Lit Counts: Books That Implicate

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By John Cotter

It’s Sunday morning and I’m deep into a novel by Gregor Von Rezzori, underlining passages like “the gradually waning daylight would be growing thinner and clearer, while the turquoise sky was taking a step into the universe and igniting at its edges.” Lovely.

Despite myself I’m warming to Von Rezzori’s narrator, Gregor, a young romantic exploring a changing city full of “musketeers, veil dancers, sailors, dragonflies.” It’s Bucharest and it’s the early 1930s and Gregor, fresh from the provinces, is charmed by old carpet shops that might have stood for a century and Roma peddlers and Ottoman tumble-downs and Hapsburg grandeur.

Gregor comes across as shy, literary, watchful, grandiloquent, and feels everything too much. He reminds me of myself in my late teens, walking the streets of the West Village before it gentrified, admiring rows of Hassids playing chess in a tea shop; or skittering through Boston’s Chinatown back when they called it the Combat Zone, drinking the neon. Like Gregor, I had plans for myself, but “I was too confused, too self-tormented, far too self-absorbed to be a mirror of things.” Art beguiles Gregor, nostalgia haunts him, and more experienced women treat him to fine nights after which he struts like a turkey. Is there any way I couldn’t identify?

Except that I haven’t mentioned the title. The novel is called Memoirs of an Anti-Semite.

Gregor grew up among a fundamentally anti-Semitic class, the shabby nobility of Austro-Hungarian provinces. His family’s bigotry “was an ancient, traditional, and deeply-rooted hatred … any motivation, no matter how absurd, would justify it.” Their Jewish neighbors may have more money or more élan, but alone reserved for Gregor’s class was the right to look down upon those neighbors. When I say their bigotry was fundamental I mean it literally: they built everything upon it.

Gregor, as a boy, makes a Jewish best friend on whom he plays a cruel joke because he’s jealous of that boy’s musical talents. Later, as a young man, Gregor falls in love with a Jewish shopkeeper, but tells no one about their relationship because “bias existed.” Passive voice—Gregor does not admit that he was biased, just that others might be. He doesn’t like his own anti-Semitism, but neither does he fight it hard enough. In an argument with his lover, he finds himself, almost against his own will, vowing he’ll concede the fight “If only she finally admitted she’s just a middle-aged Jewish shopkeeper, and that’s all!”

Gregor’s sins range from the somewhat harmless (feeling attracted to the “exoticism” of a Jewish woman’s face) to the worrisome (“they always expected calamity, these Jews”), to pure capitulation. When the Nazis march into Vienna, Gregor tells himself he only marches in their parade to protect his Jewish friends: if the Nazis become suspicious of his enthusiasm, his Jewish friends might be betrayed. Over the course of Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, we watch an otherwise literate and charming young man strive to keep from becoming “the creature who, out of sick jealousy, welcomes the power-drunk followers of a lunatic.” We watch him fail. “I hung in the threads of my background,” he concludes, not without self-pity, “like a fly in a spiderweb.”

Reading about Romania in 1934 feels too much like reading about America in 2018; otherwise reasonable, even likable people nurse a pernicious bigotry that’s not incidental but fundamental to their ideas of the world. I grew up among people for whom that was the case, not particularly as regards anti-Semitism; no, anti-black racism is the kind of bigotry I grew up around, sometimes espoused by people I might otherwise love. American culture is built on anti-black racism, on the myth of exculpatory whiteness, and simply growing up in America means you can’t be certain that you’re free of it.

Memoirs of an Anti-Semite at first charmed me, then frightened and unsettled me. The message of the novel is a simple one: awareness of evil doesn’t free us from evil; you can hate a thing and nurse it too. Gregor’s tragedy is that he doesn’t know who he is without the hatred that made him, just as we in 2018 can hardly imagine what a society free of racism, free of misogyny, free of homophobia might resemble. It wouldn’t be anything like the society we have. Moreover: we wouldn’t be us.

Von Rezzori’s book, and the way it lives in the back of my head, reminds me that the capacity to encourage evil, to be evil, while all the while staying essentially true to ourselves, lives within each one of us. I was one person when I picked the book up; I was another once I set it down. And yet.

Editor's Note: Lit Counts is an essay series in which readers and writers from our community express why they believe in supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop. The series will countdown toward Colorado Gives Day on December 4, the annual statewide fund drive for nonprofits. For 2018, Lighthouse has set a goal of $90,000, to support the continued growth of our literary programs. If you believe in the mission of Lighthouse, consider scheduling your contribution today

John Cotter’s first novel Under the Small Lights appeared in 2010 from Miami University Press. He's published short fiction in Puerto Del Sol, ghost stories in New Genre, poetry in Volt, criticism in Bookforum, and art writing in Sculpture, comics in Westworld, and memoir in Electric Literature and Catapult. A founding editor at the review site Open Letters Monthly, John's recent writing has received honorable mention in both Best American Essays and Best American Horror. He was born in Norwich, Connecticut in 1976, home of Benedict Arnold and a fresh crop of casinos. He graduated Emerson’s Creative Writing program on a Performing Arts scholarship and Harvard’s University with a master’s degree in English & American lit. He lives with his favorite poet in Denver. Find him online at johncotter.net.