Claudio Magris, author of many works of fiction, editorialist at Corriere della Sera and professor of German literature in Trieste meets Hans Ulrich Obrist, Director at the Serpentine Gallery.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: My first question has to do with your relation to visual art, discussions with artists and obviously collaborations…
Claudio Magris: Compared with discussions with writers or philosophers, my contact with artists has been somewhat scant. I have always been greatly interested in art, I regularly visit museums and exhibitions, I read and keep myself informed, but I lack, to be honest, a relation to the very creative process that allows for true dialogue with an artist. The problem is not so much that I appreciate a novel or a poem more than a Lied or a symphony, but that in the former case I am able to truly get into the work, to explore the creative process; in the latter I am more of a receiver, a listener, someone who is enriched. But then, of course, there have been artists whom I have known very well; for example, in Trieste, Mascherini, a great sculptor, inconsistent but with great intuitions, whom I met as he was a friend of my father since their childhoods. So as a child I began visiting his studio, with the possibility of seeing his works come to life under his hands. We established a dialogue where an interest for art, for how an idea is born, for how materials, and in this particular case the stones of the Carso, are employed in a sculpture, was mixed with more general reflections on art. In Trieste I follow closely the work of Livio Risognano, with whom I am friends. Then obviously I associate with artists, particularly those of Trieste and Milan. Nevertheless, I have never been in collaboration with a visual artist. From some time now I have been planning with Jenssen to go to Zurich, we have a kind of "he draws I write" project, but until now I have always postponed it due to other engagements.
HUO: The rapport between order and disorder is an aspect of your work that fascinates artists a great deal and that you can find, for example, in Alghiero Boetti. Another question dear to the artistic sensitivity is that of places: in your books we often find descriptions of places and above all cities. You have always worked and lived between Trieste and Turin, to the point that in a beautiful interview you said that, in some ways, these two cities form together something of a cubist city. Could tell me a bit about this?
CM: Yes, to begin with, contradictory as it may be, I am at the same time both nomad and sedentary. Sedentary in the sense that I am very attached to things, to places, to the extent that even moving homes from the first to the fourth floor would give me the impression of uprooting. I am then very tied to memories, to my cafes, my house, and the part of Trieste where I go to have a swim. In all of this I am very stay-at-home and habitual. But I have these habits everywhere, all over the world, with the same conservative pathos that is opposed to change. This is true for the Caffe’ Fiorio of Turin just as for the Caffe’ San Marco of Trieste or other places of Freiburg or other cities of my life, in various parts of the world, in which I continuously go because I continuously travel. So I live in a cubist city in the sense that it is composed of numerous pieces, the sea of Trieste and the hills of Turin, where I lived and taught for many years. In my mental geography, even though the cafes might be three or four for me it is as if there were a single café.
HUO: There is the Caffe’ San Marco, and then?
CM: The San marco, there is the Caffe’ Fiorio, there are a couple of Bierstuben in Freiburg, and there there are the cafes of Paris, the Café de l’industrie, for example…
HUO: The Café de l’industrie in Bastille, right?
CM: Yes, in Bastille. And then you see why a cubist city? A cubist city because aside from Trieste and Turin, aside from these two loved cities, I would place Freiburg as third. And then there are cities like Munich or Paris, but also Barcelona, for numerous reasons. But still, it is Trieste and Turin that are completely undistinguishable: I was born and grew up in Trieste, which for me constitutes the mythical world of childhood, of adolescence, of “received” family, these epical memories and, in short, the world of the Buddenbrooks or the Buendia of Garcia Marquez. Turin instead represents the world of youth and maturity, a world that I have built myself, the world of culture, of thought, of freedom, going out in the evening, the world of many friendships and loves. The city where I wander is truly cubist, each building is enclosed in another, just like in my mind.
HUO: Could you talk a little about the Caffe’ San Marco, which is often in your writings? It is a place that paradoxically seems to combine space of solitude and of community.
CM: Yes, but I must say one thing: I do not speak too willingly of the café, and particularly the Caffe’ San Marco; unfortunately, in the increasingly mediatised world we inhabit, there is a great risk: there are things that, even when they are true because they are lived simply and authentically, in the moment they are talked about they become false. Now this story of the Caffe’ San Marco is becoming unbearable – and I am not thinking of you – because it has now become a sort of cliché. But let’s say the good things first: I go to the Caffe’ San Marco because I like it, because it gives me a sense of being alone and yet in company; I go there to work, to write, to read, because I am much more concentrated and because only there, for example, the telephone cannot reach me. These are practical but important reasons (the telephone rings every minute at my house, working becomes impossible). Furthermore at home I have many distractions. You see, if I am writing something, I raise my eyes and I see the works of Stendhal, just two meters away, and of course I feel like throwing away what I am working on to read a page of La Chartreuse de Parme. And consequently I don’t do anything productive. Instead in the cafes I feel like a shipwrecked, stuck to my table like to the essential, it is all I have in that moment. And in addition, you see, in the café we are in the world, between people, and, seeing that in writing there is always a little delirium of omnipotency, it is not bad to have around oneself people who couldn’t care less! In some way we are made ironical. Finally in the café there is a sense of the world, of a reality in which the small ‘me’ finds its modest place to one side, there is a sense of chorality, a life shared to some extent – and I really feel this. And then of course it happens that all of this suddenly becomes false and I become the writer who goes to the café to pose, to imitate Viennese or French writers, to play the little Altenberg or the little Sartre. And everyone wants to interview me in the Caffe San Marco, and photograph me at the Caffe San Marco – a little like going to see an animal in its habitat. But this is not all: some time ago a political figure from Trieste warned me of the visit of a foreign political delegation. This man begged me – something that made me furious – to let them find me at the café during their visit of the city, as if by chance, at six in the evening, so he could show me…
HUO: Could you talk to me about Turin? In many interviews you have said that today you work in Turin and teach in Trieste (your activity in Trieste is therefore more public). Giulio Paolini told me much about Turin, especially in relation to his discussions with Italo Calvino. And after all there seems to truly have been something around Einaudi, the famous publishing house, which, in this moment of editions without an editor, lacks completely. Could you tell me your point of view on the Turin of the Einaudi years?
CM: I went to Turin in ’57, and there I studied at university, and then worked as assistant and professor. It was a truly extraordinary city. Extraordinarily welcoming and fraternal, it was my world. In those years, while Trieste was declining Turin doubled its size, with all the problems, in good or in evil, of immigration (at the time the immigration from Southern Italy), between political tensions and great hopes. What happened in Turin characterised Italy. And it is in Turin that modern Italy was born: communism was born there, together with modern liberalism, anti-fascism, and the contestations of ’68. There is the Turin of the classical liberalism of Einaudi senior, of the left-wing liberalism of Gobetti, the Turin of Gramsci, where what was still at that time a working-class world produced culture. And this was truly extraordinary, it was an environment I needed. And then there was Einaudi, the legendary publishing house. With Einaudi I published, very young, the volume Il Mito Asburgico. Then I entered the editorial board; I remember the Wednesday meetings with many people who would later become dear friends. Davico, Giulio Bollati, Bobbio or Mila. What was incredible was the contact with this generation of founding fathers. It was a formative experience, which allowed me to get in touch with a great world, also economical, political, and industrial, and not only with the individual, anarchic-individualist-bourgeois reality of Trieste, which I do like, even so. In Turin there truly was die grosse Welt, to say it with Hegel. And this world marked me deeply, a world which is now disappearing, even in Turin. In those years I was happy going back and forth, living a strong contrast: Trieste was the gipsy freedom of the intérieurs; reflection, escape, wandering à la Robert Walser. Turin was all the opposite. And instead they are two cities increasingly alike, because Turin is now in a great crisis. So today in Trieste we talk of the great Trieste of the past, of Svevo and Saba, and in Turin we talk of the great Turn of the past, of Gramsci and Gobetti. But when these things are talked about rather than lived it is a little dangerous.
HUO: At this point I would like to ask you a question on memory, on dynamic memory. You have talked extensively about this attempt to fight against the oblivion of time. Today we live in a political moment in which memory is often employed in a static, objective, reactionary sense. Your point of view on memory seems instead quite different…
CM: Of course. On the one side memory is a fundamental and foundational category; it is the mother of the Muses, Mnemosyne, as the Greeks said. Memory for me is fundamental. But not so much memory of the past, something that has to do with nostalgia, with regret, with idealisation, but rather a strong sense of the present of all things that have meaning and value, above all people. My great friend Biagio Marin, the poet, said that the past does not exist: he meant that either there are things with a mere functional utility, like, say, the telephone number of an office that we need and that disappears when we no longer require it, or simply there are things that are. In this sense even death has little power: we do not say that Leopardi was a poet, but that Leopardi is a poet. And this is so for everyone. I have a very strong feeling of the present of things, of people, of passions and sentiments; life that must never be put into archives. With the loved ones – I am thinking about my Marisa, but not only her, also some friends – I continue to speak, they continue to exist. Memory has a very strong meaning, it gives depth, it allows for relations and so on. But there is also a mistaken kind of memory, which is where we become prisoners to it, obsessed by the past, continuously reproaching the wrongs suffered, presenting the bill. This of course is a false memory because it is not the salvaging of things, of love and passions, but merely the prison of resentment. I remember, as I cite in Danube, once seeing on the steps of a church a fantastic writing saying “only when you have laughed have you freed yourself from resentment”. And this evil memory, which in truth has been cultivated extensively in the Mitteleuropa, now becomes used politically in a regressive way, to fuel hatreds between people. To remember is necessary, but not the remembering that makes one prisoner of hatred and bitterness, leading us not to go beyond but to repeat those tragedies that we are reminded of. In her book Verde Acqua Marisa Madieri narrates the story of the exodus from Fiume after the second world war; first there was the violence of the Italians on the Slavs and then the retaliation of the Slavs towards the Italians, after which many Italians abandoned Istria and Fiume, finally became Yugoslavian, leaving everything behind and living for years, just like Marisa Madiera as a child with her family, a precarious existence in refuge camps. But narrating this story, the story of an Italian driven away by Slavs, and narrating it objectively and without any preoccupation of being politically correct, Marisa Madieri discovers the partly Slavic roots of her family, something which was removed and forgotten, therefore finding a sentiment not of hostility but of proximity, a feeling in some way of belonging to the Slavic world. In this case memory does not fuel, but surpasses and cancels resentment; it does not chain to the past, preventing the projection of oneself into the future, but enriches that very march towards the future. Today, unfortunately, we witness an undue exploitation of memory, a falsification, a continuous digging up of past things not to make them affectively present in out heart but to use them instrumentally against someone. This is truly intolerable, this absolute obsession makes us prisoners and that is tied to a regressive political project. It is not pietas towards all of our past, which we must have, but the exhuming of what instead must be left behind. And this regressive, reactionary, at times racist phenomenon can be seen everywhere in our world. It is like when we digest badly and get nauseous: now, this nausea must be cured, not cultivated. In this sense, precisely because I believe so much in memory, this employment, this falsification and this instrumentalisation of memory seems to me like a blasphemy.
HUO: A beautiful conclusion. One last question I always ask at the end of every interview: could you tell me about an unrealised project.
CM: It risks getting long… but let’s say I have always been fascinated by cinema. After secondary school I was unsure for a long time whether to go to Turin to study literature, as I did, or to Rome to the experimental centre of cinematography. I would have loved to narrate with things, with colours, with faces and with gestures. But then there are numerous other unrealised projects, many omissions. In catholic catechism, in the list of sins, where it says that we can sin with words, with thoughts, or with actions, it also says that we can sin by omission: and I believe this is the most serious sin. But this is not about projects, but about a lack of generosity or charity. In many cases what I have not done weights on me more than what I have.