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European Vistas

History, Ethics and Identity in the Works of Claudio Magris


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 2 ‘Fight against oblivion’


Chapter 2

‘Fight against oblivion’1

Claudio Magris’ novels do not just narrate the past for nostalgic purposes or mere entertainment, since their narration of history is clearly injected with a moral purpose. This makes the narrated past useful for the present: it can tell us something we were not aware of, it can teach us about the past and it can provide a basis for civilized living in the present and future. In this chapter, I will discuss the ethical side of Magris’ narration of the past. What do his stories communicate to us on an ethical level? What is it about these stories that make them ethically relevant? What do these stories have to do with the present – particularly in the European context – and which values do they have in common? Whereas Magris has dealt more directly and explicitly with the ethics of history and remembering in his essays, articles and interviews, his fiction addresses this issue more indirectly. Indeed, more than lessons, Magris’ novels offer, as I indicated in the Introduction, theoretical and ethical reflections. In this chapter, I will relate the ethical use of history in these works of fiction to the non-fictional writing of our Triestine author and to the work of other thinkers, whose ideas mirror Magris’ views on this subject.

For Magris, writing is an inherently ethical activity. In conversation with Mario Vargas Llosa, he stated that an engaged novelist may invent things, but is still committed to...

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