Claudio Magris’ Darkly Humorous Travels
Four Anecdotes From the Triestine Writer
In a room packed with people, in Budapest, a literary conference is under way. At some point alarmed voices can be heard among the crowd, calling for a doctor. An old man, dressed in a blue suit and a white shirt with a stiff collar, has slumped, ashen and lifeless, on a chair. Windows are opened, someone calls an ambulance, the man is carried into an adjoining room and laid on a couch. On the podium, organizers and speakers exchange embarrassed glances, not knowing what to do, torn between respect for life—or rather for (possible) death—and duty toward the public, the instinctive urge to complete something started no matter what, the narcissistic desire to hear one’s own book praised; and for each the fear, should the worst happen right when he is speaking, of being viewed as a jinx. Some probably hope that if it really must happen it not happen there but somewhere else, in the hospital, preferably the following day.
Reassuring but cautious word coming from the other room, progressively more positive, leads to a resumption of the talks, which, after some awkwardness, proceed more and more smoothly and brilliantly and end with predictable satisfaction. After the conference, a rich, delectable buffet awaits in another salon, which in a few minutes turns into a crush of people gorging themselves heartily. Suddenly spotted in the midst of the mob is the elderly man, apparently moribund just a short while before, who has fully recovered—probably from a drop in blood sugar—and is stuffing himself with palacinke and sausage as he stands there, jostled by the crowd, hands juggling glasses and paper plates.
One of the lecturers looks at him, frowning, perhaps indignant that his reading should have been interrupted by a trifling indisposition; to justifiably interrupt a writer like him requires a serious reason, such as something that actually has to do with death or at least its possibility, not a trivial disruption, unequal to the importance and weight of his books. Death should not be so unreliable. However, you can’t arouse people’s pity twice in a short period of time; if the old man were to die now, with that chocolate cake in his hands, it would move people much less than two hours earlier. Even for a famous person it would have been quite a misfortune to die shortly after Versace and Princess Diana, when the heart’s orgy of mushy sentimentality had for some time depleted the reserves of lachrymal fluid.
June 14, 1999
Forget colors? On via Bramante, in Trieste, almost opposite the house where Joyce lived, a sign, printed in block letters with decisive pen strokes, peremptorily urges: “forget colors!” It is strange to read it on the way back from the sea and the Quarnero (Kvarner) islands, where high summer ignites and by degrees blends all the colors of glory and nostalgia, the honey and gold of the light, the indigo and turquoise of the water, the fleshy pink and red of the oleanders, the black of night, so black as to appear blue. Why forget, instead of holding on to these ageless colors, which for a moment make us feel immortal? Perhaps the unknown author of the sign would say that it is good to forget them for that very reason, because that glimmer of immortality and Eros makes us feel more bitterly the sting of being mortal and knowing that Eros is too, and that white and black are therefore more bearable, more suited to the grayness of life. Or maybe the exhortation to forget tells us that those colors are a lie, a showy picture postcard, a travel agency brochure of fabricated paradises, false promises of true life, a romance novel disguised as a love poem. It may also be that the inscription was written upon awakening from a hallucinogenic state, emerging from visions of tints of unbearable intensity.Why forget, instead of holding on to these ageless colors, which for a moment make us feel immortal?
Alternatively, perhaps the graffiti is the work of a scientist, cautioning that colors do not exist but are merely light waves that the brain, like a fraudulent simultaneous interpreter, translates improperly into chromatic perceptions. No blue, amaranth, or green, then, but numbers, abstract mathematical signs that measure the wavelengths; so forget colors, as you forget childhood fairy tales later belied by reality. Nevertheless the anonymous author has distinguished colleagues and predecessors: poets, scientists, and philosophers who have discussed colors, from Goethe to Steiner to Wittgenstein. Goethe would certainly take aim at him, as he went after Newton and his formulas, fiercely defending the veracity of the senses and their experience. Red and blue are different wavelengths of light that reach our eyes and our brain, lengths that are numerically quantifiable, but the fact that we see red and blue—and are enchanted by their changing color on an evening—is no less real than those numbers; it is a concrete event of our life and the world. A beloved body is also the sum of countless invisible atoms, but seeing and touching that body is an experience no less objective than the computation of those atoms.
Don’t forget colors, then, but remember every nuance, every gleam. Language, unfortunately, is unequal to the variety of their gradations; the DuMont color atlas lists (and reproduces) 999 distinguishable hues, but is forced to name them with number combinations, because no dictionary can be of help. But poetry primarily exists to name things or to create their names; there are perhaps hundreds of writers in the world, each capable of coming up with a name for each of those shades. Who knows, one of them might be the author of that Triestine inscription, who must love colors if he resorted to such harsh rejection; invectives too, as we know, are part of the language of lovers.
September 5, 2000
I learn belatedly, thanks to the seaside indolence of August on a Dalmatian island that piles up stacks of outdated newspapers and weeklies, that in Denmark they have purged—I imagine from the schools—a tale by Hans Christian Andersen with a Christian ending, or Christian elements in any case, so as not to offend the faithful of other churches. In its respectful stupidity, this is a decisive step in the universal history of censorship. In this case, it is a well-intentioned censorship, moved by a concern not to upset cultural or religious minorities. But censorship, after all, is always well-intentioned: it seeks to protect morality, one’s country, the family, institutions, order, society, progress, the people, the children, health. In this case, a new formula is chosen: instead of burning a book or forbidding followers to read it, as did the Index librorum prohibitorum at one time, the book is adapted to the alleged needs of the readers, a little like the adaptations of literary masterpieces for children that were used in the days of my childhood, or scholastic editions of the classics, in which the risqué passages—for example, in the Odyssey, Odysseus shipwrecked on the island of the Phoenicians who comes out of the sea naked—were replaced by a series of suspension points.
In the 19th century a Barnabite or Piarist priest, worried that the suspension points might cause the kids’ imaginations to gallop dangerously, substituted verses written by himself, decorously innocuous, in the masterpieces he had to explain to his pupils, so that Andromeda’s bare breasts became waves crashing on the rocks, and so on. If this grotesque example were followed, it would involve a huge increase in jobs, as would, for instance, the proposal for high school instructors to teach in dialect. Hundreds, thousands of texts to purge, abridge, expand, correct, rewrite. In a democratic country, censorship is the same for everyone; repressive tolerance—or repression in the name of tolerance—is the salt of democracy. According to these paradoxical criteria, Alessandro Manzoni should be entirely stripped of his Catholicism and his faith in Providence, any trace of Epicurean materialism should disappear from Lucretius, and every Leopardian meaning of life from Giacomo Leopardi, not to irritate anyone. In fortunate epochs of anticommunism like ours, Bertolt Brecht should be radically divested of every Marxist or otherwise revolutionary nuance, while Rudyard Kipling, on the other hand, should be relieved of his British imperialist ideas, albeit happily contradicted by his imaginative sensibility, not to offend the Indians.
Based on this aberrant though rigid logic, censorship should be especially pitiless toward religious texts, particularly objectionable to those who do not share their beliefs. The Qur’an is fine as long as all references to Allah and His Prophet are removed. The Gospel, too, contains many subversive things that displease Catholics, Protestants, the Orthodox, Muslims, and atheists; Jesus who lashes the merchants, drags the apostles away from their families and even questions the bond between himself and his mother, bothers many people. Not to mention when he says that to save one’s life one must lose it, or forbids worrying about tomorrow and praises the lilies of the field that neither reap nor work but are worth more than the glory of Solomon; for ultra-capitalists of the Chicago School it is an intolerable blasphemy that must be purged.Repressive tolerance—or repression in the name of tolerance—is the salt of democracy.
But censoring Dante or Manzoni out of regard for non-Catholics would not be enough. Even among the latter there are not only saints like Fra Cristoforo, but also many cowardly Don Abbondios, many mellifluous prelates similar to the Father Provincial who out of political expediency bends to the arrogance of the count, his uncle, and many women like Donna Prassede convinced that they are interpreting to perfection God’s will that they identify with their own. For severely bigoted and reactionary Catholics there should be editions of Manzoni’s Promessi sposi (The Betrothed) adapted to their tastes; editions, for example, in which Cardinal Federigo praises Don Abbondio for his conformism and turns a blind eye to the cravings of Don Rodrigo, who is more worthy of note than two poor devils like Renzo and Lucia. For traditionalists, all Greek poetry should be cleansed of every homosexual reference; for others, instead, all stories in which the lovers are heterosexual should be banned in erotic novels, insofar as they are an implicit though tacit offense to those who are not.
All in all those editors who impose—often, it seems, in the United States—a happy ending on a novel that the author had concluded in tragedy or vice versa, according to their reckoning of the audience of the moment, are indeed doing something similar. Such revisions would create work for legions of unemployed writers. Literary history would even be enriched by all these variants; every artist transformed into Proteus, every book personalized and tailormade for the potential reader, a Library of Babel that has been further multiplied. Everyone would be content, since his expectations and demands would be met and his convictions never challenged. A book, said Paul Valéry, helps us not to think, and that is what, deep in our hearts, each of us wants most fervently.
August 30, 2009
The Cemeteries Office of the city of Trieste. The line of people who, though not yet the end users, are for various reasons inquiring about a final resting place—presumably for persons more or less dearly beloved who have passed on to a better life and are in need of suitable accommodation or, as required by law after a certain number of years, of being moved (urn, niche, mass grave)—is small. A city with few births and therefore few deaths.
The physical proximity of the gentleman in front of me who has already arrived at the window makes it inevitable that I indiscreetly overhear what the two are saying, the citizen and the clerk at his service. Something—some detail, a procedural error, a missing document—connected with the evidently recent departure of the man’s father, not yet returned to the earth, at least in a literal sense. I understand that the grave that awaits him—and there is some discussion about the reasons for the protracted wait—is a family plot. The two argue back and forth; the orphan, though by age more than suited to that state, objects to something, the other responds by appealing to records, stamps, signatures. At one point the clerk, slightly exasperated but always with the decorous, indifferent regard owed to someone else’s death, asks again who the owner or owners of the grave may be. “It belongs to my father,” the man replies. The clerk looks up, leans slightly forward through the window, closer to the man’s face. “I’m sorry to tell you,” he says coldly “your father is no longer the owner of anything.” One definition of death as good as another. At school, the catechism instructor spoke instead of “separation of the soul from the body.”
July 10, 2014
From Snapshots by Claudio Magris; translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel. Published by Yale University Press in February 2019 in the Margellos World Republic of Letters series. Reproduced by permission.