Dreamscape

Danube: A Journey through the Landscape, History, and Culture of Central Europe.
by Claudio Magris.
Farrar Straus & Giroux. 416 pp. $22.95.

The Danube is an excellent subject for a book, especially today when the question of Central European independence, political and cultural, has been raised with renewed fervor. The river, the second longest in Europe, has remained an enduring marker of a region where boundaries have shifted violently or lost their significance altogether and become as much a matter of memory as of cartography. But for Claudio Magris, a professor of German literature at the University of Trieste, the questions posed by the river are not merely historical, or particular to a single region. He is preoccupied with questions of belonging—to culture, to history, to soil—and with divisions between East and West, self and society, nature and the man-made world. “Ever since Heraclitus,” he writes early in his book,

the river has been the image for the questioning of identity, beginning with the old conundrum as to whether one can or cannot put one’s foot in the same river twice.

The basic structure of Danube is provided by the river itself, which Magris follows from its source in the Black Forest to its terminus in the Black Sea. The nine sections of the book correspond roughly to the geographical areas traversed as Magris moves from Germany to Austria to Hungary, passing finally through Yugoslavia, Rumania, and Bulgaria to the river’s end. But Danube would hardly prove a useful guide to a traveler, and it is not intended as one. Magris submits to his own stream of consciousness as much as to the river’s course, and trips to the library are as much in evidence as trips to castles, villages, cafés, and graveyards. He includes the work of genuine scholars as well as the pseudo-scientific studies of learned cranks. He mingles personal history, world history, and literary history—all of which makes Danube a difficult book to summarize.

The book’s first section, “A Question of Gutters,” is devoted to the sources of the Danube, which are by no means certain. Magris relishes this ambiguity, in particular the unclear link between the Danube and the Rhine. He cites the fanciful suggestion of an 18th-century writer that a house with two gutters spills water into the two streams which form on either side of its sloping roof. Though modern science has come closer to the truth, it is the symbolic relationship of the Rhine and the Danube that attracts Magris, for each of the two rivers bears a cultural burden. In particular, the Danube’s divergent flow to the East carries with it the idea of Central Europe’s separateness from the truculent spirit of nationalism that has so often engulfed the lands of the Rhine:

The Danube is often enveloped in a symbolic anti-German aura. It is the river along which different peoples meet and mingle and crossbreed, rather than being, as the Rhine is, a mythical custodian of the purity of the race.

This would give us a Central Europe that is, in Milan Kundera’s words, “conceived not as territory but as culture.” And indeed at its best the river, for Magris, does form a kind of fertile crescent of Central European culture, spawning such writers as Stifter, Musil, and Canetti. Heidegger grew up “in a little town on the banks of the youthful Danube.” Kafka spent a year nursing tuberculosis in a nearby sanatorium. Bruckner played the organ in the church of Sankt Florian. And Goethe’s mistress and muse was born near the Danube in a house marked with a plaque that reads “Marianne Willemer née Jung—Goethe’s Suleika.”

On the other hand, Magris understands that the opposite is also true, that a river which runs past Mauthausen concentration camp may simply be “an emissary from those German waters to the East.” Unfortunately, this interesting dichotomy between Rhine and Danube is not a sustained theme—like many of the ideas in Danube, it rises tantalizingly to the surface, only to sink a few pages later into the swirl of information and anecdote that dominates the book.

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Danube moves not like a journey but like the dream of a journey; and like a dreamer, Magris is always shading the historical into the personal. If his highly idiosyncratic and highly personalized account of the river and the region has its undeniably entertaining and edifying moments, his reach, though broad, is not always deep. This is not just a matter of the mass of details and observations, or of a style that threatens to swallow up what is most interesting about the region by swamping it in subjectivity. There is something else, too, namely, Magris’s belief that “in the pure present, the only dimension . . . in which we live, there is no history.” This conviction is the book’s shaping force—and the reason that, for all its historical detail, Danube seems strangely hollow.

“At no single instant,” Magris writes, “is there such a thing as the fascist period or the October Revolution because in that fraction of a second there is only the mouth swallowing saliva, the movement of a hand, a glance out the window.” If that is so, the author has neatly freed himself of all obligations to the past, and this freedom Magris puts to unsettling uses. Thus, noting in passing the 1938 suicide of Egon Friedell, humorist and historian, he comments, “That leap from the window was his last Witz, his joke at the expense of the Gestapo who were coming to arrest him.” Somehow, one doubts Friedell took so sanguine a view of the event. Or again, imagining Céline, that disturbing genius of French literature who fled along the Danube with the retreating German army, Magris allows himself a wholly fanciful interpretation of why this anti-Semite collaborated during the war with the Nazis: “Like a grieving guilty Messiah, he identifies himself with the Nazi butchers because he sees them losing.” Finally, in a chapter entitled “The Kitsch of Evil,” Magris warns against “pathological explanations” for the behavior of Josef Mengele—the notorious Nazi doctor who would “gouge out eyes which he kept threaded on strings and hung on the walls of his room”—because after the war Mengele curbed those impulses “just as one learns to live with not being able to become a millionaire or go to bed with Hollywood starlets.”

Danube is full of this sort of reckless abolition of hierarchical meaning. History here has no guilty parties and no innocent ones. When Magris describes the totalitarian architecture of Budapest as embodying the “Kollosal style like Milan Station or Grand Central,” thereby amalgamating a monstrosity of fascist bombast with a gem of Beaux Arts styling which miraculously does not dwarf the people inside, subjectivity (in this case indistinguishable from gross political bias) ceases to be an aspect of the book and becomes instead its thesis.

It is ironic that a book so concerned with boundaries seems so incapable of making distinctions. The ground Magris walks on is steeped in history, but for the author of Danube, so much history, so crowded together, comes to equal no history at all. Posing as a search for sources and deeper meaning, Danube moves farther from understanding the farther it travels down the river, until even the landscape is rendered unreal. It may be that no one ever steps into the same river twice; Magris has not fully stepped into it once.

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