THE DEATH OF MY BROTHER ABEL. By Gregor von Rezzori. Translated from the German By Joachim Neugroschel. Elizabeth Sifton/Viking. 632 pp. $19.95.
IF A GREAT NOVEL can be recognized by its obsessions, its characters and, above all, its tone, then The Death of My Brother Abel is unquestionably great. Gregor von Rezzori is hardly unknown in the United States. His previous book, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, was published here to considerable critical attention and acclaim. This new novel, superbly translated by Joachim Neugroschel, will securely establish his reputation -- and rightly so. For Rezzori addresses the major problems of our time, and his voice echoes with the disturbing and wonderful magic of the true storyteller.
His is a turbulent, torrential story, full of passion, fire, regret, remorsestained by anger toward the bourgeoisie, the changing times we live in -- the proverbial Zeitgeist -- and especially the Second World War and postwar profiteers. Rezzori's inspiration is fueled by a feverish nostalgia for the past and an even greater nostalgia for an improbable, if not impossible, future. This is no classical novel, not even a modern one; it is its own kind of book, a novel within a novel, or more precisely a number of novels within a novel. For this book has more than one story, more than one central character, more than one beginning.
Rezzori's very title is typical of the author's astonishing gift for ambiguity and paradox: Abel, here, is known by another name, whereas Cain is mentioned only once or twice, in passing, almost inadvertently. So, why allude to the Biblical Abel at all? Because he was the first victim. Let's not forget that history's first death was a murder. In those days, mankind was divided in two: on one side the assassin, Cain, and on the other his victim, Abel. The 20th century has its own parallels. All its victims are Abel, all those who do nothing to help are on the side of Cain.
THE NOVEL'S action occurs just before, during and after World War II. In a Paris hotel room, an unnamed narrator tries to summon up the past by remembering fragments of conversation, brief or unexpected encounters. In his mind he skips from one era to another as he looks back on a century gone mad. He describes in full the life of the political exile, for whom everything is elsewhere, nothing is where it belongs.
But what is the plot of The Death of My Brother Abel? The book is, in part, about a man who has lost his friend. But it is also about a man's search for his identity. And about a man who suffers from loving too much, then from being no longer able to love. Above all, it is the story of a culture, a civilization, both now extinguished. Speaking of Vienna, where the narrator onced lived, he says: "Vienna and I, we are both timeless, a dead man's dream in a dead city's dream." Here is, in fact, the story of Europe seen through the eyes of despair.
We know little about the narrator. He was apparently born somewhere in Bessarabia, scarcely knew his father. He served as a Romanian officer, managed to elude the German army, witnessed the Nuremberg trials. For a while he worked as a scriptwriter for the German cinema, and for a long time he could not manage to write his book, one that an American literary agent had once asked him to describe "in three sentences."
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. Sometimes it sounds as though he were conducting a dialogue with the dead: he argues with a dead cousin, quarrels with a dead friend. Does he in fact think of himself as a dead man speaking to the dead? And is it for this reason that he is so enamored of lovemaking, in his life and in his book? A movie actress and a Romanian peasant girl, a young divorced woman and the wife of an English diplomat, a Jewish survivor of the Warsaw ghetto and a foreign tourist, Paris putains and Hamburg whores: the narrator makes love to them all to better remember and to better forget, to find and to lose himself.
When alone in his bed, he even makes love to language itself, which he compares to a whore. "What a blessing to be loved by a whore, who submits to anyone, whom anyone uses unhesitatingly, and to be loved by her because of your superior dealings with language, which is similarly a whore, whom everyone (aside from a chosen few) uses unhesitatingly."
Is te relationship between a writer and his writing then the key to the story? How, in fact, does one go about recounting a life without deforming it or betraying it, without betraying oneself? The narrator knows that he must write, but he is afraid of being unable to do so. One day he exclaims: "My Lord, what can be put into words anyway?" He speaks of his fear: "The fear that I will not write my book: this book with no solid ground plan or outline, no foundation-laying idea, no shaping principle. This book which increases and proliferates like a cancer, nourished by my moods and whims, by my hopes and wishes, dreams and visions, my ecstasies, illuminations, contritions, despairs, revelations, insights, perceptions . . . by my wisdom and by my folly." He dreads not being able to write, because the events he lived through -- Hitler's entry into Vienna, the Nuremberg trials, all his adventures through the European upheavals -- are beyond words. It is not by hance that he quotes Wittgenstein at the head of one chapter: "The limits of my language are the limits of my world."
THUS THIS novel questions itself. The writing meditates on its relationship with reality: Where does creativity begin and where does it end? "I keep living my writing," the narrator says, "the way a living man lives his life." And that is by searching, by constantly searching for himself. But man yearns to surpass himself, hence never to find himself. As a result, the book unfolds as a ceaseless quest, its end belonging to the dead: theirs is the only homeland for the homeless.
Narrated by a man without a country, this novel includes startling reflections on the fate of the stateless in Europe: "I am a stranger because this is a world of strangers." Is this the true meaning -- the message -- of the novel? The desire of its characters to find love in a world without love? To etch themselves in our memory even while our society is headed for oblivion? The victims' dreams of building with their agony and with their death that mythical Anthropolis where human beings are not reduced to ashes, where their fate is not haggled over in marks or dollars?
Like all true novels, The Death of My Brother Abel provides no answer. Moreover, the narrator is not even certain he has written a book. He resembles Jean Cocteau, who dreamed for years of writing "The Book I Shall Never Write." Similarly, Gregor von Rezzori's novel could be entitled "The Novel I Have Not Written."
But fortunately The Death of My Brother Abel exists. It is true. The book may come to us from another time, another universe; but we believe in it, and that is what matters.