A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea
by Claudio Magris
“What the History is really about lies behind this: man, giant-sized, seen against the background of the entire world, universalized in his conflict with destiny, the gods, and the cosmic order. The medium that is most fertile in showing the true nature of reality is the human mind, remembering, reflective, and fertile most of all when its memory and reflection are put at the service of its dreaming and fantastic side.” ― Herodotus, The Histories
There are certain books that are sui generis and this is one of those books. In part, it reminded me of the cultural stories that the first historian, Herodotus, included in his original work , The Histories, that provides the foundation for the idea of written history. While he focuses on the mind of men who have lived and ruled and dreamed on and about the Danube, ultimately Magris's work is different and as a result unique in its aspect. Danube is both a catalog of histories and myths about a place over time. The place is a river that begins in a geographic region but also begins in a time and continues to exist through generations of changes to this day.
Included in the journey down the Danube through history are stories of people and places and times; stories that are both historical and fictional, mythical and real. These stories complement a travelogue that highlights places and times and people and more. Most interesting and important for this reader were the stories of literature that derives from the residents and the being of the river. The names are familiar and include: Kafka, Freud, Wittgenstein, Marcus Aurelius, Musil, Ovid, Celine, Von Rezzori, and others, some of whom I encountered for the first time in this work.
The book begins with a discussion of the sources of the Danube -- sources of the river which "were the object of investigations, conjectures or information of Herodotus, Strabo, Caesar, Pliny, Ptolemy, the Pseudo-Scymnus, Seneca, Mela and Eratosthenes." These sources and the river that they feed have been the subject of history, politics, philosophy, mythology, and geography for millennia during which the Roman and the Holy Roman Empires rose and fell along with subsequent cities and countries into the twentieth century.
Early in the book the Danube is described as "a sinuous master of irony, of that irony which created the greatness of Central European culture," and as such it is the central conduit of Mitteleuropa and all that it implies. The river encompasses many great cities such as Ulm "of the old Germany of the Holy Roman Empire", yet also the birthplace of Albert Einstein. And of course there is Vienna which is in some ways at the center of the Danube journey if for no other reason than its cultural impact that extends to the new world and to this day, decades after the documentation of the journey of the Danube.
Another highlight on the journey is Passau where we are reminded of the literature and art inspired by the Danube. The author narrates the story of Siegfried from the Song of the Niebelungs ( a story also found in the Nordic saga the Edda) and shares the love and loyalty that is rendered there. Yet it is also a region that inspired the twentieth-century literature of Kafka. The juxtaposition of Kafka with the ancient legends leads to an even stranger one when moving on to Linz one finds the journey progressing (regressing?) through a city that Hitler once planned to recreate into a "refuge of his old age, the place he yearned to retire to after consolidating the Reich that was to last a thousand years". Yet, fortunately for lovers of literature Linz was also the home of the novelist Adalbert Stifter who, even if you have not heard of him (and I had not), was capable of prose comparable to that of Flaubert's Education Sentimentale. It is this same river that also inspired works by Musil and Svevo. It is this literature that inspires Magris to comment as follows:
"Men without qualities, those landlocked armchair explorers, have their contraceptives always in their pockets, and Mitteleuropean culture taken as a whole is also a large-scale process of intellectual contraception. Whereas on the epic sea is Aphrodite born, and there--as Conrad writes -- we conquer forgiveness for our sins and the salvation of our immortal souls; we remember that once we were gods."(p 137)
The stories of the Danube continue to abound in this epic work. Included are the names like Hegel and Canetti and Roth; the historical figures like Eichmann and Princess Elisabeth and Vlad the Impaler; the music of Schubert and Mozart and Strauss. All are epitomized for this reader by Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy and Strauss's Blue Danube Waltz. Even the geography of the river itself begins and ends in myth.
There is more and it flows from the richness, the depth, and the historical grandeur of this book. It is one whose deepness reaches realms that make the challenge of reading it (it is not an "easy read") worthwhile. Finally it is one of the most erudite and intelligent books I have read and that makes it also one of the most enjoyable and interesting.
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