as young man – i.e as a man before Anschluss - writes: “ME, my SELF – and neither concerned me directly. Each was I, My SELF – but simply as history: as my abstraction.”   

This fracturing comes to define the narrator. Held back from proper engagement with the world and himself by an immense guilt the narrator has reckless and unfulfilling love affairs, sometimes with women half his age. He becomes estranged from his son. He describes himself as an airport, a generic and clinical place; a non-place to use Marc Auge’s term. He dreams of murdering a maid and burying her, and this dream is so powerful he feels he has actually done this in a forgotten past. And finally, he has betrayed, possibly murdered, his closest and dearest friend, his ‘brother’.

The novel itself is testament to this fractured character. He is incapable of finishing things. Rezzori’s narrator has spent 19 years writing this very book, and it is not even complete. The first 240 pages take the form of a letter to a Joseph Brodnsky, a publisher whom he has stood up, explaining why he cannot explain his novel in three sentences. Later the narrator will produce a novel in three sentences, but it is not this novel. His fractured soul produces a fractured novel: thumb through its pages and one will find poems, long-winded  recollections, and many italicized passages. Perspectives will shift, locations will suddenly change, disorientating surrealism turns into haunting realism and the past becomes the future. This is all ridiculous enough. Yet it is also serious enough. For behind this madness is a crucial question: how can one etch into three sentences the guilt of an event such as WWII? One’s complicity, mild or otherwise, in genocide? In mass destruction? Macbeth could barely handle a single regicide, what would he do faced with body-littered battlefields and insidious gas chambers; with the ravenous chattering of industrialised slaughter in all its forms? 

This guilt is not specific to the narrator and his circumstances. It is a universal guilt. Rezzori takes as his title the ur-text of fratricide. The biblical story of Abel and Cain, in which Cain murders his brother out of jealousy and is condemned to a life of wandering- the soil stained with his brother’s blood will no longer sustain him. Cain occupies a strange role, however. He is both the first murderer and the father of humankind. He commits the first act of physical violence, and is protected from all future violence. This paradox hides a deeper interpretative point. Cain and Abel are the first humans, and are thus, humankind. In the particular is the universal. 

This dynamic plays out in Rezzori’s text. His brother he has killed is not necessarily just a specific individual, but his brother in this universal sense. Rezzori, or the narrator, or both, display an awareness of this. They write: “CAIN’S MARK OF EXISTENTIAL CONSCIOUSNESS stamped on those who are condemned to recognize in themselves not just any human being but humankind itself” In this sense the guilt of the narrator is not just specific to his crimes and his complicity, his guilt is the guilt of humankind.  

In E.M Cioran’s reflections on the poet Paul Celan he writes that “[r]elations with this deeply torn being were not simple. He clung to his biases against one person or another, he sustained his mistrust, all the more so because of his pathological fear of being hurt, and everything hurt him.” In this sketch are echoes of the narrator of Abel and Cain. Indeed, Celan and Rezzori bear some resemblances: Romanians writing through the trauma of fascism in the very language of its propagation: German. Yet Celan was Jewish and a survivor of the holocaust, and Rezzori a gentile who may have never heard of a concentration camp until after WWII. The gulf that exists between them, between Jew and Gentile in the context of WWII, is immense. But the fracturing of the soul is similar: to be spared the worst does not mean one is spared. The experience of post-war literature is the experience of the death of experience itself. The destruction that surrounds the narrator of Abel and Cain, both psychic and physical, is the destruction wrought by the nihilism of WWII, the nihilism of political indifference, economic catastrophe and the failure of humanity. We are not at this stage yet: there a few bulwarks left between us and devastation. However, Abel and Cain serves to remind us of the cost of this devastation, one that will be total. And so Rezzori reaches out to us from a near-forgotten Europe to warn us of both the past and the future, to remind us that we have already lost the world once and we cannot afford to lose it again.

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