An Interview with Claudio Magris
It was one of those bits of good luck, twinkling out of the ether. I happened to be in Trieste for a month, and Claudio Magris happened to be coming home from his vacation a bit earlier, leaving us two overlapping days in the same city. Magris's book Danube had been a revelation. I wanted to copy out the entire book by hand, to get a little closer to the text. In it, Magris travels from the (hotly contested) source of the Danube to its delta where it spills itself into the sea, giving a cultural, political, and personal history of the territories he traverses. We meet Kafka, we meet Cioran, we meet Goethe's ghostwriter. We meet kings and peasant armies, and we sift through the layers of Central Europe, a place that has for so long been the "other" Europe, the "East" Europe, the less interesting, less glamorous shadow of the "real" Europe. We do this all in the company of the Trieste professor, writer, and historian Claudio Magris, and it is charming company indeed.
This year sees the English translation publication of Magris's 1995 novel, Blindly. It is based on historical fact -- a group of Italians traveled to Yugoslavia after the war to assist Tito in building a new kind of socialist state. But paranoia reigns, and soon foreigners are seen as traitors, Stalin loyalists, and are shipped off to the prison island of Goli otok. Few survive, but the ones who do have spoken of horrors in that camp. Blindly's narrator is one of those survivors, and his past weighs on him so heavily it begins to shred his identity. He is not sure where in time he is, who he is, where he has been. The prison camp in Goli otok becomes a prison camp in Australia becomes the prison of his current home, a mental institution. The utopia of Yugoslavia becomes the utopia of early revolutionary Iceland. And as the waves of his identity crash and recede, you see that each utopian impulse is the same, and each drags behind it its apocalyptic twin.
Magris handles the darker regions with a light touch. He does not overwhelm the reader with atrocity, but neither does he condescend to the reader with sentimentality. Perhaps that comes from the great warmth that Magris exudes. He is kind and generous, opening his home to me so that I may peruse his books. "There are more upstairs," he tells me. "And some in the garage." He is deeply apologetic about his English, but of course it is more than fine. Not simply serviceable, but allowing for poetic flourishes. Much superior to my rudimentary, declarative-sentence level German, I tell him, or we would switch over. He seems charmed someone has come from Berlin to talk to him about his books, but of course I have trouble interrupting my impulse to gush every time I use the word "Danube."
Part of this interview ran in Kirkus, and the excerpt there does not repeat itself here. In that section he speaks of Blindly more directly, and I urge you to sneak over to their website and read that portion first.
Considering this story of Blindly is based on historical fact, and you are frequently a nonfiction writer, why tell the story in fiction?
It’s very difficult to answer. First of all, the greatest difference for me is not between fiction and essays but between some books I have written, critical works and books on German literature, and the essays that have the myth... The first book I published at the age of 24, and all the critics thought it had been written by some old Austrian. Some journalists came and found myself instead. There are books whose title corresponds exactly to the subject. Critical essays about German writers.
Of course Austrian literature is heavy on nostalgia, forms appear with this word, but the real subject is not Austria, it is another subject. Like a poem about a flower can be a poem about love for a person, but even when the poet writes about her blue eyes even when the poet writes about leaves and so on. I discovered the real red thread of that first book was not Joseph Roth but Isaac Bashevis Singer. But I had the idea that I couldn’t write directly about this world as I don’t belong to it. This Eastern Jewish world interested me not just because of the literature but as parable, as metaphor for what the Western world did not have. And I would say that also Danube is a fiction, because everything is true but the assembly, the main character is not identitical with me. It is a hidden, submerged novel.
It reminds me of a story you tell in Danube, of hearing a story about a man who survived the horrible Nazi occupation and then on the day of freedom killed himself because it was the Soviets who liberated his city. And you said you wanted to write a great novel about this man, until you learned his suicide was actually because of a love affair. And so you told the story as nonfiction instead.
In this case I had the impression that the only possibility of putting in evidence his fate was the simple explanation. A novel or a short tale about him would have needed the analysis, another perspective. In this chorus, Danube, a lot of voices flow in a different way. This story would have been a wrong note in a song. You can’t write a poem or an epic with this analytical inquiry.
My friend has been writing fiction about atrocities and genocide, but he has been writing them as dark comedies, because he can't find a way to tell these stories without making them absurd. There is something about the subject matter that if you try to tell it straight, it deadens the reader.
There are, I feel very strongly, these definitions given by [Ernesto] Sabato -- I have known him very well -- of daytime writing and nighttime writing. In daytime writing, a writer even when he invents he represents a world that corresponds to his vision of the world, of life, of values. In something that belongs to the daytime writing, like my writing against the dictatorship of the Argentinian generals and the character's engagement and his faith, and there is a line. Suddenly, sometimes in the night... it is very important to me to answer this... My deepest truths are not to be found in this other book. In the dark books is the truth, horrible truths sometimes. I have betrayed myself. Contradicted myself. It is very interesting, because sometimes emerges in us something we did not know we had, which says not what we are, but what we also are. What perhaps only by chance not are. Perhaps I could be now in a prison for having killed somebody instead of speaking with you. Some horrible thoughts which deny our radius.
It is a wonderful tale of Hoffmann, a poet writes a poem and in the end he reads it aloud to listen to the music, and he says, “Whose is this horrible voice?” Sometimes it is as if we were suddenly before the Medusa of life. In this moment, although we don't like Medusa, we can't send her to the hair dresser to make presentable her serpent head. Even when the writer would like that his double spoke of different things, he must pass him the microphone. Without complacency. I spoke once with Sabato -- once you go to the underworld, you discover two and two is maybe four, maybe seven. But when you once again are on the surface, you don't abuse that knowledge to pay your bill at the restaurant.
I hate the complacency with evil, but it is necessary to confront oneself with darkness. Another example I have already made is Joseph Conrad. At his core you find both, characters who face difficulties and so on, but also with the desire to be also have indignity and suffer something dark and dirty. I think, I believe in modern leaders and political leaders, but this belief must know all the ambiguities, all the contradictions, sometimes even the impossibilities. Which doesn't bring us to give up.
You write in Danube, that when people talk about evil, it becomes this blanket term, and it flattens out the conversation. You have to put the evil in context, almost to make it understandable and find its precedent, just to be able to approach it. You can't pretend that evil is a thing that just descended onto the world in one fluke moment.
That is rhetoric. The evil of course, we can't avoid. The complacency is real for us. Joseph Roth is a great love of mine. He has written, speaking of evil par excellence at the time of the Nazis, to fight against this fascination, as if the evil were more fascinating, more interesting. It's not very poetic nor interesting to throw something from the window of a train, it's only because there is the prohibition to do so.
You were saying in the car, but we got distracted, that Danube was your wife's idea...
If I hadn't studied already for many years German literature, Austrian literature, mitteleuropean literature, I could not have chosen the Danube as a symbol for life and death and disappearance. I couldn't write about the Volga or the Mississippi. I don't have the sensual and cultural and intellectual familiarity. The reason why the book is a voyage from the knowledge or from the illusion of the knowledge, this traveler until a certain moment he believes to move in a world he can understand and order with his culture, with his European center. But at the end, he understands continuously less. The world becomes for him always stranger, not understandable.
In '82, we made a journey to Slovakia. At the time the state was still Czechoslovakia. We went with three other friends, one who was very important for my writing Danube because he taught me how to observe things, how to be humble. To renounce honor. We were at the border with Slovakia with the so-called “other Europe” and with I think a lot of things I have written, it was an effort to banish the inverted commas, to say this is Europe, not first or second Europe, independent from political regime. It was a wonderful September afternoon, the light was so... and the flowing waves of the Danube, and the shining leaves of grass in the meadows of Danube. There was a moment of friendship, unity, and harmony, harmony with the flow of life. I remember this moment as a moment of happiness. Suddenly we saw the Museum of Danube. This word “museum” was so strange in this moment, such a ridiculous classification, as if a couple of lovers in the garden discover without knowing it a moment of exposition about lovers in a garden. That is one of the most important aspects of my book, the nostalgia for freedom, liberty, and this feeling of misunderstanding of classification. My wife said, What about walking until the Black Sea? In this moment, I had the idea, yes. It started these four years -- not only one voyage, of course, many voyages over many seasons. I had no idea of what book I wanted to write. Perhaps it could have been journalistic reportage, it could have been that I was identical with the traveler, as if I am the same person when I write an article against Berlusconi, or write something that didn't happen.
When I was in the delta, I tell my wife, come with me. No, she tells me. In the end, at death, one must be alone.
What was the gap between writing Blindly and getting it published in English?
It was written in '95.
I was wondering because when I was reading Danube, I didn't look at the original release date. It wasn't until I was almost halfway through that I noticed it had been originally published while Eastern Europe was still communist. And so many of those archives were slow to open after the fall of communism, so I'm wondering how the historical archive has changed since you first had the idea for the book.
I had a great luck with Danube, to travel and meeting people, spending evenings in the inns, trying to find the crazy one with the stories. I had great luck because except for Romania, which was already in a dramatic situation, the other countries were living through a relatively quiet period. Hungary, for example, their socialism was evolving slowly and not towards a democratic way, but more open. That is to say that the present day situation was not burning. If I had traveled in '89, I couldn't have seen these small things, these different layers of reality, because as it was I had the feeling of the archeologist in Troy, discovering the different layers of different towns, eight or nine towns. One house burns down in a fire, you build another house. I would have understood less of this world. Also, I wouldn't have perceived a lot of things, a lot of hidden aspects, which can also explain what happened after the liberation and the fall of the Wall and the fall of communism. You can't write a novel under the bombs.
The end of Romania was like the meeting of a necessity, of an other change, and of course the anger was understandable, because we had the hope of another transformation. Without this furor to copy the Western world, to become immediately Western. You know Havel said what has happened now in communist Prague is a memento for the Western, showing to the Western world its possible future. It was like a humanistic possibility, except Romania.
Now, concerning Blindly, the terrible war in Yugoslavia, which had been for me particularly tragic because I know... of course you know Trieste has many ties to Yugoslavia, first being part of this region, and also the Italian violence against Slav, and then the revenge... It's a part of my world. You know Marisa [his wife] wrote a wonderful story, translated into many languages, about... you know she had to leave her home as a younger child with other 300 Italians who had lost everything and living as a child in a refugee camp. But also discovering as she told this story of an Italian child being persecuted by the Slav, also that she had Slavic family roots, removed because of Italian nationalism. Of belonging also to the other side, the side threatening her. For me, it's this world, what happened in Yugoslavia was terrible, but I don't think the history would have changed Blindly because I already had this obsession. It was also this terrible war, it was a loss of memory.
I am often in Zagreb, it has a wonderful university, one of the best departments of Italian literature in the world. And during the war in Bosnia, a very good colleague of Italian philology, told me suddenly, very proud, that he had sent back to Paris Sorbonne an envelope because it was addressed to “Zagreb, Yugoslavia.” And he wrote to his colleague in Paris, “It is as if I had written to you 'Paris, Deutschland'” because of course Paris was also occupied.
I do have one question, which is whether Croatia won or lost the second world war. When Croatia was allied with Yugoslavia, well then, history changes, as it is an ally with Russia, but if it identifies itself only with the fascist regime in Italy, sorry, but Italy lost the war. There existed a feeling during the difficulties between Italy and Yugoslavia in the case of the terrible war, that the conquering of Venice would have been accepted like a victory of Yugoslavia. Thank god, nothing passed. It was a wound for me. Yugoslavia belongs to my reality, I belong to it too, even if I am Italian.
Right, especially being from Trieste gives you all sorts of nationalities. I read your book Microcosms, and it seems your attachment to Trieste is stronger than your attachment to any greater nationality that contains Trieste.
I was born here in 1939. I left Trieste when I was 18 to go to Turin, which has also been very important. I had been living in Germany, and then teaching in Turin, and then I moved back to Trieste for personal reasons, with pleasure. Trieste was for many reasons important, first of all the border. When I was a small boy, and when I went on the Carso, the border, which was closer to my home than one part of Paris to another part of Paris, it was until a certain time, it was impossible. I saw this border, and until the rupture of Tito and Stalin and until the normalization between Italy and Yugoslavia, it was impossible. Behind this border there was a world that was for me disquieting, mysterious, the empire of Stalin, the symbol of darkness, the East. Every country in Europe has its own East to refuse. But at the same time, behind this border there was a territory I knew very well, because this territory had been Italian. I had been several times in this familiar world. This feeling of something that is both very known and unknown, it's very important for literature. Literature is a voyage from the known to the unknown, or the contrary. Something which seems very familiar reveals itself suddenly unheimlich. Or the contrary.
I belong to an Italian family. My father's name is Fiumian. My grandfather left the country as a peasant to become bourgeois in Trieste. My mother's family is Venetian with Greek origins, with Italian traditions. But we have Croatian cousins. That is to say, in the 19th century, two brothers, one felt of being Italian and the other Croatian. My grandfather spoke perfectly Italian, German, and Croatian. Already the other generation, my mother and brothers, did not speak Croatian. There was already the political distance.
In Trieste was as you know until '54 so called free territory. Like no man's land. That uncertainty about the future, which is a feeling that does not concern only countries. Belonging to Italy or Yugoslavia meant also belonging to the Soviet world or the Western world. It was a world in which it was very difficult to have a job. I have a great luck with my age. The generation a little older, 8, 10 years older, had to leave Trieste. The younger generation, very important in Italian cultural life, left Trieste without forgiveness. They hadn't forgiven to Trieste this necessity of leaving Trieste. They hadn't cut the negative relationship with the city. In the same years I was still in the secondary school. In this age, good friends, good books, good experiences are enough. When I left Trieste for Turin, it was not for necessity, not for this negative relationship. I wanted to live in both.
Turin was the opposite. In the same years Turin doubled its population with immigration from South Italy. When I started to study in Turin in '57, it had 700,000. When I finished in '62, it had 1.3 million. With a lot of problems of violence, but with the necessity of paying attention to politics. It had been the capital of anti-fascism, of new liberalism, of great industry, of Gramsci. It was a great freedom in Trieste, but also with the danger of being only on the periphery of life. I think being on the periphery of life for a writer is very important, because I think today everywhere is the periphery of life. Even if I lived on 5th Avenue, I wouldn't think I was in the center of the world.
It is interesting, I was very precocious. I had read Melville, Faulkner when 14. Dostoevsky at 15. No line with Trieste literature. We have two greats, Saba and Svevo. Because of this unjust but also positive mistrust of the glory of the hometown, [I did not read them]. When I was in Turin, I started to read some books of Trieste, and I have discovered things I had already lived, this Italian city that also had this Slav, German, Croatian, this contradiction of a city. The greatness. I have started reading the great Austrian authors because I wanted to appropriate all of the past of my tradition. That brought me to write the book about the Habsburg myth. The writer who was not a great writer but created the landscape of Trieste literature, Scipio Slataper, in 1912, three years before his death in the first world war as a volunteer in the Italian army, he begins My Karst with three sentences. “I would like to tell you that you are Italians.” He is also Italian, he will die for the Italians. But similar but not identical to the other. “I would like to tell you I was born in the Carso. It's not true, I was born in Croatia, in Dalmatia.” In other words, to explain his identity, Italian but not Italian, he must do what according to the old Greek poets do, namely, lie. This is the problem, this is the reason why Trieste has this feeling of uncertainty of its own identity, the necessity of the representation. Sometimes its suffocating concentration about itself. I think that Joyce had loved Trieste, “Trieste ate my liver,” because he found Trieste as intolerable as Dublin.
You know this wonderful anecdote about Svevo and Joyce? They were in the inn, and Svevo with a glass full gave an obscene exclamation, and Joyce, horrified, said, “Such things one can write, but not say.” The one would never have written an obscene word, the other would never have spoken an obscene word.
The myth of Joyce in Trieste is kind of funny. This is the fourth city I've been to that has laid claim to Joyce in some way: Dublin, Paris, Zurich, and now Trieste. All really want to own James Joyce.
My father was for some years, he was taught English by Stanislaus. I never met him. I had discovered Joyce and Svevo, not late, because I was 21, 22, but not with the first discovery of literature. That has to do with this refusal of one's own small country. Especially in a small town in which every street has the name of the poet. The street you live on, Zorutti, is the name of a poet.
Yes, it says that on the street sign, Zorutti, poeta. So what made you go back to the Trieste writers?
When I was in Turin, and when I had this feeling of discovering what was mine, some things I had lived with without thinking about. Like the role of the Slovenian element. Not only the castle, but the cultural and political aspect. The great role played in Trieste by the Jewish community. I have known a lot of Jewish friends of my family, but you know the first fascist mayor was a great representative of the Jewish community. In the beginning, the fascism was not against the Jews.
Different traditions, two of my best friends their fathers had fought in the first world war, in the Austrian army. A great luck was for me, the friendship with the great poet Biagio Marin, who had been almost my grandfather, concerning his age. Another family friend, one of the first to write about the great Thomas Mann and his Faust. A volunteer in the Italian army who had discovered the greatness of the empire after having contributed to its destruction. That was very important, you know, I think it was a point every affirmation, every nostalgia must be filtered by the negation, even the critic. Even the most nostalgic writer of the Austrian empire, Joseph Roth, had written, “Only because when I was young I rebelled against Franz Joseph I have the right to have nostalgia for him and for my country, which educated me for fidelity through rebellion. No rebellion without fidelity.” That was very important. Marin, who died very, very old, and we were really friends despite the age difference. I had felt this mythical world before the first world war, through books and analysis but also through remembrances. It was a little exaggerated. As if I had been a school comrades with this gentleman. This generation who had created the great Trieste literature, but with this contradiction. Trieste began to be important culturally when it began to decline. It was important not with the coming up of the sun but of the going down.