Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Snows of Yesteryear: Nostalgia and Pseudo-Nostalgia

Among other books, I'm reading The Snows of Yesteryear by Gregor von Rezzori, a memoir about the author's childhood in the Carpathian Mountains between the wars. The introduction says that "the milieu that Rezzori writes of so vividly is that Mitteleuropa which disappeared into the maelstrom of the Second World War." Mitteleuropa: a term so evocative of the glamour and history of all the beautiful places that I love to read about and yet find, in modern times, still too alarmingly close to their sad Iron Curtain days to want to visit in real life.

Each of the book's five chapters are devoted to memories of a formative character from his youth: father, mother, sister, nurse, and governess. Rezzori's sister Cassandra, four years older than he, died at age 22. Of her he writes:
For fifty-six years -- a whole life span -- there has not been for me a single happy or unhappy moment, neither success nor failure, no significant or even halfway noteworthy occurrence on which she might not have commented. She is mute but she is there. My life is a wordless dialogue with her, to which she remains unmoved: I monologize in front of her. In the sequence of images in which I experience myself in life, she is included in every situation, as the watermark in the paper bearing a picture...
This passage is fraught with such love and grief that I enter into it and almost feel that I, too, am mourning the loss of my sisters, both alive and well and in perfect health and spirits.

Elegant memoirs of lost times and places, such as Rezzori's, or Patrick Leigh Fermor's lapidary books about his walking tour of Mitteleuropa circa 1933, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, have such a gracious power of casting the net of memory over the reader that I almost feel that I'm watching my own forgotten experiences brought wonderfully to life on the page. When I look up, I have to shake my head and recall that not only is this nostalgia completely vicarious, but that I can't live in this glorious haze of the past because my golden days are this very moment and they're too sharp and immediate, for better or worse, to have the gauzy allure of What Once Was.

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