Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Life . . . in a nutshell (or two)

Photo Courtesy of Beatrice Monti

The other day, my daughter and I read a difficult review of Gregor von Rezzori's masterwork, An Ermine in Czernopol -- which unintentionally reminds one of Chernobyl, though the fallout from the latter was perhaps more serious, as humorless as Nikolaus Tildy, the inadvertently comic figure at the novel's core. The review appeared in the online New York Times on the fourth of March (though also on the second?) and its global edition hard copy on the fifth, which are actually synchronous due to the earth's being round and rotating. I think. Written by John Wray, the review, "Changing of the Guard," praised the novel highly, but also Rezzori himself, whose life didn't follow a predictable script:
Rezzori's own story is as colorful as any of his characters'. He was born Gregor Arnulph Hilarius d'Arezzo in 1914, in Czernowitz, Bukovina -- at the time still a bustling outpost of the Hapsburg Empire -- to a family of aristocratic civil servants. Over the course of the next 50 years, he took on Romanian, Soviet and finally Austrian citizenship -- after a decade spent classified as a "stateless person" -- and worked as a journalist, art critic, soldier and actor in French and West German films, appearing alongside Anna Karina, Marcello Mastroianni and Brigitte Bardot. He was the author not only of a number of highly esteemed works of fiction but also of an "Idiot's Guide to German Society," and he served, late in life, as the host of a TV show called "Jolly Joker," the Austrian equivalent of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

I had to explain all that to my fifteen-year-old daughter, who doesn't yet know much European history, but if you do know that history, then you'll not only enjoy Wray's erudite review, you'll once more appreciate the complexity of Western civilization, a complex of cultures, languages, and ethnicities that have grown interwoven in ways difficult to disentangle and reconstruct.

On the other hand, as I told my students yesterday in a random fit of crazy humor, here's life's fundamental meaning in a simple nutshell:
"Life is always about the flu: getting the flu, suffering the flu, getting over the flu, worrying about getting the flu, or -- occasionally -- feeling happy about not having the flu, but it's always about the flu."

You see, life need not be so complex as Western history implies -- it's quite simple once you get down to the basic influence . . . although you will discover local complications, in the West or elsewhere:
"In Korea, pedestrians walk in the street, and motorcyclists ride on the sidewalk."

But I refuse to fall for that complicating influence . . .

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