It’s spring break, and to revive my flagging mind I just took a short slow run on a beach near the edge of the water, and to revive my flagging body I have been rereading (and enjoying, for the third time in my life) the book Memoirs of an Anti-Semite by Gregor von Rezzori.
I’ve recommended the book over the years to several people and some of them didn’t like it and some of them didn’t even read it because it sounds like a book about the Nazis and the Holocaust and who wants to read more about that?
But it isn’t. First of all, it’s a novel in 5 stories, not officially an autobiography. Second, though the protagonist is brought up in anti-Semitic society by a prejudiced tough father who mainly loves hunting, that society is Europe between the wars in the residue of the Hapsburg Empire in the Bukovina and Vienna. The novel is about that lost world and the relationships it fostered seen through the eyes of an anti-Semitic protagonist who is worldly, cultured, loves women, and is always aware of his prejudices and their roots, despite himself.
Bucharest and the Bukovina sound like the crossroads between East and West, filled with Armenians, Turks, Catholics, Germans, Austrians and of course Jews. Donkeys in the street, peddlers, Gypsy music players, and prostitutes everywhere. But it isn’t America. It isn’t a Melting Pot. (Sometimes his description makes me thing of Hong Kong.)
In America after a couple of generations most immigrants become more or less assimilated and Something-American. In Bucharest in the ’20s, people mix deeply but they stay in their own separate though intersecting streams. They intersect because of the primacy of commerce, and so the protagonist knows well (and sometimes very intimately) the people (Jews and others) that he is brought up to look down on. It’s an Anti-Melting pot, with a diversity we don’t have, and it has upsides as well as obvious downsides.