Microcosms of Mitteleuropa

After we got back from Trieste I bought online a second hand copy of Claudio Magris’ Microcosms (Amazon | Google Books | Bookslut | 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 emu

late, 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 yhe 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.



Daša Drndić’s Trieste

Update: Maja Haderlap’s Angel of Oblivion (forthcoming in August 2016 in English) covers similar ground.

Daša Drndić is a Croatian writer, born in Zagreb in 1946. (Sadly, she died on 5 June 2018.)

Trieste (MacLehose Press; Amazon | Google Books – searchable), first published in 2007 under the title Sonnenschein and in 2012 in English translation by Ellen Elias-Bursać, is a treat (Sunday Times: “the influence of WG Sebald is obvious but not oppressive”). It’s ‘documentary fiction’, with the text including photographs, verse, testimonies from the Nuremberg Trials and other witness accounts, the result of two years of research.

The book opens and closes in Gorizia (Görz, Gorica, Gurize…), around 55km from Trieste, and traces three generations of the family of Haya Tedeschi across time and space in the wake of a series of traumatic events – the First World War and the fall of the Hapsburg Empire, the political and cultural annexation of the multi-lingual and multi-ethnic territories of this corner of Europe under the Kingdom of Italy, the rise of Fascism and the gradual introduction of anti-Jewish laws. (This section of the book is acknowledged in the paperback edition as borrowing heavily from Trieste: the true story, the self published memoir of Fulvia Schiff Gent.)

From 1943-45 9000 Italians were deported from Italy, then under Nazi control. The names of these 9000 are listed over a 40 page stretch of the book, a device described by one reviewer as chopping the book in half. From this point the focus is Haya’s eight year search for her son, fathered by an SS officer but stolen from her as part of the Lebensborn project, presenting first the unadorned results of her research – reminiscences from Nazis, including her lover, the last commandant of Treblinka, and then accounts from the Lebensborn programme. Many Lebensborn children are not aware of their past, but Haya’s son is told of his origins by his German mother on her deathbed and sets out to find his birth mother. This section is written in the first person, and the book closes with a poetic exchange between Haya and Antonio/Herman, echoing the mantra of the book through sections from The Waste Land. We do not witness their meeting.

Hurry up please it’s time.

Reviews: 3:am Magazine | FT | Independent: Daniel Hahn on Sunday & Amanda Hopkinson | KirkusNew York Times | Quarterly Conversation. It won English PEN’s Independent Foreign Fiction Readers Prize.

The experimental style isn’t for everyone. A reviewer on LibraryThing, who ultimately found the book rewarding, says: “It was really difficult to read and at times seemed very disjointed. The mix of fact and fiction with footnotes made it seem like hard work.” For me this is the book’s strength, bringing something new to the holocaust literature canon. The documentary approach leaves space for an accumulation of stories and evidence, such as an account of Lebensborn child Anni-Frid Lyngstad, aka ‘the brunette from Abba’, and a quotes from Austrian dog behaviouralist Konrad Lorenz. Fully digital publication using hypertext could bring even more experimentation, moving beyond a simple list of names or short reminiscence in a form of curational writing.

While we were in Trieste in October we visited the prison camp described in the book, now a national monument. On the fringes of Trieste as it progressively becomes more Slavic (our lunch was a burek from a local bakery), Risiera di San Sabba is understated in presentation and doesn’t really give an idea of the scale of what happened there, a gap filled by the Deportation Records Foundation – more than 25,000 people passed through the camp en route to other camps to the north, while a further 5000 people lost their lives at the camp itself.

The photos we took are eerily similar to those in the book. Who took those photos – the author, Haya, her son?

2014-10-08 12.57.06 IMG_5095 IMG_5096

Literary traces in Trieste and Venice

Updates: for a Slovenian literary topography see Aleš Debeljak’s Literary citizenship: cities and their writers. Trafika Europe 5 has a Slovenian focus, with extracts from Maja Haderlap’s Angel of Oblivion and much more…The Venice variations “explores Venice as a prototypical city that may hold unique answers to the ancient narrative of utopia”…

Jan Morris’ magisterial Trieste and the meaning of nowhere (Amazon), her Frank Sinatra-like ‘last book’, is the perfect companion for a literary exploration of the city. James Joyce lived there off and on from 1904-20, when disappointed by the new Italian administration he left for Paris. While in Trieste Joyce taught English to businessman and novelist Italo Svevo, a Joseph Roth type and possibly the model for Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. Perhaps best known in English for Confessions of Zeno, Svevo lived for part of his life in Charlton, while working for his in-laws’ family firm (there’s a plaque at 67 Charlton Church Lane, SE7). Joyce also made the acquaintance of Umberto Saba, a Jewish poet and bookshop owner. The antiquarian bookshop on Via San Nicolo Saba ran for more than 35 years is still in operation.

Jim and Italo also share a museum if not a website (Joyce | Svevo) next to the library, and all three are commemorated in sepia tinted walking tour leaflets, available online at Itinerari Trieste with Google maps and pictures from the period, and by life size bronze statues and plaques around the city. A fourth itinerary commemorates novelist Tomizza (1935-99) aka the Voice of Istria, an Italian patriot from Capodistria (now Koper) who left Yugoslavia for Trieste in 1955, working as a journalist for 20 years at RAI. The lives of these four writers represent the changing identity of Trieste in a nutshell.

Claudio Magris of Danube (1986) fame has been a professor of German literature at the University of Trieste since 1978, and his Microcosms (1997, Amazon) is on order. Casanova lived in Trieste for two years from 1772, while Richard Burton (the other one), known for his translation of The Arabian Nights, ended his days as British consul there. Rilke wrote his Duino Elegies while enjoying the hospitality of the Princess of Thurn and Taxis at the nearby castle during 1911-12, while Il mio Carso by Scipio Slataper (1888-1915) deals with the relationship between Trieste and its Slovenian hinterland. Finally, local journalist Corinna Opara’s recent guidebook Three days in Trieste is in a reversible format – turn it over for a reproduction of an 1858 guidebook with a contemporary map.

Bookending her Trieste, Jan Morris’ first book was Venice, and it seems that it’s rare for a writer not to have done their time in the city – from Goethe’s Italian journey and Ruskin’s The stones of Venice to Byron, in town for three years, who swam the Canal Grande, and Hemingway, injured near Treviso during WW1, who financed Harry’s Bar where the Bellini cocktail was invented on the same stretch of water. (Plus his Across the river and into the trees opens in Trieste). See Fictional cities: Venice for an exhaustive list, including non-fiction. Also worth a look is City Pick’s Venice and Blue Guide’s Literary companion, plus Robin Saikia’s The Venice Lido – I’m tempted by all three, although these literary guides are a bit like holiday liqueurs, and best enjoyed in situ.

Updates: new Danish book Venedig eller kunsten at fare vild (Venice or the art of getting lost), a collaboration between beardy Jens Blendstrup and a photographer pal, looks of interest, as does Polly Coles’ The politics of washing (Amazon), discovered via R3’s The Essay. This seems to have caused a level of controversy and is hence an interesting addition to the expat writing canon.

With no time available for the full Venice through literature tour we did manage to fit in a quick peek at the Grand Hôtel des Bains on the Lido where Thomas Mann stayed in the summer of 1911.


At anchor in Trieste

A fan of borders and edges (and the Austro-Hungarian Empire) I’ve had Trieste on my bucket list for years. Writing in 2001 in her book Trieste and the meaning of nowhere (Amazon) Jan Morris comments: “People who have never been there generally don’t know where it is. Visitors tend to leave it puzzled and, when they get home, remember it with a vague sense of mystery”, while Michael Palin quotes Churchill: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent”.

Trieste is no longer at the edge of a divided continent and is gradually getting a little more normal, a little more Italian – now known as the ‘insurance centre of Italy’, with a period of consolidation from 2000 under a mayor who was head of the Illy coffee company – but traces of the city’s colourful past are everywhere, and it retains its appeal.

Originally an Illyrian coastal village, Trieste was colonised by Rome and occupied by Venice and France before being protected and declared a free port by the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa, turning the city into a major link between Europe and Asia. In 1918 the city came under Italian rule, with Mussolini making it one of his showpieces. The city was annexed by the German Reich and then occupied by Britain, the USA and Yugoslavia, briefly becoming an Independent Free Territory under the UN. In 1954 the city of Trieste returned to Italy, while its surroundings were handed to Yugoslavia, but today the Slovene language has official parity with Italian, and even before 1989 there was widespread movement of local people across the border.

How to capture such a city? Jan Morris describes Trieste as a loitering kind of place, perfect for drifting. Itinerari Trieste covers architecture (styles: neoclassical, eclectic, Art Nouveau; themes: Roman, religious, Jewish, historic cafes), most of which are also vailable on the Trieste Citypod app. I didn’t find this little treasure trove until we got back – the tourist office operated in a definite “if you ask for it, you can have it” mode, with everything tidied neatly away behind the counter.

Around town

The train, the end of the line as far as Trenitalia is concerned, cuts through the limestone rock of the karst/carso and descends in a sweeping curve around the top of the Adriatic to the sea, past the 14th century Duino castle rising in front of the oil refinery and shipyards of Monfalcone and the old Hapsburg station at Miramar, now back in action after closing in the 1950s. From the station it’s a 10 minute walk down the riva to the city centre, past the 1930s Stazione Marittima, now providing the backdrop for cruise ships, and the molo Audace, named for the ship which claimed Trieste for Italy in 1918.

High on the hill the 14th century Romanesque Basilica of San Giusto and the Hapsburg Castello Giusto guard a sort of monument square with accompanying Roman forum, offering views of the harbour and the hills towards Venice.

More modern touches include the happy transformation of the the stile Liberty Caffè San Marco, threatened with closure in 2013, to a cafe cum bookshop. Preparations were underway during our stay for the massive Barcolana regatta, founded in 1969, with its 2014 poster designed by Missoni.

We also took in the 1934 courthouse, the centrepiece of monumental urban planning in this area of the city, Piazza Oberdan, the first piazza to be planned after Trieste became part of Italy, Narodni Dom, the station, the Gothic Lutheran church, Audace Pier…

Traces of war: 1914 and 1943-45

Trieste is marking the WW1 centenary with an exhibition on the city in 1914, held in the Magazzino delle Idee, a derelict warehouse turned cultural centre on the Corso Cavour. This was very well done with some wonderful photos. One room gave a detailed account of Franz Ferdinand’s return and funeral procession (for the outward leg see Telegraph article):

  • 29 June: the bodies of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie are taken to the station in Sarajevo; they reach Mostar and Metkovic by train and are then taken by steamer along the Neretva to a waiting ship at its mouth
  • 30 June: the bodies are escorted by squadron to Trieste
  • 1 July: the Viribus Unitis arrives in Trieste at about 6:30pm and anchors off the San Carlo pier, in front of the Piazza Grande; the Lieutenant of the Coast Konrad Hoheslohe comes out to the ship and pays tribute to the deceased
  • 2 July: the coffins are taken to the Piazza Grande and placed on two biers between 6:30am and 7:50am; the bishop blesses the corpses in the presence of political and religious authorities, then at 8.30am the funeral procession heads towards the South Station; at 9.30am the train heads towards Vienna, where it arrives in the night

We also visited Risiera di San Sabba, a former rice husking facility used by the Nazi occupation forces as prison camp from 1943. In April 1944 a crematorium was installed and made operative. The only facility of its kind in Italy, it is now a national monument.


The castle of Miramar, 8km from town down the Lungomare, a concrete seafront promenade, was built on a whim by Archduke Maximilian, Franz Josef’s younger brother, in 1860. Maxmilian’s story, and that of his wife, Charlotte of Belgium, is unbearably sad – why hasn’t it been made into a film? Max was the shortlived Emperor of Mexico, executed in 1867. Charlotte went mad and went home to Belgium where she lived to the age of 87.

Next up, Prince Amedeo of Savoy-Aosta, a first cousin of the King of Italy, lived at Miramar with his wife and daughters during the 1930s and renovated the castle in best modernist style. Viceroy of Italian East Africa during WW2, Amadeo surrendered to the British and died in a prison camp in Nairobi in 1942.

The castle has acquired a sinister reputation – it is said that all who sleep within the castle’s walls will die violently far from home. As well as Maximilian and Amadeo two American generals suffered untimely ends, and during the occupation at British general choose to sleep in a tent in the garden. So probably best that it’s now a museum and setting for wedding photos.

The scenic tram 

The Opicina tramway, opened in 1902, refurbished and reopened in July 2014 complete with bike racks on the front, links the city centre with the plateau and on to the border with Slovenia. To ascend the plateau after two minutes it transforms into a drogue (funicular). Complete with beige Hapsburg lighting the tram is a complete delight, if looking slightly out of place on the highway into Slovenia.

Allegedly, if you get off the tram at the Obelisk and follow Strada Napoleonica along the cliff after 3km you reach the village of Prosecco-Contovello, inhabited mainly by Slovenes, from where it is allegedly possible to walk down to Miramar, although the locals looked at us askance when we asked how far it was.

What’s next? 

Trieste is the capital of the Friuli Venezia Giulia region, one of Italy’s richest. The region has a long border with Slovenia to the east, with Trieste sticking out like a cartographer’s error, plus one with Austria to the north. Among other local delights are Aquileia, an ancient Roman town, Cividale, dating from the medieval Lombards, and the fortress town of Palmamova, which looks like the model for a GBBO entry.

I’d love to explore further, not least because of the history – tossed between Venice and Austria-Hungary, a bridge between Italy and Mitteleuropa, you know the drill. The town of Gorizia (pop: 35K) featured in Dasa Drndic’s Trieste and looks particularly worth a visit – after the 1919 Paris peace conference the border between Italy and Yugoslavia ran through the main town square, renamed Europe square in 2004 when Slovenia joined the EU; see the British Library on bringing the town’s history back to life. This time though we took a train to Udine, pretty much on a whim, making a fascinating discovery in the shape of Torviscosa, a planned town built during the 1930s. From there we picked up the night train from Venice to Munich, followed by an eight hour slog up to Hamburg, where we gave the boat train to Copenhagen another outing. One of those 24 hour journeys…