Reflecting on the Alpine border region of the South Tyrol—long disputed by Italy, Austria, and Bavaria—Claudio Magris writes, “There are borders running everywhere, and one crosses them without realizing.” This might serve as a general motto for Microcosms. The South Tyrol is only one of the half-dozen borderlands Magris visits in his allusive, and elusive, sly, witty, sorrowing, and wonderful oddity of a book. On its publication in Italy in 1997, it won the Strega Prize, the country’s most important literary award, and became the year’s unlikeliest best seller. It is easier to say what Microcosms is not than to say what it is. A memoir? No, although it ripples throughout with remembered scenes and places. A travelogue? Certainly not, though it does traverse northern Italy from east to west and back again. A literary meditation on what it is to be European? Perhaps—but it is more than that, too; much, much more.
Magris, a highly respected scholar of German literature, is a native of Trieste, where he lives and works. He is awesomely well-read, though his erudition is tempered by a determined intellectual playfulness; his references range from Ovid to Hellzapoppin’, from Medea to Edie Sedgwick. He has translated many European writers into Italian, including Ibsen and Kleist; one of his novels, A Different Sea, has been published in English. He also made a brief foray into politics, when in 1994 he ran for the Italian Senate on an anti-Berlusconi ticket and was elected by 70,000 votes, despite the fact that he made no speeches, appeared on no television programs, and did not put up a single poster. Has there been another politician ever who was elected on his name alone, and by an electorate whose allegiances ranged from ultra-Catholic to ultra-left? He held his seat for two years, until the election of 1996, in which he did not run.
Microcosms opens and closes in Trieste, the capital of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, in the northeastern corner of the Adriatic, another region with a complex history of shifting borders and fluid allegiances. For centuries Trieste was the main rival of Venice, over which at certain periods it held the upper hand in trade and political influence. After the Napoleonic wars the region was incorporated into the magical-sounding but short-lived Kingdom of Illyria. Then, for more than a century after 1815, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was recaptured by Italian troops in 1918, but it was not until 1954 that the present frontier between Italy and what was then Tito’s Yugoslavia was fixed by a Four-Power conference. No wonder Magris places himself among the “frontier writers.”
Like Turin, its cousin to the west, Trieste retains much of the air of an affluent, dreamy, magnificently shabby Austro-Hungarian city of a prior epoch. In its broad, straight streets, many of them laid out in the eighteenth century under the rule of the Empress Maria Theresa, one has the sense of an ineradicable and not …