Tuesday, 8 March 2016

On Claudio Magris

Some thoughts on Blindly, a novel by Claudio Magris translated by Anne Milano Appel and published by Yale University Press:

Is this really, as Nadine Gordimer implies in a lengthy blurb, the most significant novel since Ulysses?  Or is it, as they say, all gong and no dinner? Faced with Gordimer's oddly-phrased claim that '[n]ot since Joyce's Ulysses has there been great revelation of what the novel can be' one is immediately on guard. Surely there have been many other novels published since 1922 that offered readers a comparable revelation, not least Finnegans Wake. Other encomia from John Banville ('It is surely a masterpiece') and Mario Vargas Llosa ('A magnificent book'), lead one to approach this novel with a wary scepticism. Is it really that good?

Magris, the author of over 35 books, is little known in the Anglophone world. Born in Trieste in 1939 (home in earlier years of Italo Svevo and, of course, James Joyce, whose brother Stanislaus taught Magris's father English), he is a professor of modern German literature at the University of Trieste and an essayist and columnist for Corriere della Sera whose celebrated Page 3, once given over entirely to cultural matters, has featured the work of just about every major writer in Italy, including Eugenio Montale, Italo Calvino, Pasolini, Oriana Fallaci and Indro Montanelli. Magris is a class act, a big hitter, a major European writer.

Magris has form. He won the Bagutta Prize (1987), the Strega Prize (1997), the Erasmus Prize and the Leipzig Book Award (2001), the gold medal from Madrid's Círculo de Bellas Artes (2003), a Prince of Asturias Award for Literature (2004), the Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa Literary Prize (2005), the Austrian State Prize for European Literature (2006), the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade and the Prix européen de l'Essai Charles Veillon (both 2009). He's also been hotly-tipped  for the Nobel Prize. (although 'hotly-tipped' is a phrase that always implies ultimate failure, as in 'hotly-tipped to be the next Tory PM'') All of which again makes one somehow resistant. To cap it all he spent two years as a senator in the Italian government and, his Wikipedia entry adds, 'his numerous studies have helped to promote an awareness in Italy of Central European culture and of the literature of the Habsburg myth.'

The Hapsburg myth may or may not be a subject to set your pulses racing, but there's plenty to command your interest and admiration in Blindly which is, I can confirm, an extraordinary and challenging novel. 

First published in Italy in 2006 as Alla cieca, it was the author's first novel in twenty years and caused quite a stir.. It's a torrential first person narrative delivered, or so it seems at first, by one Jorgen Jorgensen, a nineteenth-century Danish explorer who briefly and farcically became ruler of Iceland and subsequently led a ramshackle life as a gambler, drunk and spy, spending stretches in Newgate Prison before being deported to Tasmania where he assisted in the aboriginal clearances, an atrocious genocide which completely wiped out the aboriginal population by 1876. But Jorgensen is, we learn, a literary device - the actual narrator is an unnamed pazzo lucido, or lucid madman, who appears elsewhere in the book as the fervent anti-communist Comrade Cippico - aka Tore (Salvatore) Cippico-Čipiko (Cipico) - imprisoned in Tito's notorious gulag on the barren Adriatic island of Goti Otok. Created after the Second World War, it was a Dachau-like hellhole - a place of violence, torture and massacre for Ustashi and Yugoslavian Fascists and (after 1948) Stalinists. Around 2,000 communist workers from Monfalcone, a small town near Trieste, were also rounded up and incarcerated and their fate forms the dark heart of this novel. It remained in operation until 1988, and was a taboo subject in Yugoslavia until Antonije Isaković's best-selling novel Tren (Moment), published only after Tito's death in 1980.

Cipico is also the voice of many other characters - prisoners, sailors, dissidents - in what the publishers call a 'choral monologue" but which might also, more pretentiously, be described as an aural palimpsest. The translation doesn't make much distinction between the different voices although this may well be an effect the author intended. The initial challenge (for this reader, at least) was to find much interest in any of these necessarily unreliable and opaquely-rendered voices, but by page thirty I was gripped, and completely won over because, some tiresome post-modern trickery aside, Magris has an important and compelling story to tell and tells it masterfully. The translator provides a helpful Afterword (best read, I suggest, before tackling the novel itself) giving the historic background to Goli Otok, the depiction of which is the novel's real strength. The two principle voices of Jorgensen and Cipico are interchangeable and shared with the aforementioned madman. The whole book is structured - rather unoriginally - as a sort of confessional letter to the lunatic narrator's psychiatrist, a Doctor Ulcigrai. The text raises the usual post-modern issues of identity, of coherence and integrities both personal and aesthetic, but it does so in unpredictable ways, through the glass of history, darkly. 

Comparisons with Joyce - while inevitable - are misleading, despite the intriguing links to Trieste. No writer has yet come close to doing what Joyce did in his masterpiece, and what writer would even bother to try? Come to that, why don't we all settle for the fact that Ulysses is, and will remain, the pinnacle of achievement in the novel at at time when the novel carried greater cultural weight, especially among a small and influential audience, and that almost everything since amounts to footnotes and postscripts and academic exegesis. 

As a fictional account of the twentieth century Blindly falls somewhere between Anthony Burgess's boisterous Earthly Powers and the melancholy reflections of W. G. Sebald. Yale recently published The Lair by the Romanian novelist Norman Manea and I was reminded too often when reading Blindly of that novel's shortcomings - its opacity, dullness, repetition and redundancy; its sub-Kafkaesque meanderings and its pervading blah-ness. Is this an issue of translation only? Or a problem faced by the average (and above-average) reader when engaging with these very literary, highly talented yet conventional writers with their grab-bag of post-modern tricks and treats). For all I know Joyce's magnum opus is a dud in Serbo-Croat or Tagalog. Their loss.

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