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 unpleasurable melancholy; it is easy to understand, strolling amid these shadows of a former grandeur, how much at home here the Dubliner James Joyce must have felt, despite the poverty and desperation of the years he spent teaching English for a pittance at the Trieste Berlitz school before the First World War.
If the emblem of nearby Venice is the haughty stone lion of Saint Mark, the aptest symbol for Trieste would surely be the straw boater of the city’s most famous native writer, the wistful, somewhat hapless Italo Svevo, author of Confessions of Zeno and Senilità, rendered into the rather pedestrian English title As a Man Grows Older. Svevo’s real name was Ettore Schmitz, the “bourgeois Triestine Jew” and “schlemiel,” of whom, Claudio Magris tells us, an old colleague from the bank where Svevo worked, on hearing that he had published novels, exclaimed, “Who? Not that jerk Schmitz?” (The anecdote is reminiscent of one told of Joyce, Svevo’s friend and admirer, in which a wiseacre in a Dublin pub greets the publication of Ulysses with the disbelieving remark, “Jimmy Joyce? Written a book? But sure, I knew him!”)
Svevo is one of a large cast of characters, if that is the word, who jostle for space and a hearing in the pages of Microcosms. Magris describes the bust of the novelist in the Public Garden in Trieste, which above the base has only a pin, “looking like a miniature neck,” that once supported the head, now mysteriously missing—along with, it is to be presumed, its straw hat.
His work and his existence orbit, without ever losing the capacity to love and to enjoy, around voids, around vertiginous absences concealed with a sphinx-like smile, around daily failures both comic and tragic, around the lack and the nullity of life, around the vanity of intelligence.
This is Magris writing of Svevo, but it might serve as well to describe his own work, not only Microcosms, but also the book that in 1989 brought him an international readership, Danube, which, masquerading as the description of “a sentimental journey from the source to the Black Sea,” in reality is a profound analysis of the history and cultures of the whole of Mitteleuropa.
Magris’s method in Danube was to conduct the reader on a walking tour along the banks of the great river, the spinal fluid of Central Europe, pausing along the way to consider this or that emblematic figure. Among them was Heidegger at Messkirch, his birthplace; Céline at Sigmaringen, to whose castle high above the Danube he and other collaborators of Pétain’s regime fled in 1945; Georg Lukács, photographed as an old man in his study on the fifth floor of 2 Belgrád Rakpart in Budapest, “a protagonist in the major events of our century.” The result was a vast can-vas resembling one of those great panoramic paintings of the High German Renaissance, thronged with lords and peasants, scholars and tradesmen, priests and penitents, armies at war, plumed princes on proud horses, a couple courting here, a poet penning verses there, children scampering, dogs pissing, a red-nosed toper bawling a song. The section headings indicate something of the eclectic, all-welcoming capacity of the book: “A Question of Gutters,” “Castles and Huts,” “The Universal Danube of Engineer Newelowsky.”
In Microcosms, as the title implies, the scope is narrower, though the scale is no less broad. Here Magris concentrates on a handful of particular places of which he has a deep knowledge and which he dearly loves, and where his life has been most intensely lived. Yet for all the force and pervasiveness of his voice, the author himself figures not at all directly in his narratives, making only the most fleeting and enigmatic appearances, almost always in the third person, as the scholar, or the enquiring traveler, as the nephew of this or that uncle or aunt, as father of Francesco and Paolo, as husband and lover of the elusive Marisa. As he says of the obscure Triestine memoirist Giuseppe Fano, “[He] almost never speaks of himself, in his memoirs, but of others; he, the narrative I, is simply the connecting thread.”
The first chapter of Microcosms, “Caffè San Marco,” sets the tone for the book. It is a tour de force, a brilliant, impressionistic portrait of a Triestine landmark: “The San Marco is a real café,” where “variety triumphs, vital and florid….”
Above the French windows the fruit bowls and the bottles of champagne gleam. A red marbled lampshade is an iridescent jellyfish. Up high the chandeliers glow and sway like moons in water. History states that the San Marco opened on 3 January, 1914—despite resistance put up by a consortium of Trieste café-owners, who in an attempt to obstruct it turned in vain to the Royal Imperial authorities—and immediately it became a meeting place for irredentist youth and a workshop for the production of false passports for anti-Austrian patriots who wanted to escape to Italy.
It was at a table at the San Marco, one suspects, that much of Microcosms was written; later on, in the chapter on the Tyrol, a maid in the lounge of the Herberhof hotel in Antholz Mittertal upbraids the author: “What?…writing again? Always writing, writing…” At the San Marco he absorbs the voices of the habitués, voices that weave in and out of the intricate tapestry of his narrative. There is Mr. Schönhut, from the Israelite Temple next door, who meditates with mildly blasphemous skepticism on the wisdom of the Lord’s decision to send the Flood and yet save the Ark—“He might as well have finished it off for once and all, why destroy and then start again?”—and old Mr. Pichler, “ex-Oberleutnant on the Galicia front during the 1916 massacres,” grumpily bemoaning the collapse of empire and the loss of Austrian Gemütlichkeit. There is also Mr. Crepaz, who never had any luck with women when he was young, and who, after being taken to bed at last by a certain Clara, dedicates himself in his declining years to tracking down the girls, now more than mature women, whom he had longed for as a youth, and who are only too happy to accept his attentions, and, beyond them, “the ladies he’d pined for in an even more distant time, his mother’s friends and his friends’ mothers,” whom he had watched cuddling other children and who now at last may be persuaded to cuddle him.
Voices rise, they blend, they fade, one hears them at one’s shoulder, moving down to the end of the room, the noise of the undertow. The sound waves drift away like circles of smoke, but somewhere continue in existence. They are always there, the world is full of voices, a new Marconi might be able to invent a device capable of picking them all up, an infinite chatter over which death has no dominion….
In the chapter on the village of Malnisio, where Magris’s family originated, set among its fields of maize in the Friuli foothills, the voices become at once more personal and less emphatic as the author ponders the mystery of the past and of the generations. He has returned to the village, as he and many other native sons and daughters do on the last Saturday of August each year, to take part in the fusina, the festival of the first corn cobs—“an anniversary that obeys a firm necessity, around which time winds and rotates like the earth on its axis”—and at once he recalls the story of his great-grandmother’s uncle, or great-uncle, who has no name, since the parish records do not go back far enough; a grenadier in Napoleon’s army, he survived the Russian campaign and, like Martin Guerre, returned after years as a prisoner to a village that no longer recognized him. It is the nameless ones, Magris is telling us, not just the Napoleons, who make history, who make the past, which makes us.
It is in Malnisio, too, that Magris recalls his Aunt Esperia, and the passionately negative love affair that dominated her life. The half-dozen pages devoted to this neurasthenic, devout sad person are among the most beautiful in the book, a novel by Svevo compressed to the length of an anecdote, assembled around Svevonian “vertiginous absences.” As a young woman, toward the end of the 1930s, Esperia meets on a train an army officer from Emilia, “the man who was to become, for her and for everybody else, the General.” The General indulges in the mildest of flirtations, which, to his dismay, Esperia takes as a declaration of undying love. The poor man, decent and unwilling to inflict pain, tries in vain to bring himself to tell her that he has not the slightest desire to marry her. “Thus began a vague and enervating period of waiting that was to last for years; for him it was a conscious trial, even more deeply enmeshed as he was in that unbearable situation, but for her it was all unconscious excitement.”
Owing to the dictates of his career and the displacements of the times, the two can meet only rarely. Refusing to face the truth, Esperia spends her days preparing her trousseau, and reading aloud to the family the General’s letters, “believing that their increasing vagueness was the acme of love….” The family’s large fine house on the village square is sold to provide the dowry that will never be paid. At the end of the war the General is captured by Resistance fighters and—to his relief, one almost imagines—is shot. “This shed over Esperia the grand, beneficent liberation of a noble grief.” Now she has become a widow without having had to go through the stress of being a bride. At last she can relax. Thus she lives on, in contented bereavement, for forty-seven years, until, at the age of eighty-two, she flings herself from the third-floor window of her nursing-home room; she does not die, but is destined never to leave her hospital bed.
Clinically she was well enough, but her expression had changed, she was laconic now and allusive, replying with a formal smile to the small talk and the encouragement of her relatives. She spoke in hard, dry monosyllables. The photographs of the General had disappeared from her room; she must have got rid of them before she jumped.
Microcosms, like Danube, has the charming air of being a meander, a leisurely if always attentive stroll among a random assortment of interests. Both books, however, are cunningly patterned, and move to a light but strictly observed inner rhythm. After the inspired chatter of the Caffè San Marco and the ancestral ruminations in the Valcellina, the narrative slows to a dreamy rhythm in the chapter “Lagoons,” charting an al-most mystical journey from the island-city of Grado along the Venetian coastal route, “the salt-water road that leads to Venice.” Magris is a landscape artist of great delicacy and an almost numinous attentiveness—“praying is also paying attention to objects, gratitude for created things”—but his most loving descriptions are reserved for the world of waters, islands, shimmering horizons. In a later chapter, “Apsyrtides,” devoted to the archipelago of islands in the Gulf of Quarnero off the coast of Yugoslavia, in which the atmosphere is radiant with the magical flash and sparkle of Shakespeare’s shipwreck plays, Magris, well served by his translator, describes reaching
the extreme rocky point of Cherso, where the anchor had been dropped about midday in a bay of blinding light, of merciless colours: the emerald band along the shore, the turquoise meadows on the white sand and gravel bed with splashes of indigo and violet, and then out to sea the remoteness of the deep blue, the smile of the foam crests. In the water the sun’s rays shivered and broke like lances. The Greeks said that when the gods in play cross swords and beat on their shields, one can behold the blaze of their game and their weapons.
Such grandeur stirs the heart, but Magris never forgets, and never lets us forget, that nostalgie de la boue which is natural to us, the fascination we have for the primordial slime,
the silt of life, which is neither dirty nor clean, out of which men are made as are the faces that they love and desire and with which men make sandcastles and the images of their gods.
In “Lagoons,” he speaks of a type of crab which, “in honour of its gastronomic preferences,” is called a “shit-eater,” and he takes an almost schoolboyish scatological delight in informing us that local restaurants serve them up in tasty dishes for the tourists, “creating a perfect and vital cycle, recycle even.”
Magris, as both Danube and the more personalized Microcosms equally attest, is a great European, but although his is the Europe of Ovid and Goethe, of Hesiod and Joyce, he is all too aware of the darkness at the heart of the continent, that darkness which so often over the centuries has been illumined by the livid fires of internecine warfare. As a Triestino, living within a couple of hundred leagues of the battlefields of Bosnia and Kosovo, he understands both the necessity for borders and the troubles they can provoke. The frontier is more than a line drawn on a map, and although the nation is a concept devised on earth, not made in heaven, men cleave to the identity that nationhood confers, cling to it often to the death. Perhaps the most dangerous confusions arise when the border is not so much the dividing line between states as the declaration of an ideological stance—as in Ireland, for example, where “the Border” always comes with its double-barreled capital. Magris has spent his life shuttling between one disputed territory and another.
Tyrolean writers are obsessed by the frontier—by the need to cross it and the difficulties involved in crossing it—and by identity, and they search for this in a denial of the very compact identity that is so dear to the cultural establishment of their country. With the painful but facile, overdone rhetoric frequently found among frontier writers (for example writers from Trieste), they are too willing to take up a position on the other side as well—distressed and yet also delighted to feel themselves Italian among the Germans and German among the Italians, eagerly awaiting the brutal onslaught of the custodians of the homeland’s memory so as to be able to say, with ringing sincerity, that the pain is in not knowing to which world they belong.
Magris, unfashionably, sets great store by writers and writing. He is disdainful of postmodernist assaults upon the identity and centrality of the artist, and sees in the writer bent at his desk, or scribbling among the coffee cups and the ashtrays of the café table, an emblem of what it means to be civilized, or at least to try to be civilized, in a world always only too ready to march into battle behind mountebanks of the word. “Correct usage is a premise for moral clarity and honesty,” he declares, warning that “a single misplaced comma can result in disasters,” words that will not receive much welcome in the departments of cultural studies in what used to be called, without irony, our great universities.
Yet he understands, too, the essential selfishness of the writer. “Perhaps,” he says in Danube, “writing is really filling in the blank spaces in existence, that nullity which suddenly yawns wide open in the hours and the days, and appears between the objects in the room, engulfing them in unending desolation and insignificance.” Such moments of doubt are rare in Danube, but in Microcosms the black waters of despair lap more closely at the fringes of the page. What in the former book was seen as an attempt at flight from anomie here is posited as a base desire for concealment: “Perhaps writing is…an accomplished coat of paint applied to one’s own life, so that it assumes a mantle of magnanimity thanks to the skilful display of faults under a pretence of hiding them in a tone of candid self-accusation that makes them seem big-hearted, while the real filth remains below.” He wonders if “the most effective strategy for avoiding the pain of living is to dedicate oneself to exhuming other people’s lives, thus forgetting one’s own….”
Storytelling is a guerrilla war against and a connivance with oblivion; if death did not exist perhaps no one would tell stor-ies. The more humble—physically closer to the earth, humus—the subject of a story is, the more one is aware of the relationship with death. The ups and downs of men, famous and unknown, flow once more into those of the seasons with their rains and snowfalls, into those of the animals and the plants, into the ups and downs of objects as they endure, as they are consumed.
Death is the secret sharer in these pages. Loss and bereavement are the unspoken themes, the deep grammar of the narrative. The brief final chapter, “The Vault,” is a kind of nightmarish coda in which the strands of the book are not so much brought together as unraveled—“Christmas trees, diving from the rocks at Barcola, trips out on the Corso, the images flowed increasingly rapidly…”—as the narrator is lured toward an abyss of immolation, of extinction from which, at the end, he is held back by the voices of his sons: “And they told him not to be afraid.” But already he has been sustained, often perhaps without his knowing it, by another presence, “her with her dress the colour of the sea at Miholascica,” Marisa, the wife to whom both Danube and Microcosms are dedicated. “The darkness lightens, the darkness of the paths and the years, at the end there is a face, her face that has not darkened in the presence of death, advancing like a rising dawn….” Microcosms, in its subtly magical blending of the public and the personal, of the inner voice and the voices from without, of the café and the study, of the hearth and the world, is a unique and beautiful achievement.