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by Bamber Gascoigne

Claudio Magris (1939-)


Italian novelist, essayist, and cultural philosopher, professor of German literature, whose internationally acclaimed works include Danube (1986) and Microcosms (1997), both freely through time and space flowing cultural travelogues, or journeys of the imagination. Magris has been mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

"Tolerance is a particularly important and difficult value for those who, like me, were born and grew up in a borderland such as Trieste is, at the crossroads between the Italian, Slav and German worlds. The border can be a stimulant or an obsession, an opportunity or a curse, a place where it is easier to know and love the other or easier to hate and reject him; a place to make contact or to exercise intolerance." (from 'The Fair of Tolerance', 2001)

Claudio Magris was born in 1939 in Trieste, a cosmopolitan port city, ruled by the Habsburgs for centuries until it was ceded to Italy. His mother, who came from Dalmatia, was of Greek-Venetian heritage. Magris's paternal grandfather moved to Trieste from the historical region of Friuli. Magris was educated at the Universita degli Studi di Torino, in Turin, receiving his degree in 1962. After studies in German universities, he taught at the University of Trieste and at the University of Turin. His dissertation, Il mito asburgico nella letteratura austriaca moderna (1963), about the Habsburg myth in modern Austrian literature, Magris finished at the age of 24. From 1978 Magris worked as Professor of German Literature at the University of Trieste. In 2001 he was appointed to a Chair at the Collège de France. Magris became in 2009 Writer-in-Residence at Utrecht University and taught there a series of master classes.

From 1994 to 1996 Magris was a member of the Senate in the XIIth legislature of the Republic of Italy, representing his native Trieste as an independent member of a leftist coalition. Together with Umberto Eco and other Italian intellectuals opposed to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, he co-founded in 2002 the 'Libertà e Giustizia' (Liberty and Justice) association. It collected 80.000 signatures in 2011 for a petition for the resignation of Berlusconi. 

Magris has also translated into Italy works by Ibsen, Kleist, Schnitzler, Büchner and Grillparzer, and written essays and critical studies on such writers as Borges, Wilhelm Heinse, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Ibsen, Kafka, Musil, Rilke, and Joseph Roth. Much of his historicophilosophical vision is derived from German influences. Magris's work have appeared in several European newspapers and magazines, including Corriere della Sera, Italy's leading national daily.

Inferences on a Sabre (1984), Magris's first novel, was about a battalion of Cossac fighters, who collaborated with the Nazis in northeastern Italy during World War II. His other prose works and works for the theatre include the novels Un altro mare (1991) and Alla cieca (2005), and the plays Stadelmann (1988), Le Voci (1999), and La mostra (2001). In Un altro mare (A Different Sea) the central character Enrico Mreule, whose  post-Schopenhauerian friend Michelstaedter believes that one must live full because life can end at at any moment. After adventures and travelings and meditation, he returns in 1922 to Trieste, only to do next to nothing. 

Lei dunque capirà (2006) was a story about modern day Orpheus and Eurydice, progressesing with the logic of dreams and myths. Magris's essays from 1974 to 1998, dealing mostly central and eastern European themes, were published in Utopia e disincanto. His writings on modern Jewish literature brought him into contact with Elias Canetti and Isaac Bashevis Singer, both Nobel laureates. In Danube Magris tells of his visit in Canetti's native Ruse and his childhood home. He argues that there are two Canettis: one who wrote the radical, uncompromising early book, Die Blendung, and one who wrote the later best-selling autobiography, "which deceptively appears to tell all". This preference put an end to Canetti's friendship with Magris.

Magris's enormously erudite writings, insightful and full of details, continues the tradition of the Italian philosopher of spirit, Benedetto Croce (1866-1952); his style, lively, self-indulgent, and occasionally ironic, links him to such cultural historians of the 19th and 20th centuries as Jacob Burckhardt and Egon Friedell. "Writing is transcribing," Magris has once said. "Even when an author invents, he transcribes stories and events that life has made him a participant in: without certain faces, certain major and minor events, certain important people, certain bright moments, certain periods of gloom, certain landscapes, certain moments of happiness and despair, many pages would not have been created."

In Danube, in which the river is the guide to the geography, history and culture of Europe from the eastern slopes of the Black Forest to the Black Sea, Magris renews the traditional travelogue, and transforms it into an intellectual treasure-trove filled with fables, literary anecdotes, fantasy, intriguing and eccentric characters and whimsical observations. "Mr. Magris's Danube carries few embarkations, least of all the author's," said Eugen Weber in The New York Times (October 1, 1989). "It beckons him instead from place to place, the means of transport being left in doubt – perhaps a flight of fancy." Magris's image of Europe is basically borderless; its cultures are in a constant dialogue with the past and present. The book won the Chianti Rufino-Antico Fattore International Award and has been translated into some 30 languages.

In the center of the Microcosms is the Cafe San Marco, where Magris himself has done much of his writing. His own portrait is also on one of the café's walls. Magris describes the cafe as "Noah's Arch" and a "suburb of history". The impressionistic journey into landscapes, culture, and people of northern Italy received the prestigious Strega Prize in 1997.

Magris has been honored with many awards. In 2001 Magris was awarded the Erasmus Prize and the Leipzig Book Award. He received the gold medal from Madrid's Círculo de Bellas Artes in 2003 and the 2004 Prince of Asturias Prize for his contribution to Literature. In 2005 he was received the Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa Literary Prize and in 2009 he was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. His recent awards include the 2012 Budapest Prize, the 2009 and 2014 Campiello Prize, and the 2014 Prize in Romance Languages by the Guadalajara International Book Fair. Magris also holds doctorates honoris causa at several universities. In 1964, Magris married Marisa Madieri, a writer, too; she died in 1996. Marisa Madieri was the first reader and editor of his work.

Certain themes – frontier, migration, and exile – come up repeatedly in Magris's work. The border can serve either as a  bridge or as a barrrier. Commenting on the migrant deaths in the Mediterranean, Magris called in Corriere della Sera in 2015 European Union's actions "obscenely" indifferent. "It's as if the Italian government were to offload the problem by saying that it's Sicily's business, given that the survivors, dead or alive, don't get to Rome or Turin."

For further reading: Epica sull'acqua: L'opera letteraria di Claudio Magris by Ernestina Pellegrini (1997); Claudio Magris: l'opera saggistica e narrativa by Licia Governatori (1999); 'Magrix, Claudio' by C.M. [Christopher Mari], in World Authors 2000-2005, ed. by Jennifer Curry, et al. (2007); 'Claudio Magris', in World Literature Today, Vol. 81, Number 4 (2007); The Works of Claudio Magris: Temporary Homes, Mobile Identities, European Borders by Nicoletta Pireddu (2015); European Vistas: History, Ethics and Identity in the Works of Claudio Magris by Remko Smid (2020)

Selected works:

  • Il mito asburgico nella letteratura austriaca moderna, 1963
  • Wilhelm Heinse, 1968
  • Tre studi su Hoffmann, 1969
  • Lontano da dove, Joseph Roth e la tradizione ebraico-orientale, 1971
  • L'anarchico al bivio. Intellettuale e politica nel teatro di Dorst, 1974 (with Cesare Cases)
  • Dietro le parole, 1978
  • L'altra ragione. Tre saggi su Hoffmann, 1978
  • Itaca e oltre, 1982
  • Trieste. Un'identità di frontiera, 1982 (with Angelo Ara)
  • L'Anello di Clarisse, 1984
  • Illazioni su una sciabola, 1984
    - Inferences from a Sabre (translated by Mark Thompson, 1991)
  • Giuseppe Wulz, 1984 (with Italo Zannier)
  • Quale totalità, 1985
  • Danubio, 1986
    - Danube: A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea (translated by Patrick Creagh, 1989)
    - Tonava (suom. Leena Taavitsainen-Petäjä, 2000)
  • Stadelmann, 1988
    - Stadelmann (translated by Paul Vangelisti, in Voices: Three Plays, 2007)
  • Un altro mare, 1991
    - A Different Sea (translated by M.S. Spurr, 1995)
    - Toinen meri (suom. Hannimari Heino, 2021)
  • Il Conde, 1993 [The Count]
  • Le voci, 1995
    - Voices (translated by Paul Vangelisti, in Voices: Three Plays, 2007)
  • Microcosmi, 1997
    - Microcosms (translated by Iain Halliday, 1999)
    - Mikrokosmoksia (suom. Hannimari Heino, 2002)
  • Utopia e disincanto. Saggi 1974-1998, 1999
  • La mostra, 2001
  • Essere già stati, 2001
    - To Have Been (translated by Paul Vangelisti, in Voices: Three Plays, 2007)
  • Alla cieca, 2005
    - Blindly (translated by Anne Milano Appel, 2010) 
  • Lei dunque capirà, 2006 [You Will Therefore Understand]
    - Ymmärrättehän (suom. Hannimari Heino, 2007)
  • Le voci, 2007
    - Voices: Three Plays, 2007 (translated by Paul Vangelisti)
  • Literature, Law, and Europe: The First Romano Guarnieri Lecture in Italian Studies and a Debate with Frans Timmermans, 2009 ( edited by Harald Hendrix)
  • Livelli di guardia: note civili (2006-2011), 2011
  • Teatro, 2012 (contains Le voci, Essere già stati, La mostra, Lei dunque capirà)
  • Opere, 2012- (a cura e con un saggio introduttivo di Ernestina Pellegrini; e uno scritto di Maria Fancelli)
  • Non luogo a procedere, 2015
    - Blameless = Non luogo a procede, 2017 (translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel)
  • Instanee, 2016
    - Snapshots, 2019 (translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel)
  • Comportati come se fossi felice, 2016 (Marco Alloni intervista Claudio Magris)
  • L'infinito viaggiare, 2018
    - Journeying = L'infinito viaggiare, 2018 (translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel)
  • Tempo curvo a Krems, 2020
  • Croce del Sud: tre vite vere e improbabili, 2020

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