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Writing as Witness: A Conversation with Claudio Magris

Anne Milano Appel—

Translating Claudio Magris’ Blameless was not the first time I had the honor and happy privilege of working with this magnanimous author (a word I use in the Aristotelian sense, which, according to its Latin etymology—magnus as “great,” and animus, “soul”—connotes a true generosity of spirit). An earlier conversation with him took place at the time Yale Press published Blindly (brought out earlier in Canada by Hamish Hamilton). Today we continue our conversation to celebrate the publication of Blameless.


Anne Milano Appel: Claudio, people generally think of book-writing as a planned endeavor. Sometimes, though, there is a random element that may inspire a book, some accidental or external origin. Can you tell us how you came to write this book, and what in particular inspired you?

Claudio Magris: As Wordsworth writes in the 1800 “Preface” to the Lyrical Ballads, “Not that I always began to write with a distinct purpose formerly conceived.” In general, in my own case, a work of fiction has a twofold origin. One is a profound interest in a subject, a story, a character, which touched me deeply and around which I often circle without quite knowing what will emerge. For the most part, in order for this profound interest to rise to the surface to become a form, a character, a story, what is often required is some small, chance event to act, so to speak, as a midwife. For example— though it is only one of the many I could cite—Blindly was certainly the product of my abiding, relentless concern with the terrible, unbelievable story of Goli Otok, the Titoist gulag in which so many communists, who had already experienced persecution and the Nazi lagers, perished. I brooded on that story, took notes, set out in one direction and another. Suddenly the book took shape, oddly enough, when in Antwerp, in Belgium, I saw some extraordinary figureheads. I don’t know why, but those female figures—placed on the prow of the ship as if to first receive the blows and buffets of the storm-driven waves—and especially their dilated eyes staring far off in horror, as if seeing the approach of catastrophes as yet invisible to others, had loosened up that clot of stories, that tangle of narrative paths that I had within me.

In the case of Blameless as well, the figure of the protagonist in particular—with his manic constructing of a universal War Museum, and his horrible death—revolved in my head for many years. But in 2009, in my speech of thanks for the Peace Prize conferred on me in Frankfurt, I began by recalling that eccentric Triestine who had dedicated his life to the building of his vast, bizarre War Museum. At the end of my speech in the solemn atmosphere of the Paulskirche, I felt, I decided, that I would write a novel with this man as a starting point but expanded to include many other things. The teeming confusion was clarified; I saw that those objects, those weapons in the Museum, would be transformed into the story of the individuals who had held them, who had killed with them or been killed by them. Also impelling me to write was the strange, disquieting oblivion with which Trieste, my city, had for so long shrouded, in its desire to forget, the appalling story of the Risiera of San Sabba, the old rice factory where in the final two years of the Second World War the Nazis had imprisoned and murdered so many victims. A collective oblivion, a scraping away of the collective memory, an amputation of the city’s hippocampus, and the nation’s. History as neurosurgery.

Despite these themes, in the end—though I did not know this at the start—the novel is also and perhaps above all the story, completely invented, of Luisa, the woman whose responsibility it is to organize and prepare the Museum after the death of its originator. Thus began five, close on six, years of work, writing and rewriting, investigating innumerable events, pursuing the numberless stories that took me to so many other times and places.

AMA: Do you see a relationship between Blameless and your earlier Blindly? Perhaps, for example, between Blindly’s “pazzo lucido” and the obsessive collector who endows the museum in Blameless?

CM: Certainly there is a relationship and an affinity between Blameless and Blindly, but not in regards to their protagonists. Both, for sure, are on the brink of madness, but Salvatore, the protagonist of Blindly, is a man who from the beginning is driven by passions on a grand scale, by ideals that indeed are perhaps utopian, even dangerous, but noble—ideals of justice, of the struggle against oppression. He is broken, in his mind as well, by the collapse of these ideals. It is not the suffering inflicted by the Nazis that crushes him, but the suffering inflicted by the one-time companions of his struggle, a shock that reveals to him the nonsense of the world.                                                        

The male protagonist of Blameless, by contrast, is from the beginning a man possessed by a sterile mania, idolatrous and fetishist, which drives him to collect objects, to want to confine the world in a museum, obsessed with showing the atrocities of war in every area of life. But this character in the end makes a truly mortal leap from a sterile, compulsive mania, which saps life, to a divine mania similar to that of the Greeks: that of poetry, the highest meaning of life. So he sets himself the task of searching for the names written by the prisoners, condemned to death, on the walls of the Risiera, names not of the executioners or their victims, both well known, but names of possible accomplices, people of good Triestine society who came to visit the Nazi torturers, people with no trace of blood on their hands, but who had no problem shaking hands that were covered in it. Those names, mysteriously erased from the walls of the Risiera soon after the Liberation, perhaps recorded by the protagonist in his notebooks that disappeared equally mysteriously, are the object of a search which is the product of a desire for human truth, not sterile obsession.

AMA: As Galileo reminded us, “Non basta guardare, occorre guardare con occhi che vogliono vedere”; it is not enough to look, one must look with eyes that want to see. Like Blindly before it, Blameless tells a story of wrongs inflicted and endured. Do you think of yourself as an author-witness, determined to rip off the blindfold and reveal the senselessness of war, cruelty and oppression?

CM: I recognize myself fully in this quotation from Galileo. Though I do not in the least overrate my capacities and chances in struggling against injustice, lying, cruelty and oppression, I believe this is the primary duty of every man, however modest his powers, and therefore the writer’s duty as well. I believe that every life deserves respect and that it is the job of the writer—let us say it is my instinctive vocation—to go in search of every life, however unimportant. When I was writing Danube and was wandering through the Danubian countries, for instance, I did a little research into exactly how much a certain Signor Wammes, a miller, was paid when he sold his trousers and gave the proceeds towards the work of restoring the Cathedral of Ulm. Naturally it wasn’t important to know whether he had received and then donated 10 florins or 12. The important thing was to show that every unknown Signor Wammes had the same right to “philology,” a word that etymologically contains love, as the great personages of history. In this sense I think I can say “yes” to your question—I do feel I am a witness, albeit one who is at times dismayed and uncertain, sometimes passionate and furious, on occasion enchanted.

AMA: The unnamed protagonist in Blameless is a collector—of weapons, refuse and debris, scrap iron, discarded slips of paper. He is also in search of the truth. You are also after the truth and you are a collector of stories. Do you collect other things as well?

CM: I love many things, but only when one thing or another is linked to a particular moment in my life or my experience, to a person, a deep feeling. So, for example, I keep not only the letters of those dear to me who have meant or mean something in my life but also, for instance, two or three white stones, immaculate and dazzling, which I collected on the seashore of Cherso, the island of the Adriatic which has been and still is a fundamental horizon in my life. To give another example, I also keep the figurines which as a child I used to put in the manger—five or six Magi, because three seemed to me too few. But I am in no way a collector; I am not interested in the complete collection of anything. I think that collecting, in itself, is something sterile, an anxiety to gather and arrange the world which becomes interesting only because it is the anxiety of a man.

AMA: What do you see as the relevance of Blameless in this particular point in our history? How do the people and events relate to the world we are living in today?

CM: It is not up to me to speak of the relevance of my book. I believe that it is, unfortunately, very much attuned to the war that nowadays is spreading and erupting all over the globe. We are really and truly in a fourth world war; the third is over, with the West victorious, but now there is a fourth, scattered a little everywhere, and we don’t quite know who is against whom. A war that seems to take on tones less heroic than grotesque, tragically farcical, a hodgepodge of increasing and unprecedented violence and kitsch—as, for instance, in my book, in the scene that describes the celebrations of Hitler’s birthday on April 20th, 1945. By now the war is practically over, disastrously for Germany, and the Russians are already near Berlin, and in the beautiful and nobly absurd castle of Miramare, built by Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico, a kind of orgiastic delirium is being celebrated, dreaming of a new victorious war. Someone has defined my book as a Thousand and One Nights, but with more than one Scheherazade.

AMA: In the novel the unnamed protagonist tells Luisa, the woman assigned the task of planning the Museum, “Dr. Brooks, when you write about me, feel free to write ‘I’ or ‘he’, it makes no difference, write what you want, however you want, even when copying my words, because the hand that writes is the real author.” Do you see this as suggestive of the sentiment I’ve often heard you express with regard to the author-translator relationship?

CM: First of all I’d like to say that Luisa is the true protagonist of the story. A figure totally invented, daughter of a Triestine Jewess, victim of the Shoah but also embroiled in family guilt, and of an Afro-American sergeant who arrived in Trieste with the Allied troops in May of 1945. She is the product of two exiles, the Jewish and the black—two peoples who have had to cross the desert and the sea, who have not been able to sing the songs of Zion in a strange land but who, despite all, have sung them. And it is also, in my intention particularly, not simply the story of the collector, or indeed of Luisa, but that of the characters connected with the weapons which he has gathered. Another example is the story of a character whom perhaps I love most of all: Luisa de Navarrete, a 16th-century black woman. Free and married to a white man, she was kidnapped by the Indians and spent five years as the wife or slave of the chief, perhaps participating in their attacks against the Spaniards; after she escaped and returned home, she was subjected to a trial by the Inquisition and saved herself by means of her incredible intelligence. I have seen the minutes of that interrogation, almost obliterated because time had already erased so many words when they were microfilmed. Seeing those lines was like seeing the outlines of a face which begged to be reconstructed, to reappear.

With regard to the specific question, yes, the relationship between author and translator is one of identity and difference. The translator is in every sense the co-author of the book; he makes it live in another language, but by so doing makes it become something different. In particular, our collaboration has been extraordinary, and not only because of your exceptional skill but because of the syntony which was created between us, as if even before translating—and translating so marvellously—you had made my text also your own, the world I told of.

AMA: What are your thoughts on writing fiction versus nonfiction? How are the two different or related?  Does your process differ in each case? Does your intended audience differ?

CM: There are in the work of a writer, I believe—certainly in mine—different types of writing. Types that are not chosen a priori but are born of the subject; the “how” is identical with the “what.” It is syntax that bestows order upon the world, and the syntax of ethical and political writing, in my own case, is instinctively, necessarily different from that of work of the imagination, of fiction, of the theater. Ethical and political writing (of the sort I have been writing for the Corriere della Sera over the last 50 years) is a paratactic writing, urgent, clear, relentless, made up essentially of simple sentences.  When one has occasion to protest, denounce, attack, defend, it is natural to express oneself with pitiless clarity, in the manner of the Evangelist—“But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay.” Such clarity is expressed, if not only, then certainly primarily, by a syntax that is clear and paratactic. Obviously that does not exclude complexity, awareness of the difficulty of problems, the tortuousness, the contradictions and at times the paralyzing absurdity of political situations. The so often devastating and inexplicable events reported in the papers are sometimes among the hardest to bear of all those passions that shake the human heart. But to confront them demands at least the effort to clarify, the moral duty of a yes or no.

When instead one tells the story of a man, the writing becomes far more complex, because a man is never entirely reducible to the reality of a single self. If he is a murderer the condemnation of his crime remains clear and precise, but it is interwoven with the ambiguity of his entire life. The writing, in the attempt to grasp so changeable and complex a reality, becomes itself complex, contradictory, hypotactic; a writing in which the simple sentences which relate, or should relate, the essentials are modified, softened, placed in doubt by subjunctives, by subordinate clauses of concession and condition; a writing in which what happens is inextricably conjoined with what could or should happen.      

Sometimes it is the writing that seems to reveal the subject to us, the story that we will write and which until that moment we did not know we would write. My first story, or short novel, Inferences from a Sabre, was born in this way.

For me the real difference lies between fiction and the essay on the one hand, and proper literary criticism on the other. When I write a text of literary criticism I already know at the outset, even before beginning, its nature, its theme, its aim, even though, naturally, I don’t know what the results will be. The genuine essay is another thing. Both fiction and the essay often proceed gropingly, testing the ground; creating their own theme and discovering their own road in the very act of searching for it and constructing it. A type of writing that frequently speaks of something in order to express something else, which cannot be said directly and of which the author himself only gradually becomes aware. Unlike literary criticism proper, the essay at times also grows by veering every so often towards other, unexpected directions, cautiously at first and then more decisively and ever more wildly, like a river in full spate. So it happened, in my own case, with the essays The Hapsburg Myth (my first book, published in 1963) and in the essay Far from Where (1971) dedicated to Eastern Jewish civilization and to the great body of Yiddish literature.

And no, I don’t write in different ways for different audiences. I write what at that moment I feel is necessary to write—personally, politically, emotionally, imaginatively. The audience will form on the basis of what I have written.

AMA: Thank you for these thoughts, Claudio. It seems I always learn something from you—now I know the word that relates to the challenge of rendering your narrative style: hypotaxis. The syntactic subordination you refer to requires making your sentences wear the coat of English without making it seem like a straitjacket that constricts or confines the give and take. I hope our readers will find that the coat fits!

Claudio Magris’ replies were translated by Nicholas Carter.


Claudio Magris, professor emeritus of modern German literature, University of Trieste, is a recipient of the Erasmus Prize among scores of other literary awards. His best-selling novel Danube has been translated into more than twenty languages. He lives in Trieste, Italy. Anne Milano Appel, Ph.D., was awarded the Italian Prose in Translation Award (2015), the John Florio Prize for Italian Translation (2013) and the Northern California Book Awards for Translation-Fiction (2014 & 2013).


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