By ERIC SOLSTEN
In a program co-sponsored by the Italian Cultural Institute, the Embassy of Italy and the Library's European Division, Italian writer Claudio Magris presented his latest work, Microcosms, to a packed audience in the Mumford Room of the Madison Building on Oct. 22.
Born in 1939, Mr. Magris began his literary career in 1963 when, at the age of 24, he published his first book, Il mito absburgo nella letteratura austriaca moderna (The Hapsburg Myth in Modern Austrian Literature). Working as a novelist, essayist and professor of German literature at the University of Trieste, throughout his career Mr. Magris has continued to probe many of the subjects central to his first book. He has written that even as Mitteleuropa (Central Europe) experienced a crisis of political and intellectual dissolution, the Hapsburg Empire was able to forge from its diversity an order and harmony in which such writers as Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmansthal, Karl Kraus, Franz Kafka and Joseph Roth could thrive. These writers were able to document this dissolution and reveal the existential predicament of individuals faced with the cultural crisis of a once monolithic social order.
Mr. Magris's first novel, Inferences on a Sabre, which appeared in Italian in 1984 and in English in 1990, tells the story of Cossacks brought to northeastern Italy late in World War II by the Germans who told them they would be given a new homeland there if they fought against the advancing Red Army. Eager for a homeland with borders, the Cossacks complied, only to be betrayed and slaughtered at war's end.
Mr. Magris's most critically acclaimed works are Danube, published in Italy in 1986 and in the United States in 1989, and Microcosms, which was published in Italy in 1997 where it won the Strega Prize, Italy's top literary award; it is being published in English by Harvill Press. Both books are written in the form of travelogues that range widely through time and space. Danube follows the course of the Danube River from its origins to the Black Sea; Microcosms begins and ends in Trieste, with excursions to other areas of Italy, such as Turin. It consists of a series of stories about memorable and well-defined characters, one of which was read by a professional actress, Melissa O'Connor, in English. Mr. Magris read another selection from the book in Italian.
The program was introduced by John Van Oudenaren, the chief of the European Division, and Professor Roberto Severino, chairman of the Italian Department at Georgetown University, who placed Mr. Magris in the broader context of Italian and European literature. Professor Severino noted that in his latest book, a collection of essays not yet translated into English, Mr. Magris wrote that the task of the writer is to take shipwrecked lives out of the water and "take them aboard a precarious Noah's Ark made of paper." This rescue attempt is a utopian one, but "utopia gives meaning to life because, contrary to any realistic expectation, it demands that life must have a meaning."
During a question-and-answer session that followed the readings, Mr. Magris spoke about literature, other writers he has known and admired and the art of writing. He observed that "literature is a journey from the known to the unknown, and from the unknown to the known" and said that only after he has written the first third of a book does he know what he is writing. Speaking about the ultimate journey from life to death that figures in his books, he quoted a Hasidic proverb: "Man comes from dust and returns to dust, but in the meantime he can drink a glass of wine."
A constant theme in his writing, Mr. Magris said, was borders of every kind: national, political, social, psychological and linguistic. He stated that his fascination with borders no doubt stems from the fact that he grew up in Trieste, which is on the border between Italy and Yugoslavia. As a very young child, he could travel eastward from Trieste, but with the creation of the Iron Curtain after World War II, these well-known areas suddenly were closed to him.
Mr. Magris noted that literature can be a journey across borders of any kind.
Mr. Solsten is a reference librarian in the European Division.