Anyone who loves the work of W.G. Sebald, especially The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo, should check out Claudio Magris’s Danube. The account of a 1983 journey along the eponymous river from its multiple Black Forest sources to its mind-bogglingly multiple Black Sea mouths, Danube is to travel books what Moby Dick is to fish stories. This ain’t no lightweight Paul Theroux trip. Magris’s travel narrative is but a framework upon which he hangs the multiple digressions, the intellectual sidetrips, that form the real heart of the book, Danube’s radically decentered center. These digressions–on topics ranging from the theme of the sonderling in German literature to Heidegger’s philosophy to the Mauthausen concentration camp to the café architecture of Vienna to the perpetually marginalized history of the Slovaks--are sometimes brilliant and almost always interesting. They transform the book from a travel narrative into an intellectual portrait of Danubean culture, Magris’s academic specialty. In a review blurbed on the back cover, John Banville writes that Magris "seems to have read everything," and that statement encapsulates the book’s greatest strength and most important weakness. Magris does indeed appear to have read everything and to remember it all verbatim, and he punctuates his text with a nearly constant stream of quotations and paraphrases. Many of these are wonderful and apt, but I often had the desire to reach into the text, grab the author by the lapels and say, "That quote was great, Claudio, but what do you think?" In the book’s weak spots, its dry patches (all books over 200 pages have them), Magris’s voice is more professorial than poetic. (The contrast between Danube and Sebald’s books is most obvious here; Sebald is more poet than lecturer, even though he, like Magris, paid his bills by teaching at a university.) At times, this book feels like a tour of the Danube basin conducted by an obsessive bibliographer. But the rest of Danube is interesting and well-written enough to overcome these weaknesses–and even to incorporate them. Throughout the book, Magris gently mocks his own encyclopedic pretensions. He's aware that the book’s overemphasis on literary culture betrays both the author’s academic bias and, more importantly, the anachronism of his project, the impossibility of encyclopedicity in an age of overspecialization. Near the end of the book, Magris explicitly laments this limitation, but he also slyly generalizes it, transforming his academic handicap into the dysfunction of Modern Man, whom he likens to a Ulysses who no longer needs to be tied to the mast because "the song of the Sirens is entrusted to ultrasonic waves which His Majesty the Ego cannot discern." (I think ‘His Majesty the Academic’ would’ve been more accurate.) The ending of the book remains extremely beautiful, though--beautiful enough to compensate for the occasional longueurs.
(Readers of Danube might also want to check out the documentary The Ister, a meditation on Heidegger's WWII-era lectures on Holderlin's hymn "Der Ister" that retraces Magris's journey in reverse, taking the viewer from post-Cold War Romania through post-1990s wars Serbia to the Black Forest. The film is beautifully photographed, but it is intellectually weakened by an overreliance on French Heideggerian interviewees, the worst of whom, Lacoue-Labarthes, reveals himself as a cynically disinformational apologist for Heidegger's fascism.)