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Claudio Magris: Danubio (Danube)

This is one of those books that is not really a novel. Think Sebald or Calasso. However, Magris himself calls it a drowned novel and the introduction to my Italian edition says it is half way between a novel and saggistica, which means something like non-fiction or essay, so here it is.

The book follows Magris’ journey down the Danube from the source of the river to its outlet in the Black Sea. If you were expecting something like a description of the flora and fauna of the Danube, of its hydrology and navigation or of what it actually looks like, you will be sorely disappointed. Similarly if you were looking for a description of a jolly walking or sailing or even driving tour, you will also be disappointed. This book quite simply discourses on the history, literature, culture, customs, life and politics of those who live, work, conquer and fight in the vicinity of the Danube and it does it superbly well, so much so that this book has undoubtedly become a classic of modern European literature. The introduction to my Italian edition calls it a little Danubian Decameron

It was first published in 1986, i.e. before the fall of Communism and therefore the independent states we now know did not exist as independent states. Indeed, it now flows through ten countries. In 1986, it flowed through six countries, two of which (Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union) no longer exist. It also now flows through four capital cities but then only three. Despite this Magris does discuss some of these future states as independent entities (Slovakia and Serbia, for example).

Though, as I said, it is not about the more scientific aspects of the river, there are one or two interesting issues that he raises on this aspect. The first concerns the source and the outlet of the river. There are disputes as to where the real source is. The Wikipedia article is unambiguous that it is in the German town of Donaueschingen. This view is not universally shared. The outlet he accepts as Sulina, though there are other candidates. The other, related issue, is where the Upper and Lower Danube divide and this issue is also controversial.

The other issue is the colour. Anyone who has seen the Danube knows that it is not blue. We think of it blue because of the Strauss waltz, though Strauss took the idea from a poem by Karl Isidor Beck (link in German), which contained the line On the Danube, On the beautiful blue Danube. Magris points out that there are both Hungarian and French songs calling it blond, while Jules Verne called it yellow. I would call it murky grey.

However, this is not what the book is about. As with Sebald or Calasso, mentioned above, Magris uses the Danube as an excuse to ruminate on many different subjects. As with Sebald, the Holocaust and related issues (human cruelty, human responsibility, Nazism, Fascism) frequently appear. He passes a couple of concentration camp sites, which leads to more discussion of the topic. Napoleon is also inevitably to the fore, as his armies passed this way.

His method is often to visit a place and tell stories related to that place. These may be related to history, culture, literature or politics. For example, he visits Sigmaringen, a castle in Germany. The Vichy fled there at the end of the war and they accompanied by the writer Céline, a Nazi and Vichy supporter, who would later write about his experiences in D’un château l’autre (Castle to Castle). Magris gives us a beautiful description of the place and Céline’s stay there but also discusses the political ramifications of Céline and his behaviour. We get many other similar examples. Indeed, while you might have read some of the writers and heard of but not read some of the others, unless you are remarkably well read, I can guarantee that there will be writers he will discuss who will be completely unknown to you.

Here is another example. Meßkirch, which he visits, is the birthplace of the philosopher Heidegger (heard of but not read, in my case). When he knocks at the door of the house, the lady who answers if he is looking for the son or the nephew of the sacristan. Clearly, the sacristan is more important than the philosopher for this lady. Magris is not much kinder to Heidegger than he was to Céline. Heidegger flirted with Fascism. Magris gives us a fascinating summary in only a few paragraphs of what Heidegger believed and where he went wrong.

I could give a long list of the interesting points he raises and discusses and the historical nuggets he mentions. Here are just a few: The issue of the iberty of the individual as opposed to the ancient rights of the classes and corporations to enjoy their privileges; feminism and rights of women; the issue of zero; the fact that Kafka was the greatest poet of marriage and the family; Hitler as a sentimentalist; the fact that Rudolf Höss‘ book, Kommandant in Auschwitz; autobiographische Aufzeichnungen (Commandant of Auschwitz : The Autobiography of Rudolf Hoess), an autobiography written while he was awaiting his death sentence, was, in his view, the greatest book written on the concentration camps; a visit to Klosterneuberg, where Kafka died;, Dracula; Gorky and Malraux criticising Dostoevsky, which leads Magris to comment At that moment Gorky and Malraux, two highly respected writers, achieved a world record: no one has ever understood less about literature than they did.

And there is humour: a conservative group is sponsoring, as part of a cycle concerned with conservative sexuality, a certain Dr Knax, who will give a lecture entitled Wanking: Mass Murder? I suppose he has a point. Mihai Cosma, Romanian writer, is quoted as saying La littérature: Le meilleur papier hygiénique du siècle [Literature: The best toilet paper of the century.]

What makes this book is that firstly Magris is incredibly learned and is happy to share his learning with us. But he also writes so well so that even if, on the face of it, the topic may seen less than interesting, he makes it interesting to us by the way he describes it. Anecdotes, commentaries on writers we have never heard of and may well never read, not least because they are not available in a language we can read, historical quirks that we were almost certainty unaware of as well, of course, serious discussions on important matters or on matters that he makes seem important, are all part and parcel of this great book. It is not difficult to see why it has become a classic of modern European literature and it certainly deserves its reputation.

Publishing history

First published 1986 by Garzanti
First English translation in 1989 by Collins Harvill