Reinventing the Novel: Gregor von Rezzori’s Abel and Cain in Review

This book is as much a novel as it is a repudiation and critique of novel-writing.

Abel and Cain by Gregor von Rezzori, introduction by Joshua Cohen, translated from the German by David Dollenmayer, Joachim Neugroschel, and Marshall Yarbrough, New York Review Books, 2019

Gregor von Rezzori published Der Tod meines Bruders Abel in 1976, and the book was translated by Joachim Neugroschel into English in 1985. What the back of the book describes as a “prequel” (the term doesn’t quite fit) was published posthumously in German in 2001 as Kain. Das Letzte Manuskript and appears for the first time in English in this edition. The book is structured by four folders that lie in front of the narrator after he enjoys an evening with a prostitute: “Pneuma,” “A,” “B,” and “C.” The contents of the first three folders compose the first book (“Abel”), while “Cain” unveils the last folder (“C”).

I hesitate to describe this as a novel. A more accurate term would be a novel manqué, in both the sense of “missing” and “failed.” The narrator spends his life theorizing and discussing a potential but nonexistent novel that his editors, wives, and friends expect of him. He also expects it of himself. It never appears, and he can never find the time to write it. The novel itself is a fiction, the never-realized possibility that justifies the narrator. Although he’s never explicitly promised this novel to anyone, he reasons that “I have presumably pledged it with each of my bizarre actions, with each of my peculiar character traits, each of my far-fetched qualities—in short, with my alienating and rebellious way of being this-way-and-not-like-the-others.” He calls this “THE CAIN’S MARK OF EXISTENTIAL CONSCIOUSNESS,” a weighty term which appears in its full ridiculousness: capitalized, italicized, and centered on the page. It’s a serious joke. The book makes a convincing argument about the historical impossibility of the novel that is its object. The narrator understands that he is an absurd anachronism. He may be a writer in his mind and in the minds of those surrounding him, but he makes money writing screenplays. This split undoes him and makes clear that he is a work of fiction:

. . . the screenwriter who works his fingers to the bone for the piglets of the postwar German movie industry . . . has existed alongside the dreamer in me with lurking eyes lost in the distance, and he, the dreamer, has been working on a book. On his book: the novel of the era, the masterpiece of the century. And while the screenwriter, the assiduous servant of the lively producer-piglets, keep pouring more and more stories into the feeding trough . . . the other one, the brilliant novelist and potential Nobel laureate, is chasing after his fata morgana . . .

The italicized words (his book, the novel of the era, fata morgana) make a joke of the impossibility and necessity of literature. The world of media and the rise of the “bloody fucking middle classes” (a term that occurs frequently) has left no room for what nineteenth-century Europeans understood as literature, an adventure into the depths of the human spirit which questioned the literalness and presentness of the world, or that interrogated the relationship between appearance and reality. The post-1945 world mediated through magazines and newspapers, the narrator muses,

is not reality in motion, like history, but rather the unchanging state of Being in and of itself, of which sometimes this and sometimes that becomes visible. And, visible or invisible, everything exists in it . . . In this sense, superreality is almost paradisal, its effect is paralyzing, soporific, like an old lullaby that goes “Such is life, my child . . .”

This book is an extended elegy for the death of history, literature, “and Europe. The latter is sometimes spelled ‘Yurop’ to highlight the way in which the very word has also been debased by the emergence of a globalized, Americanized culture: ‘Today, all we have is a supranational style, and this style is American. A bit of highway near Pearris, Freanss, is already pretty American and thus no different from one near Tokyo, Jippan.'” This globalized, Americanized culture is embodied for the narrator in a family he sees devouring fast food in their car at a highway rest stop, referred to for the rest of the novel as the “highway rest stop people.” “Why write at all, nowadays? Don’t the highway rest stop people have their fill?” An important question, and one that is still relevant, perhaps more relevant, in the twenty-first century, and one that is nonetheless hilariously posed.

There is an honesty that burns through this work. It wants to but can’t be serious. It is the funniest elegy I’ve ever read. It is perhaps at its best when it is imitating bad writing, i.e. commercial novels and films. These imitations are vaudevillian, grotesque, and vulgar, like mean-spirited playground bullying. They occur in a postmodern world beyond the distinction of high and low culture, where intellectuals are frauds who are just as narrow as the philistines they disdain, and where literature devolves into caricature, because the novelist can’t seriously claim to transcend himself and represent humanity.

About his friend Nagel, a successful novelist who writes pulpy dramas about war and love, the narrator writes:

He does not sufficiently love his fellow men and neighbors Tom, Dick and Harry. Otherwise, he would commit to them more closely and turn them into human beings, not marionettes. As he presents them they function purely to present the events of which “reality’”—according to his steadfast troglodyte opinion—is woven. Sure, this method produces stories that can be told in three sentences, but one wonders why he bothered to use more than three . . . If Nagel succeeds in letting Tom stroll through a novel without supplying the total content of his skull, the myrmidon teeming of Dick’s thoughts ideas impressions experiences reflections, the entire meteorology of Harry’s spiritual life, then I can only repeat: Chapeau Monsieur! This strikes me as neither fair nor honest.

This book is as much a novel as it is a repudiation and critique of novel-writing. It is explicit about its attempt to reinvent the novel. The narrator refuses to give the reader a seamless, unitary picture of reality. He won’t write a transparent novel of “events” that can be summed up in three sentences. As I have tried to make clear, nothing about this novel is transparent. The narrator is either Aristides Subics or Johannes Schwab, unless they are the same person. The writer (“Gregor von Rezzori”) signs a preface to the second book as its editor and refers to his previously published novels. He claims to not have written the book. He claims that film producer (installed to that position by the occupying British) Hans Jürgen Stoffel, who is often referred as Primordial Piglet Stoffel and King Piglet Stoffel, found the manuscript in a whorehouse and published it.

Instead of reality, what the narrator does give us (he claims) is in fact more real: experience. We see the world through the distortion of someone’s mind, clouded by all his memories and associations. Every moment of his past is present to him and each distorts his perception. The novel gives us a vertiginous impression of how life is actually experienced.

Is this autofiction avant la lettre? Tellingly, the Spiegel reviewer of the original German from 1976 dismisses the note at the beginning (“All appearances with living persons is unintentional”) as naked legal protection. Even more tellingly, this new edition does not include that note (perhaps all those represented have died in the interim?). Gregor von Rezzori also wrote literature and screenplays, and the world that he thought he knew was also destroyed by the two world wars. Like Aristides, he was born on the eastern edge of a European empire, a world that for Aristides emanated from Paris and was united by the “same lifedream, the same ideals, the same shalts and shalt-nots,” but like Schwab, he was also a native European, scion of an aristocratic Sicilian family (hence the “von” in his name). I doubt, despite the assertion of the aforementioned Spiegel review, that Rezzori is his narrator, although one suspects that they share similar convictions. My understanding is that the narrator is nobody, or that he is not what he says he is or claims to be.

His imago’s lack of substance is clear in one of the few passages that approaches melancholy. It does so unintentionally, like a belated concession that all of the myths that Aristides tells about himself, and that at this point have been recounted over hundreds of pages, are lies. He is going through his childhood photographs with his then-wife (Christa) and his best friend (Schwab). Both believe in him as a writer, which also means that neither of them believes in him as a person. Both want to encourage him to tell his story that neither believes. Both understand his need to embellish, and this understanding is laced with a patronizing class-consciousness. Aristides is the son of a high-class prostitute, so his father could be any one of her wealthy clientele. He needs to tell his story to prove that his experience is real. Christa, a member of the upper-class whose relatives frequently visit the run-down house she lives in with Aristides in this post-war period that he dubs the “Ice Age,” doesn’t have the same need: “ . . . if she wanted to, she could counter my myth with one of her own, a less exotic one, of course, but all the more tangible. Its guarantors come to tea on a regular basis and it didn’t need to be documented picture by picture.” The true author of this book is his fatherlessness and his statelessness, in other words his lack of identity or sense of belonging. The formidable, muscular erudition of his fractal prose is indistinguishable from his attempt to secure his membership in a ruling class into which he was not born and from which he is always threatened with exclusion.

As much as it wants to please the reader, and succeeds in doing so, this book also intends to hurt. The narrator finds himself at the end of the novel in the office of a detergent manufacturer. He has been employed to work on their marketing campaign, the slogan of which is “Wittewash Washes Whiter than White”. He suffers the unending monologue of his employer, and the reader suffers with him. This book does not make a case for the role of intellectuals in society; it rather peers out at a world in which that doesn’t seem to exist from within the mind of someone cursed to notice everything.

One last note about the book’s most salient feature: its aestheticism. One might assume from what I’ve written that the novel is ponderous and abstract or that the narrator is too wrapped up in his own historical-philosophical ruminations to see things. That is not the case. The narrator sees fashion, architecture, crowds, birds, and psychological states with an overwhelming and ultimately confusing attention to detail. One small chapter in “Cain” is a ludicrously close reading of Bessarabian clothing in 1821. It’s easy to lose oneself in his ornate representations and to forget the object that he’s describing. His tactile sensitivity reminds me of Goethe’s remark that Walter Benjamin was so fond of and frequently quoted: “There is a delicate empiricism which so intimately involves itself with the object that it becomes pure theory.” The narrator involves himself so intimately with all the surfaces and forms that confront him that both he and they disappear in the process.

This aligns him, as does every word in the book (indeed his whole fictive self) with the lost paradise of European civilization. He notes that the only difference between the populism of Nazism and that of the secularized-Christian dominant culture of West Germany is aestheticism. His critique of the fallen contemporary world is mostly aesthetic (and hilarious), i.e. how high-rise apartment buildings look, how Americans chew their food, or how the Nazis speak (or, as he notes with an exacting, sadistic pleasure, how they try and fail to speak). They didn’t speak well, but their dedicated aestheticism was a product of that period’s formal attentiveness. Art and culture were for the Nazis, as they were for the narrator, presumably Rezzori, and certainly for the Paris of the nineteenth century, paramount. Like the Gruppe 47, a group of German writers and poets who attempted to disprove Adorno’s famous proclamation about the barbarism of poetry after Auschwitz, but with a more withering acknowledgment of the futility of its enterprise, always admitting and offering as humor its own atavistic absurdity, the book tries to rescue aestheticism from Nazism and populism. On the other hand, it’s too honest to deny Adorno’s conclusion: prose after Auschwitz, this novel admits, is barbaric.

Chris Power is an assistant editor at Asymptote who lives in Brooklyn.


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