Railroad Trip

The Orient-Express
by Gregor von Rezzori,
Alfred A. Knopf, 1992

Nostalgia has fallen on hard times. Once a bittersweet wallowing in loves lost and opportunity squandered, it's now a commodity packaged and traded like cable franchises or petroleum futures. Disneyland, the cinema, television, and the rest of the cultural dreamscape we now unconsciously people are nothing more than commercial spigots with running meters.

This attenuation of the last of life's innocent pleasures holds forth nostalgia as an object of its own probings--a recursive exercise that reaches perfection in the work of pan-European author Gregor von Rezzori. The most recent of a handful of his works available in English, The Orient Express continues the author's tightly-woven examination of cultural dissipation, in the course of which nostalgia--literally "the pain for home"--finds full flower. Rezzori's relentless intellect deftly dissects the afflictions of anti-Semitism, misogyny, greed, and boredom as they metastasize from individual to culture. Unexpectedly, however, his exercises don't bog down in bathos, but bloom with self-discovery.

With Rezzori the reader is in the hands of a master whose sparkling powers of description and grasp of nuance enfold truth unobscured by artifice and machinery of fiction. In fact, much of the first half of the book vacillates between past and present in short, koan-like chapters--sublime meditations that seduce the reader with an almost hallucinogenic rhythm. Like the fabled Orient Express itself, adventure lies in the swaying trip and not in the stops.

The unnamed narrator, an extremely wealthy financier of murky provenance who--in the grip of some black vision near the end of his life--has abandoned home and businesses to their own momenta while he immerses himself in the anonymity of world travel. Having left his wife, mistress, and secretary with the impression that he is simply abroad on an unscheduled business sortie, the implication from the first is that he has decided to commit suicide.

Money, for him, has long ceased to be anything more than a score-keeping device, and a blinding spiritual ennui has supplanted his dedication to the only other project he has pursued with any alacrity: making sex. Rezzori's narrator is of an economic and social position where one must consider the implications of cheating on one's mistress, and where strangers first ask one another which of a half-dozen languages they might converse in. Social position, as always, is subtly encoded in dress and manner. But culture is not so easily donned, as he ponders on the shortcomings of his wife's artsy milieu and even his mistress' addiction to movies. Civilization it seems, is only skin-deep but culture goes all the way to the bone.

When last he lands in Venice--which has become a crumbling, tourist-infested cesspool--the end seems near. Like Mann's Gustave Aschenbach in "Death in Venice," Rezzori's narrator seems to have found the perfect spot to allow the universe to simply grind to a close.

Rezorri's relentless intellect deftly dissects the afflictions of Anti-semitism, misogyny, greed and boredom as they metastasize from individual to culture. Unexpectedly, his exercises don't bog down in bathos, but bloom with self-discovery.

But an advertisement for the newly-resuscitated Orient-Express catches his eye. Realizing that the expensive rehabilitation of the famous rail line that joined Europe east and west during his own childhood is bound to disappoint, he nonetheless books passage from Venice to London as a final, cynical act of self-defiance.

The railway that connected the Levant with the City of Lights and the high culture of pre-war Europe, connects him with his own roots, as well. His English mother and Armenian father represent the opposition of two of his diametric aspects bridged by the train. The tenuous link between past and present, East and West, youth and old age is manifested by the medallion on the train car--Compagnie Internationals des Wagon-Lits--Simplon-Orient Express. His own past seems to have risen like a lacquered corpse. Even the theft of his watch causes reflection on the bifurcation of old and new. When forced to replace his "trusty Omega" with a cheap LCD chronometer made of plastic, he muses

Nothing seemed to express the transformation the world had undergone in his own lifetime than this replacement of hands circling imperturbably through the orbit of eternity with the spastically fluttering phantom of ciphers caught in a perpetuum mobile of assembly and obliteration, the last of which pursued the second-by-second countdown of minutes' and hours' decline into the nullity of the past with malignant perplexity.

His convulsive attempts at a drunken seduction of a young Finnish tour-director also recalls the time aboard the train, 50 years earlier, when he was the prey of an older seductress. Time has a way of folding back upon itself with inevitable results.

Rezzori's birthplace in Czernowitz (once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now in the Ukraine) during the early rumblings of the Great War, has undergone the same tortuous political and social realignments that continue in Eastern Europe to this day. But Rezzori is one of those unfashionable intellects whose rootlessness lead him to universalism rather than rancor. Though he now resides in Tuscany, he has published most of his work in German. During the Second World Was he was a broadcaster for British radio and parts of what is perhaps his best-known work, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, he composed in English.

As a result, Rezzori is a polyglot for whom a dozen languages and dialects can be mined for imagery. And his facility with English, one presumes, gives the author a good deal of insight into the subtleties of translation.

Rezzori's autobiographical work The Snows of Yesteryear, which appeared in this country in 1989, brings together a most satisfying and unusual re-creation of a privileged coming-of-age during the darkening interval between the World Wars, as it was reflected in the four people closest to him. I was preceded by the 1976 "autobiographical novel" The Death of My Brother Abel (another allusion to the duality of his own nature as a writer) and the 1958 novel The Hussar. All percolate with the energy of Rezzori's unique voice.

The last people connecting us with the interregnum between the Belle Epoque and the Jazz Age are beginning to flicker out as this century draws to a close. May The Orient-Express stave off the inevitable a few minutes longer.

-Gregg Morris

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Last Modified: 22 July 1995 by Darrel Plant
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