Thursday, July 30, 2015

Danube by Claudio Magris - The European spirit feeds on books

Books read weeks ago, inadequate notes, a vacation in the meantime.  Let’s see how this goes.

Danube (1986) is a river chronicle, a travel book, a personalized study of middle European culture.  The author, Claudio Magris, is an Italian professor of German literature at the University of Trieste, so mostly this book about a river is really about books.

The European spirit feeds on books, like the demons in Singer’s stories, gnaws at the volumes of history in the libraries or, like moths, eat into ladies’ hats, shawls, and other dainty items of the wardrobe.  (265)

Magris is in Budapest at this point, or pretending that he is.  The offhand reference to Isaac Bashevis Singer, who has no relation to the Danube at all, hardly the only one in the book, is what I mean by “personalized,” much like the surprisingly frequent mentions of Magris’s fellow Triestines Umberto Saba and Italo Svevo.

The book begins at the source of the Danube in southwest Germany – early sections about competing claims to the source are genuinely comic – and ends at the mouth.  In Germany and Austria, Magris, expert in the language, history, and culture, can stitch together every scrap at hand.  The city of Ulm leads him to Céline, the sacking of the city by 18th century Bavarian troops, the Bread Museum (“there is a great list of the prices of a pound of bread over the course of a decade (1914-24)),” and the extraordinary 2,164 page Navigation and Rafting on the Upper Danube (1952-64) by the Engineer Neweklowsky, who, “[l]ike Flaubert or Proust… devoted his entire existence to the work, to writing, to The Book.”  Sebald must have admired this section.  Everyone will admire the one on Ferdinand Thrän, author of The Cathedral of Ulm, an Exact Description of the Same (1857), and also a File of Rudenesses Received “which lies, unpublished and unknown, in a box put away in a cupboard in the cathedral” (75).  “If genuine writing is born from the desire to account for the copious inconvenience of living, then Thrän is a real writer.”

Once Magris enters Czechoslovakia he loses his language and becomes an outsider, even a tourist.  If anything, these chapters are even more interesting than those on the German-language countries, as Magris surrenders his certainty.  Mine, too.  What did I know about Slovakian literature, or the German literatures of Serbia or Romania?  Zippo.  Herta Müller is identified as particularly good, although now she “has been forced into silence” (306).

Magris discusses these writers and literatures with great curiosity, alongside his desperate attempts to get someone in Slovakia to serve him a beer.  “But even at the Kyjev [hotel] beer is a chimera; one evening, from under the counter, the porter furtively produces a lukewarm bottle for us” (227).  Magris is travelling circa 1983, 1984, and there is no illusion that the Communist countries are functioning at all well.  Ceaușescu’s Romania, where Magris attends a literary conference, is particularly awful; Bulgaria is especially pleasant.

An aside:  “Lászlo Németh, the leader of the school of writers who aim at popular appeal[!], has said that Hungarian literature is in a situation of ‘permanent death agony’” (257).  What a great slogan for a Hungarian reading event of some sort!  That is why I mention it.  “Permanent death agony,” outstanding!

A friendly reader thought I would enjoy Danube and pointed it out to me.  Yes, many thanks.  Patrick Creagh translated.


  1. The eastern European continuation of the Danube gets covered by Hungarian Péter Esterházy his odd docu-novel The Glance of Countess Hahn-Hahn (Down the Danube), a book I could barely finish (talk about Hungarian death agony!) and would probably trade for that 2,000+ page Neweklowsky book. But it contains a few memorable descriptions. Better, from another outsider: the second volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor's walking trilogy, which follows the Danube east from Vienna.

  2. Fermor's not a bad idea. Esterházy has never sounded too appealing, although a description of this book made it sound like Calvino. Long time since I came across his name.

  3. I wanted to add too that I think it's pretty nifty how you managed - via Germany, Austria and eastern Europe - to make a contribution to your 2015 Italian focus!

  4. Now I need to read something by a German professor of Italian literature.

  5. In the interim, I can recommend a book about Prague by a Sicilian: "Magic Prague," by Angelo Maria Ripellino. Delicious!

  6. I was in Prague this trip, too. What a tempting book. Another Italian!

  7. Hmm, I was just looking Magris up yesterday as he is mentioned in Vila-Matas' Dublinesque and I thought this sounded really interesting. Sounds more so now.

  8. I just saw your Dublinesque post. Outstanding. The Magris book is interesting.