Microcosms of Mitteleuropa

After we got back from Trieste I bought online a secondhand copy of Claudio Magris’ Microcosms (AmazonBookslut | Boston ReviewYale Books Unbound), first published in 1997 and translated by Iain Halliday, for barely more than the price of the postage. It has three remaindered stripes along the bottom. The back cover shows a louche raincoated figure who may or may not be Claudio, newspaper on knee and coffee cup at his elbow, surely taken in the Caffè San Marco in Trieste. On the flyleaf is his signature.

In Triste Trieste, a magisterial account of four books on Trieste I could never hope to emulate, Nicholas Howe dubs Trieste “a place of unresolved geography” and Magris its “embodiment in writerly form” (meanwhile on p6: “one wrote or responded to yet another interview about Trieste, its Mitteleuropa culture and its decline…”).

“Writing is transcribing,” Magris has once said. “Even when an author invents, he transcribes stories and events that life has made him a participant in.” (source)

Out-Sebalding Sebald, Microcosms examines the borderlands of Istria and Italy, between the eastern Alps and the Adriatic. Starting in the L-shaped Caffè San Marco we move outwards to Valcellina (68 miles north west of the city in the Friuli foothills), to the liminal lagoons north of Venice, the forests around Mount Nevoso (or Mount Snežnik, at 1796m the king of the karst), Apsyrtides (the Greek name for the Croatian islands of Cres and Lošinj, separated only by a canal) and Antholz (in the south Tyrol, where 98.4% speak German as their first language). Finally we return to Trieste, as we surely must, to the public garden where the busts of Trieste’s writers are brought to life.

This style of writing, pulling together the strands of history, literature, real life and lived experience, seems particularly fitting for the post-exploration age of ‘we’ tourism – a simple narrative struggles to capture the layers and diversity of a travel experience. But where to shelve the book? A librarian by training and maybe at heart, many of my books are arranged by geographic area/country, but this one could sit in multiple categories. I suspect it, together with Jan Morris’ and Dasa Drindic’s Trieste and his own Danube, will find a home on the top of my central and eastern Europe bookcase, in their own separate section and resting on a mahogony shelf from India.

A fitting conclusion for our next trip, bridging 2014 and 2015 in three Mitteleuropean cities on the Danube. Compliments of the season – and Guten Rutsch!

The Brenner is the watershed between the Adriatic and the Black Sea, between the waters that with the Adige run into the sea of every persuasion and those that through the Drava flow into the Danube. Adriatic and Danube, the sea and continental Mitteleuropa, life’s two opposing and complementary scenarios; the border that separates them is a small black hole leading from one universe to another.


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