New York Review Books is going to publish Gregor von Rezzori’s novelistic diptych in all its toxic splendour. Joachim Neugroschel’s 1985 translation of the massive, controversial The Death of My Brother Abel (Der Tod meines Bruders Abel) has been revised by Marshall Yarborough for this publication, and the prequel Cain (Kain. Das letzte Manuskript), translated by David Dollenmayer, will appear in English for the first time.
It is the year 1968, and the middle-aged narrator of The Death of My Brother Abel looks back at his hectic and eventful life from his room in a Parisian hotel. Making use of the copious notes for the unwritten autobiographical novel distributed over the four folders labelled Pneuma, A, B and C, he gives us a disjointed and rant-fuelled account of his turbulent past: early childhood in Bessarabia, the adolescence in Vienna where he witnesses first-hand Hitler’s Anschluss, the subsequent service in the Romanian army, the years spent in post-war Germany where he manages to attend the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi criminals and get his foot into film industry. While leading us through a number of Europe’s locations and relating some crucial moments in its history before and after the Second World War, the erudite and polyglot narrator subjects us to a cacophonous barrage of cultural references, philosophical concepts, and literary allusions demonstrating the universal knowledge characteristic of the archetypal Central European intellectual fostered in the multicultural cauldron of the disintegrated Austria-Hungary.
Here are some of the reactions to the book when its English translation was first published.
Elie Wiesel in The Washington Post:
Pathos, humor, a disillusioned but strangely generous irony, an appreciation for the beauty of a landscape, the lyricism of an erotic moment — the narrator knows all these and all the languages of the uprooted: French quotations, Yiddish songs, sentences in Romanian, Hungarian names, Russian shouting. He talks breathlessly of everything — Rembrandt and Art Deco, Nietzsche and Art Nouveau, the religion of pleasure, the Apocalypse.
Gabriele Annan in The New York Review of Books:
You need to think big about it: think of terms like epoch (1918–1968), epoch-making, Gargantuan, Promethean, apocalypse, holocaust, maelstrom, Götterdämmerung, Wirtschaftswunder, The Decline of the West, A la recherche du temps perdu, the mega-Mann of The Magic Mountain, Dr. Faustus, and The Confessions of Felix Krull. […] Sexual boasting is matched by cultural boasting, with classy quotations in every European language dropping like crystals from a chandelier in an air raid.
Robert Leiter in The New York Times
Readers conversant with the great works of modernism will be familiar with the almost foolhardy ambitiousness of Mr. von Rezzori’s novel; what may give some people justifiable pause are the narrator’s opinions. His remarks about the Nuremberg trials are troubling. […] ACCORDING to him, the Nuremberg trials were ”a process of revenge wreathed in embarrassing claptrap and carried out against inferior losers by men who just barely won, and who might be accused of the same crime tomorrow, since they failed to prevent what happened from happening.”
The story in the unfinished and posthumously published Cain unfolds, for the most part, in a ruined and defeated Germany immediately after World War Two but also captures the restless atmosphere of the Wirtschaftswunder years and provides an insider scrutiny of the West German cinema scene of the period. The disorienting narration is contested in a feverish tug-of-war between three voices: those of Aristide Subics (the storyteller in the previous novel), his editor Schwab, and Rezzori himself.
As usual, NYRB Classics does a sterling job not only of re-acquainting the readers with a forgotten classic, but also of introducing to them an important addendum to it, which is likely to enrich the overall reading experience even for those already familiar with The Death of My Brother Abel. As for the first-time readers of Gregor von Rezzori’s magnum opus, they will decide for themselves if its rescue from oblivion has been justified.