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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 3 ‘Identity should always be declined in the plural’


Chapter 3

‘Identity should always be declined in the plural’1

Claudio Magris’ ethical approach to narrating history is, as indicated in the previous chapter, a basis for the construction of a transnational memory and, consequentially, of a transnational identity. But how do Magris’ novels speak of and represent identity? After all, the issue of identity has been called ‘the leitmotiv’ of his writing (Parmegiani, 2012: 321). Magris’ literature, indeed, offers an analysis of identity on various levels: Danube, for instance, provides a reflection on the individual and collective self through the river as a metaphor for identity, and Blindly’s Salvatore appears as an individual who has lost his sense of self and of belonging to a community.

When Magris expresses himself on the topic of the self in his essays, he primarily chooses a historical approach to analysing identity. If history is a product of narrativization – as indicated in Chapter 1 – then identity is a narrative construction as well, as it is rooted in the past (Southgate, 2009: 126). Indeed, in Microcosms, Magris affirms that although all identities consider themselves natural, they are, in fact, constructions and products of the will (1997: 143). According to Magris, this last point is often forgotten, especially in the case of national identity, which is often seen as natural and monolithic. Here Magris addresses identity as narration, but one constructed over time. However, the sense of self is not a stable, dormant entity: in his essay ‘Identità, ovvero...

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