An NYRB Classics Original
Set just after World War I, An Ermine in Czernopol centers on the tragicomic fate of Tildy, an erstwhile officer in the army of the now-defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire, determined to defend the virtue of his cheating sister-in-law at any cost. Rezzori surrounds Tildy with a host of fantastic characters, engaging us in a kaleidoscopic experience of a city where nothing is as it appears—a city of discordant voices, of wild ugliness and heartbreaking disappointment, in which, however, “laughter was everywhere, part of the air we breathed, a crackling tension in the atmosphere, always ready to erupt in showers of sparks or discharge itself in thunderous peals.”
This beautiful, impressive early novel by von Rezzori (The Snows of Yesteryear), generously translated by Boehm, takes place in the fictional town of Czernopol, where pairs of Dalmatians run gracefully between coach wheels, the premature removal of a jacket constitutes a grave faux pas, and an old miser keeps two wives one blue-blooded princess, one common peasant girl under the same roof. Austrian officer Nikolaus Tildy's aristocratic elegance and trials on behalf of his wife, the beautiful, afflicted Tamara, capture the imagination of child narrator (and his sister) Tanya. While Tildy's story is compelling, von Rezzori's greatest achievements are his meditations on the nature of childhood, especially "that inviolable majesty of the child" and its gradual erosion as the once fascinating, mysterious world begins to reveal itself as a place of "crude banality," which ceases to inspire any longing. In its near-mythical treatment of childhood, the book recalls Nabokov's Speak Memory, or Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows. Little Did I KnowMitchell MaxwellProspecta Press (Perseus, dist.), $25 (336p) In Broadway producer Maxwell's debut novel, set in 1976, a rental ad for America's oldest summer stock theater in Plymouth, Mass. tempts Samuel August to try to fulfill his dream of producing classic musicals. Enlisting the financial and moral support of friends proves simple compared to dealing with Dr. Anderson Barrows, the theater's wealthy elderly owner and his seductive young wife Lizzy (who hits on Sam). To produce five full-length musicals with only nine days of rehearsal, Sam immerses himself in the Herculean task of physically restoring the theater and landscape, auditioning cast members, coping with outsized egos, and igniting creative fires in his actors. Further challenges include sham building inspectors demanding excessive fees, Lizzy's chameleon acts, encounters with a pack of raccoons, weather crises, along with the hopeful distraction of a romance with a local beauty. Although the book's pedestrian pace may deter many readers, those who persevere will appreciate the reality of stage productions and applaud a far-wiser Sam by the end.