As part of my preparation for my impending trip to the Danube (which starts tonight), I felt I should take advantage of the momentum and enthusiasm and revisit one of my past failures. A failure, what is more, that has nagged me like a mild toothache for years, so this is a good opportunity to sort a few things out at once.
Yet again, it has not gone well.
Around 1990, my late cousin, who was certainly one of the best-read fellows I ever knew, bought me a copy of Claudio Magris’ Danube, which, in its original Italian version, has won more literary prizes than you would believe. My cousin was a lovely, amusing man, but just occasionally he would send me an “improving” book to try to make some inroads into my vast number of years of monastic devotion to ignorance. He introduced me to Primo Levi, and a few other writers whom I have grown to love, but Magris, I fear, has been a step too far.
Now then. Claudio Magris, as you will (of course) know, is a celebrated scholar, essayist and occasional journalist who – among so many honours – is professor of modern German literature at the University of Trieste.
Danubio is a work which has received such lofty acclaim that each of my 3 or 4 failed attempts to get through it has been a humbling, not to say humiliating experience. The idea and the structure is that the reader is taken on a ramble down the Danube, from its source (and there is an interesting debate about exactly where that is) to wherever it finishes up (and I have never read anything like that far, though the Black Sea seems a decent guess). On the way, the Professor enriches the journey with snippets of history, local culture, legends and oodles of literary references. Sounds good, but each of my failed attempts has ground to a halt in the same way – bemused by the pointlessness of continually nodding, stupidly, at references that neither I, nor anyone else, is likely to make anything of.
Naturally, if Jan Baltazar Magin disagreed with the writings of Michael Bencsik back in the 18th Century on some minor aspect of Slavophilism, there is no reason why Prof Magris should not mention it, but how much is enough? My paperback edition runs to some 400-odd pages, and I reckon there are about 10 to 12 such references per page. By any standards, that is heavy going. Who is this book aimed at? What is the reader supposed to do with all this stuff? Take notes? Agree? Check the references? Be impressed? Be convinced? Weep?
I suspect that Magris wrote the book for himself – and God bless him, he is entitled to do just that. The book is very fine – it may even be perfect, I am obviously not qualified to judge. I suspect that any readers who are not actually part of a tiny, closed circle of specialists in the field of Central European literature are purely incidental, and that the circle itself was expected to do exactly what they did – applaud and award prizes.
What is infuriating is the sycophantic noise that surrounds it. If there is anything more wretched than people who make a living out of criticizing literature then I cannot think of it offhand. Well, maybe my own failure to understand some literature runs it pretty close.
I take a random example from the gushy tributes at the start of the book.
Magris writes beautifully (and is beautifully translated by Patrick Creagh); he seems to have read everything. His reading has not made him clever, but wise. On almost every page there are passages that make the heart lift.
There you go, you see. He seems to have read everything. Books like this are deliberately intimidating. They are consciously aimed above criticism, because the sort of people who perform literary criticism will be terrified to admit that they didn’t have a bloody clue what he was on about. All those references – does Banville (for example) have the slightest idea about whether they are genuine, or relevant, or even accurately transcribed and interpreted? Of course he doesn’t. He just wishes, like all the other pseuds who have contributed eulogies, that he himself could have written something so obviously, exquisitely, chokingly learned.
I don’t hold these views lightly. I find inverted snobbery in any form extremely distasteful. There is nothing smart about being dumb. So I have kept going back to Danube, with growing pessimism, in the hope that it would grow on me – and it is, indisputably, finely written, and it contains much that is enjoyable and enlightening. However, I always come back to this problem with the sheer number and density of references. It is irritating. It gets in the way. I get annoyed. Why has academic writing evolved in this form? I don’t believe that the great pioneers of modern thought behaved in this way, why do modern academics have to hide behind other people’s work in this strange manner?
Not to worry. In a moment of thinking that surely it couldn’t just be me, I looked at the Amazon customer reviews for Danube – no higher plane of intellectual activity exists, as we know. As expected, there were a number of very positive offerings from people who must have had as little idea as I do. In there, however, was the following, which I reproduce in full entirely because I thought it was somehow a blessed relief – something that needed saying.
12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars
Utterly pretentious 9 Jan 2010
The snobbery and name dropping in this book beggars belief. I actually thought it was a send-up at first but as the pages dragged (and I do mean dragged) by it became horribly clear that the cold intellectual snob who wrote this thing is every bit as arrogant and donnish as he appears. I've truly never seen or read anything like it. It is convoluted, full of itself, and lacks any coherent narrative form but seems to wander from one idle whimsy to another, thick with the names of obscure figures in European academe, with the smug and donnish author keeping one eye on the mirror all the while. Its biggest failing is its complete lack of heart or soul or passion for his topic - one of the grandest and most beautiful rivers in Europe. It is not a travel book, or a history; it is purely an exercise in cold remorseless intellectualism, with no regard for either the reader or the river. And yes, I know, I've seen the other five-star reviewers and read their pooh-pooh-ing of those of us garlic-and-onions Philistines who do not appreciate the erudite wit and wisdom of this writer. To them I can say only that a true genius is one who can communicate his (or her!) passions and ideas, speak to every level, and generate enthusiasm in their listeners or readers. This fails abysmally. If one wants to read a brilliant - and erudite - book about the Danube one needs go no further than Patrick Leigh Fermor's travelogue of his journey along the Danube in 1933. And when you read him and compare those truly brilliant and warm and readable books with this bit of pretentious drivel, you will se the difference within a very few pages, and not give this thing a second glance.
Yes, it’s harsh, and I don’t agree with a lot of what it says, but it is, at last, a small riposte on behalf of what appears to me to be commonsense. I shall, needless to say, take my copy of Danube with me on my trip. You never know, God may suddenly lay his hand on me and render me able to understand it. Apart from that, some complete stranger may see me reading it on the plane, and be impressed.
Now you’re talking.