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European Vistas

History, Ethics and Identity in the Works of Claudio Magris

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Remko Smid

Claudio Magris is one of Italy’s – and Europe’s – most renowned thinkers and writers. He is considered an authority on central European literature and culture and is frequently interviewed about his hometown Trieste, the region called Mitteleuropa and the European Union. But what makes Magris such a relevant figure on the European literary scene?

European Vistas aims to answer this question by analysing the three most central elements in Magris’ novels – history, ethics and identity – in relation to contemporary Europe. His choice of particular histories are considered in terms of the ethical ideas and values that motivate him as well as the relevance of these stories for Europe. The book also explores Magris’ understanding and narration of identity and its potential for a transnational mode of identification, specifically within the European context. Ultimately, the author demonstrates why Magris’ ideas about history, ethics and identity are fundamental for Europe’s future.

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Chapter 1 ‘Writing a historical novel means throwing oneself into the chaos of history’

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Chapter 1

‘Writing a historical novel means throwing oneself into the chaos of history’1

Claudio Magris’ novels all deal with the past in that they narrate historical events and incorporate historical figures. However, Magris’ novels do more than just narrate the past; they also question the relationship between fiction and history. How can narrative represent history, considering the past is out of reach? We have come across the problem of reference, which is also addressed in Magris’ fiction, mainly on a metafictional level. This potential for metanarrative reflection is one of the distinguishing factors between fiction and historiography. Although this does not mean that historians have not reflected on, for instance, the relation between narrative and the past, the novelist has literary techniques at his/her disposal that highlight such reflections, while the historian does not. During a lecture in St Gallen, Switzerland on 21 September 2017, Magris affirmed: ‘writing a historical novel means throwing oneself into the chaos of history, and also into the chaos of languages’ (2017a). How does one represent the past? Indeed, the relation between the past and its representation is not unproblematic; the latter is not simply a reflection of the former. As we will see, Magris’ fiction shows similar reflections on the representation of history with the help of modernist and postmodernist techniques. His most recent novels, Blameless (2015) and Blindly (2005), come closest to what can be called ‘historiographic metafiction’ (Hutcheon, 1988; 1989), and their metanarrative functions are more dominant...

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