The Death of My Brother Abel, by Gregory von Rezzori. Translated by Joachim Neugroschel. New York: Elisabeth Sifton Books/Viking. 632 pp. $19.95 IS the storyteller a friendly entertainer, a dangerous liar, a gloomy spoiler, or a loving sage?
Von Rezzori takes on all these masks, all these potential voices, in this story of a writer seeking to create in a novel the conscience of Europe after the 20th-century Thirty Years' War (1914-1945).
On a continent where cultivated citizens listened to Bach's sacred choral music after eliminating hundreds of their peers daily, the questioning of art's authenticity, the confession of its failures, seems the barest beginning of wisdom. The novel progresses by enlarging that wisdom, not in a plot made of sequential events, but in alternately lyrical, comic, exasperated, and tenacious unburdening of the narrator's conscience, as he seeks to explain to a literary agent, and to himself, the impossibility of writing conventional fiction in a culture that has given itself over irretrievably to death.
In a hotel room in Paris, the writer confronts folders containing notes and sketches which might yield a novel if only he could find a form that would contain devastation. The fictional novelist fails, but von Rezzori has succeeded by making his work one long monologue of spectacular variety, in which the writer confronts paradox after paradox as he tries to reconcile for himself the split in nature between creative and destructive power.
Food, architecture, music, film, philosophy, and especially literature make up the bulk of his weaving and dodging, as he keeps struggling to start telling the story of victimization (hence the title) which modern history seems to have been.
Smart as the teller is, his book is no treatise. Like the old man on the bench, our hero says he has loved over a dozen women in his life, all of them without reservation or ulterior motives. In his tales, an exotic mulatto, a peasant, a fashion model, an aristocrat, a prostitute, a wife, all enable him to tell the dilemmas of isolation and devotion, joy and anguish.
All this comes from him with dazzling comedy, jaunty wisdom, and generous, kind bewilderment.
And friendship needs to be told, too. He recounts his long attachment to a dissolute fellow-writer, the symbolic Abel of the title, whose ruination becomes the hoped for but unachieved formula for the narrator's book.
The public scope of the narrator's personal adventures is bound by a magical Paris on the one hand (the great modern city of art and love), and Vienna and Nuremberg on the other, cities that saw the beginning and end of Europe's mid-century demise. Mixing the public and private, the artistic and political, the physical and mental as he does, von Rezzori's querulous artist talks himself, and the willing listener, into an epic account of this century in Europe, focused on the tragic eruption of evil out o f men's grandest achievements.
After such speech, such silence. Speaking silently to his dead friend about the finale of the Nuremberg trials, the narrator gives over any attempt to fabricate a solution to the difficulties facing artists who are forced to talk about the unspeakable:
Nothing more was happening to us. There were no murderers anymore and no victims, because there was no more human reason able to distinguish between good and evil. Madness was growing hybridly, welling and swelling and forming metastases like everything else around us. There was no more guilt and hence certainly no more atonement, hence no destiny and thus nothing more to narrate. We should have known this, my brother Schwab. We shouldn't have pushed one another to write. Why? For whom? To what en d? Peace could have been with us long ago, my brother Cain.
The ironies of this little speech will not be lost on the listener, who has listened with fear and fascination to the old man on the bench and has an aching back to prove it.
A great novel, in the modern tradition, or maybe after it.
Theoharis C. Theoharis teaches humanities at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is finishing a book on James Joyce.