I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015.
An Ermine in Czernopol – Gregor von Rezzori, tr. By Philip Boehm
In 1959 this novel won the prestigious Fontane Prize, a prize for German-language books. It chronicles in a roundabout way the misadventures of a Hungarian hussar in a Romanian town between the wars. His main problem is that he is totally devoid of a sense of humor, which dooms him to raillery against his pompous pride. “Laughter in Czernopol,” the narrator tells us, “had been elevated to an art form, a folk art of unparalleled authenticity . . . well endowed with the most vivid references, not to mention all manner of innuendoes.”
As in his better-known book Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, von Rezzori loves to capture types. The hussar’s wife is alternately depressed and anxious while his sister-in-law entertains half the men in town. The monstrously ugly Widow Morar scares the bejesus of the young von Rezzori and his older sister with the lurid story of her husband’s suicide, which she and her three sons witnessed through a keyhole. A recurring character is the creepy prefect, Herr Tarangolian, whose devilish looks and manner fascinate the kids, though they readily see through his patently insincere advice: “Dealing with people, my friends, is really nothing more than a question of the price that one is willing to pay. The better you understand life, the more capital you build.”
Much of the book is related to how children see the world. This, on the discovery of the power of words.
The sayings we overheard, the whimsical sentences, the amazing word formations all burst into glowing colors when touched by the magical light of association [. . .]. It was like a star dropping from the sky if one of my siblings actually used in speech one of the words that had so excited us—for instance, when Tanya spoke of a leap of a great capacity—and if we were able to trace it back, not to the gymnastic exercises which Herr Alexainu had also described as a king of capacity, but to a name—in this case that of a certain Fraülein Kapralik. Of course we had never laid eyes on her, but people said she gave Italian lessons. In any event, beyond our associations with capers and capricious—expressions our father liked to use in reference to us—her name called to mind a fun-loving woman from Capri. A similar wealth of associations opened up when a chance to overlap in pronunciation created by the miracle of fused meanings; for instance, when we heard the newly experienced word ektase—ecstasy—in the name of Năstase, which right away seemed to capture this young man’s tango-like essence.”
The other appeal is that the city of Czernopol is also a character in the book. It belonged to Austria-Hungary until 1918, and then was part of Romania until 1940, when USSR sovietized it. Today it is Chernivtsi, Ukraine.
I would recommend this novel only to readers who liked Memoirs of an Anti-Semite and The Snows of Yesteryear. The author, in this his first novel, has a tendency to over-write. But this probably just me, for whom lushness is prose goes right over his head.