Book Review: Claudio Magris’ Danube

Vivid Writing that Passes seamlessly Through Philosophy, Semantics, Politics, and History

River of Melody

Not all writers can handle an omniscient voice, producing rather pages loaded with philosophical digressions, as if they had a monopoly on emotion and insight. Claudio Magris’s Danube leans in this direction, but with an alluring brilliance that makes him a pleasing  exception.

Magris, scholar at the University of Trieste’s faculty of Literature and Philosophy, wrote of his journey down the Danube, from its source in the German Schwarzwald to its final delta in Romania. This is not the story of the journey itself, but rather the Danube as the life blood of Europe, “a river of melody,” witness to the cycles of Central European civilisation — the rise and fall of empires as well as the subsequent reorganizations into the new.

The Trieste born academic maintains a philosophical analysis without burdening the reader with his own convictions; he remains respectful of Central Europe’s diversity, creating a vivid piece of prose that seamlessly passes through the domains of philosophy, semantics, politics, sociology and history. Magris’s Danube does not have one single identity, but many, that emerge depending on the cultural and ideological vantage point one chooses.

Perhaps overwritten at times, such a judgment of this fine memoir would be unfair; the societies of the Danube he describes are too multifaceted and can only be understood if one takes the time to explain their diversity by discussing the numerous influences that have shaped them. Magris’s profound, thorough discussions seem to be the most comprehensive method of capturing the cultural richness of Central and South Eastern Europe. His detailed analyses seem to neglect nothing, not even the most minute of elements that constitute the plurality of Danubian culture.

His knowledge of the cultures of Central Europe seems endless, and his zeal indefatigable, not giving up until the topic has been analysed from all angles, leaving the reader with a feeling of regret when a vignettes comes to a close.

In these stories, sometimes as short as half a page, Magris gives accounts of figures from different eras, shifting back thirty, and then to antiquity within a few paragraphs, from the tragedy of Kafka on one page to the atrocities of Josef Mengele on the next.

It is unpredictable what will trigger Magris’s discourse. When he recognises a TV show in Budapest as The Glambayas, a drama written by the Croatian writer Miroslav Krleza, he immediately begins a concise yet critical examination of Krleza’s life and work, mentioning his leitmotif of the “Pannonian Mud” that reached its peak in The Return of Phillip Latinovicz, while pointing out the shifting political shifts that stained his reputation.

In Magris’s hands, the Danube transforms into a source of Central European culture and ideology — the symbol of the German Inwardness that created Goethe and Heine, and of the Balkan melting pot. On another level, it is the silent companion of Adalbert Stifter, then the rushing sound of despair given the pending destruction of Louis Ferdinand Celine and the fleeing functionaries of the Third Reich at Castle Sigmaringen, a fate Celine managed to escape in the end.

In a chapter entitled “The Universal Danube of Engineer Neweklowsky” Magris gives an account of the efforts of a certain Engineer: “[He] spent a lifetime marking out the confines of the ‘Obere Donau’, the Upper Danube, and – once he had staked his claim – in sifting, classifying and cataloguing it inch by inch in space and time, the colors of its waters and its customs changes, its landscape as we see it now and as it has been over the centuries that have gone into creating it.”

This was a symbiotic relationship of the Danube and the individual;. isolated from the human factor, it loses its identity.

“Only by seeing those gestures and those faces, and by harkening to those sounds on the river-banks,” Magris writes, “could one really and truly grasp a single word.”

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