Tag Archives: Claudio Magris

Nil de Nilo Fit: A Different Sea by Claudio Magris

ἀρετή τιμὴν φέρει, (excellence brings honor), are the first words spoken by Magris’s protagonist in A Different Sea.  Enrico has graduated from the Royal Imperial Staatsgymnasium of Gorizia and has decided to set sail for Patagonia in an attempt to live an authentic life, free from material items, worry,  and The Great War which is about to break out in Europe.  His mind has been shaped by the Ancient Greek texts that he and his friends Nino and Carlo are so fond of reading in Nino’s attic room:

Up in Nino’s attic in Gorizia they would read Homer, the tragedians, the Pre-Socratics, Plato, and the New Testament in the original Greek, and Schopenhauer—also, of course, in the original; the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Sermon of Benares and the other teachings of Buddha; Ibsen, Leopardi, and Tolstoy.  They used to exchange their thoughts and describe the day’s events, like that story of Carlo and the dog, in ancient Greek, and then translate them into Latin for fun.

Enrico has an existential crisis in his youth as he is trying to decide what, for him, constitutes excellence in his life.  To the Homeric heroes he is so fond of studying, excellence comes in the form of success on the battlefield which, in turn, brings them honor.  Enrico’s search for purpose in life seems to have more elements of Epicurean philosophy than Homeric values.  He feels the most content when he is with his friends, in the attic, discussing life and Greek philosophy.  Epicurus himself achieved ἀταραξία (a lack of disturbance) sitting in his garden and contemplating human existence with his friends.

The Epicurean elements of Magris’s text continue as Enrico traverses the ocean in order to reach South America.  Enrico craves simplicity, has no interest in politics, avoids pain and has no fear of death.  On board the ship, when he is told the story of a famous captain who dies at sea Enrico remarks: “Nil de nilo fit et nil in nilum abit” (nothing happens from nothing and nothing will go into nothing).  Once he reaches Argentina he spends weeks and months alone herding his flocks and living in a modest hut with only a bed and a few Greek books.

When Enrico finally returns home he settles in Salvore and also lives a modest life in a small house and rents his land out to tenants.  But he still remains unhappy and unfulfilled since his friends have all died and he fails to make connections with anyone else in his life.  Every time he has the chance to get close to someone, especially a woman, he ends up driving them away.  His poor relationship with women begins early in his life with his mother whom he feels favors his younger brother.  He finds comfort in having a woman with him who can also fulfill his sexual needs but he treats each woman he lives with very badly.  Even his niece, for whom he at first develops a fondness, is treated poorly and verbally abused by Enrico.  In the end Enrico’s loneliness and his failure to achieve ἀταραξία are due to his inability to make emotional connections with other people in his life.  He never finds his excellence, his reason for living, something that can bring him honor and self-satisfaction.

I found Magris’s writing in A Different Sea as enjoyable as his longer novel Blameless which I recently reviewed.  He is fond of weaving images of the sea into his stories, imbedding stories within stories in his texts, and portraying flawed characters who are searching for meaning in this random, crazy life.

Here is a link to a recent interview with Claudio Magris whose English translation of Blameless has just been published by Yale University Press: http://blog.yupnet.org/2017/04/13/writing-as-witness-a-conversation-with-claudio-magris/

For a more detailed discussion of excellence and honor in Homer see my thoughts on Logue’s War Music: https://thebookbindersdaughter.com/2017/03/23/excellence-and-honor-in-logues-war-music/

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Filed under Historical Fiction, Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Novella, World War I

Review: Blameless by Claudio Magris

I received a review copy of this title from Yale University Press.  This book was published in the original Italian in 2015 and this English edition has been translated by Anne Milano Appel

My Review:
The unnamed protagonist in Blameless has been obsessively collecting items associated with fighting and warfare for decades in order to establish a war museum in his native home of Triste.  His collecting began shortly after World War II, during which time he helped negotiate the liberation of Triste.  He gathered so many items throughout the course of these post-World War II years that they could only be stored in a hangar.  His entire life was consumed with establishing his museum to the point that he even slept among his objects and papers.  When he dies in a fire that consumes him and some of his precious objects in the hangar, it is a woman named Luisa that is tasked with curating the museum and organizing his notes, objects and stories.

The novel is not easy to read and both its images and its disjointed structure make it disconcerting, but also appropriate for a story that deals with the violence and atrocities of war.  While he was collecting items for his war museum, the narrator also kept copious and detailed notes in a series of journals, some of which were presumed lost in the fire that killed him.  The narrative alternates between pages from the narrator’s journal, descriptions of items that are to be displayed in the museum, and Luisa, the curator’s, own story as a child of a Jewish woman and a black man.  The most difficult parts of the narrative to read and grasp are the narrator’s thoughts in his journal.  There are layers of stories within stories, personal reflections, and names of spies, informants, victims and those involved with perpetrating war crimes.

Magris does not shy away from describing atrocities of war.  Scenes of torture, for example, and descriptions of the last moments of victims who are sent to the gas chambers at the Risiera are described.  The unnamed narrator’s collection culminated with his copying into his journals the words written on the walls of the Risiera by victims who were about to be murdered by the Nazis.  But the notebooks in which he transcribed these horrors go missing and Luisa is left to speculate what mysteries they contain about the horrific evens that occurred  in Triste during the war.

There is a constant tension in the book between images of love and death.  Items of war—guns, tanks, axes and bullets are meticulously described as Luisa plans how they will be displayed in the war museum.  The final, violent days of the liberation of Triste are related by the narrator in great detail.  And the violent death of Lusia’s aunt, a nurse serving in the war, who  is kicked to death by a band of racist thugs is found within the pages of this war novel.  But there are also glimmers of love and even hope.  Luisa’s mother Sara, orphaned when her own Jewish mother is killed during the war, comes out of her deep depression when she meets her husband, a black American who comes to Europe for the liberation.   Together they bond over the persecution that their ancestors have suffered through the course of many generations.   They find a deep level of comfort in one another’s company that sometimes not even their daughter cannot penetrate.  Magris eloquently relates their first night together in his lyrical prose:

Every sunset is different, in all the thousands of millennia no two evening’s glowing embers have been identical; the switch instead wastes no time with lighting effects, its’ not a huckster trying to lure mothers with glittering trinkets for their children, but always turns on the same light and turns it off to the same darkness, like someone who takes his job seriously.  But one night, that night, when the dark hand—dark on the back, the palm was lighter—which had gently touched her arm helping her up the poorly lit stairs had reached to turn the handle and open the door, Sara, looking at the strong, powerful brown hand, had felt that even a small mundane gesture can reveal a man and that something can change, suddenly, in your heart.

One image that struck me which is ubiquitous in Magris’s narrative is that of the sea.  The sea is presented as both a source of comfort but also something that can consume, overwhelm and suffocate.  The book opens with a description of the narrator’s acquisition of a submarine and his of his fear of the sea.  By contrast, Luisa’s mother has fond memories of Salvore, a town by the sea on the other side of the Gulf of Triste where her mother safely hides her during the war.  In these scenes Magris writes about a sea that is calming and beautiful:  “The sea is blue, a dazzling light;  when it reverberates in the fierce noonday heat its brilliance is blinding, a darkness in which you cannot see anything, like at night.”   Luisa’s mother uses the blinding, white light of the sea as a shelter from the war that is being waged around her.

In the very last scene in the book. however, Magris returns to the image of the all-consuming sea and the submarine.  As the narrator is suffocating in the conflagration of his hangar and hallucinating, he conflates his own death scene with the deaths of those who were suffocated and burned at the Risiera.  As he is dying he has the chilling and horrific sensation that he is sinking in one of those submarines along with the other victims in the war.  As the sea is swallowing him he sees the remnants of his war museum:

I must have entered the submarine that I had the Navy give me.  Yes, I’m going under; through the porthole I can see the white pages with those numbers and names sinking to the bottom.  They dumped the waste into the sea, into the gorge, they dumped us here, between the Patoc and the sea, the water can’t be very deep, but we’re going down, down, throwing garbage into the sea is a crime and so is throwing men in, but the judge declares there is no cause to indict.

I was impressed with the high level of Magris’s erudition mixed with his poetic language and intriguing plot.  Much like Compass which I recently finished,  is not an easy read, but for those who enjoy a literary challenge then I highly recommend Blameless.  Has anyone else read any other Magris books?  I also have Danube sitting on my “to read” pile.

About the Author and Translator:
Claudio Magris has been a professor of Germanic studies at the University of Trieste since 1978. He is the author of Danube, a best-selling novel now translated into more than twenty languages, and in 2001 he was awarded the Erasmus Prize. He has translated into Italian the works of such authors as Ibsen, Kleist, Schnitzler, Buchner, and Grillparzer.

Anne Milano Appel is a professional translator. Her translation of Stefano Bortolussi’s novel Head Above Water was the winner of the 2004 Northern California Book Award for Translation.

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Filed under Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation