Thursday, August 4, 2011

But the Danube Isn't Blue

A journey is always a rescue operation, the documentation and harvesting of something that is becoming extinct and will soon disappear, the last landing on an island that is sinking beneath the waves.
—Claudio Magris

I’ve never seen the Danube, yet the notion of it has long appealed to me.  One source for my fascination must surely have been Johann Strauss, Jr.’s eponymous waltz, for in my imagination, the Danube was unalterably blue.

Some years ago, I came across the book Danube, by Claudio Magris.  I leapt on it eagerly, only to be told—on the second page, no less—that the river wasn’t blue.  Magris was unequivocal:  he described the Breg, claimed to be the Danube's source, as “a flowing bronze ribbon, brown and shining.”  Lovely though his description was, this was not my Danube, but something else.

I persevered, nonetheless, and the book has since traveled with me from New York City to the Hudson Valley, where it has called out from time to time to be reread.  Only recently did I finally take it down from the shelf where I'd deposited some years ago to read it once again.

When I read Danube the first time, I glanced at the book’s map of the Danube and the countries that bordered it, but didn’t linger.  I was eager to find out what its first chapter, “A Question of Gutters,” was about.  While some time had passed since its initial publication in 1986, and the breaking up of Eastern Europe was already underway, Magris’ account still had the aspect of having been written in the present.

This time, though, the map stopped me short.

Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union no longer exist as single nations, and East and West Germany have become a single nation once again.  Magris’ account has thus itself become part of the history he described. 

Of Sarajevo, Magris wrote, “‘Balkan’ is an adjective with insulting overtones.” But,
Anyone who has seen the streets of Sarajevo, and its bazaar, as sparkling as a mirror, or the spruce orderliness of Sofia, and compares these with what obtains in cities or countries held up as paragons of civilization, is inclined to use the term ‘Balkan’ as a compliment, as others tend to employ the word ‘Scandinavian.’
Sarajevo’s bazaar appears to have been restored since the siege ended in 1996, yet I wonder what Magris would write today. 

Magris, described in one way, is a “scholar and critic specialising in the field of German literature and culture” who was born in Trieste.  I like better Magris’ characterization of himself in the context of the book:  “the German scholar who travels fitfully along the whole course of the river [and] carries with him his baggage of fads and quotations.”

Magris’ journey along the Danube is replete with off-kilter literary and historical anecdotes, and even a mention of “Buffetto II, my highly esteemed guinea-pig.”  The first image of Vienna Magris offered, for example, was no frothy bit of waltz, but the dummy of poet Peter Altenberg, “with his deep-set, melancholy eyes and his famous walrus moustache,” sitting at a table in the Café Central.

In Esztergom, Hungary, Magris found that the museum dedicated to Bálint Balassi, “one of the earliest poets in Hungarian literature,” was closed.  "[T]he girl who opens the door knows nothing, and the doorway is full of piles of plaster."
Abandoned under the hall stairs is a bust of Sissy, the Empress who loved Hungary so much.  The smile on the face, carved by an utterly conventional hand, displays a suitable unreality for that impossible Empress with her dream of being a sea-gull.  Even world history is composed of changes of address, often unfinished, with furniture left behind.
Along his journey, Magris retrieved from his “baggage of fads and quotations” all manner of curious connections to the landscape he traversed:  Count Károlyi’s raincoat, sold to pay a grocer’s bill; the File of Rudenesses Received of Ferdinand Thrän, architect and “hypochondriac specializing in discourtesies.”  Or this:
They say that at Ormánság, in Baranya, when the examining commission once asked a candidate for the office of magistrate whether he could read and write, the answer they got was, “No, but I can sing.”
The Danube is more than 1,700 miles long, beginning in Germany’s Black Forest and ending in the Black Sea.  Exactly where it begins remains a matter of debate that Magris, in examining his “Question of Gutters,” attempts to ferret out.

At the end of the river is Sulina, in Rumania, where history has “packed its bags and cleared out,” and “what arrives  . . . today is the rubbish floating on the Danube.”

Just as my own notion of the blue-ness of the Danube fell before Magris’ account, so Magris’ confrontation with the Danube in Sulina seemed to shatter his notion of it, as well.  “The pigs are still rooting around the big metal birds.  The Danube is the slough they are digging their snouts into; nowhere does the sea receive that clear water of which that old book speaks.”

“Why,” Magris asked, “must our journey end in nothing?”

But it isn’t so.  I’ve traveled with Magris twice along the Danube, and I’ve come away with a cornucopia of strands of history, literature, poetry, and music that I can follow as I wish.  As Magris wrote of the river, “the Danube is everywhere, and also its end is everywhere.”

Click here to hear Franz Welser-Möst rescue the Blue Danube Waltz from the clutches of André Rieu with this performance at the Vienna Philharmonic's 2011 New Year's Concert.

Credits:  The painting at the head of the post, Stein On The Danube With Terraced Vineyards by Egon Schiele, can be found here.  The photograph of Peter Altenberg's dummy can be found here.  The painting of Empress Sissy can be found here.  The current map of the Danube can be found here.  All quotations are from Danube, by Claudio Magris.

Postscript:  As you'll see in the comments, la rose has tipped us off to Annea Lockwood's Sound Map of the Danube.  The Sound Map site describes the piece as "an aural tracing of the Danube, interleaved with the memories and reflections of its people."  More information and an audio clip of what looks to be a fascinating aural trip along the Danube can be found here

Post-Postscript:  I'll be traveling to the Maine seacoast starting tomorrow and will be without internet for several days.  I look forward to your comments and to catching up with one and all on my return.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Susan:
How wonderfully you write of Magris 'Danube' which, as you suggest here, is a totally absorbing account of this famous and lengthy river running, as it does, from some largely unknown German source to end in the Black Sea.

And whilst it may not be blue, it is, we assure you, lovely, and very much a part of our lives for, in Hungary, one is never far from it for it does, as you will know from your maps, effectively divide the country into two. What is more, we really do believe that as it passes through Budapest it provides one of the very best cityscapes along its entire length.

It is some time since we read Magris' book and we are now prompted to return to it. In writing this comment the music has been playing all the while - such a nice touch for which so many thanks.

Finally, we should very much wish for you that, one day, you may see the Danube, blue or otherwise, for yourself.

David said...

I love Magris's book too, and long to follow in his footsteps/boat routes (Viennese friends of ours have done a Danube cyclepath experience, though they're more into kayaking, an experience we were spared on a rainy day near Melk).

I remember being especially haunted by his description of Ruse, Elias Canetti's home town, which I've always wanted to visit since (and haven't yet). But these epic travel journeys can sometimes be richer just in the reading, as you suggest...

la rose said...

You might want to check out Annea Lockwood's recording "Sound Map of the Danube" from Lovely Music. It's two-hours of field recordings from various points along the whole river.

Maggie Asfahani Hajj said...

I found your blog through Friko's World, and am very happy I did!

It is wonderful how a piece of art, music, or literature can color our views of a place before we even have a chance to visit it. For years, I have been in love with Die Moldau by Smetana. It has made me imagine The Vltava as a raging, tumultuous river, passionately cutting through the landscape. I have no idea what it looks like in real life!

klahanie said...

Greetings Susan,
As per usual, you give a detailed, highly informative account within your posting. A most fascinating read and I thank you.
I'm vaguely aware of the book, 'Danube' by Claudio Magris and now I'm considering checking it out.
There's a certain romance attached to the Danube and it's certainly a river that I would love to see. Indeed, to echo what our new friends, Jane and Lance, have noted, I do so hope you one day get the opportunity to see the Danube, that, "flowing bronze ribbon"...
Kind wishes, Gary.

Mark Kerstetter said...

How beautiful to read this outstanding post while listening to the Vienna Philharmonic. I can see why you chose that opening quote, and why you like this book. He seems to be a kindred soul, an idiosyncratic traveler. Perhaps you'll stitch a post or two together from your travels along the Maine coast - someplace I've always wanted to go. Have a great time!

Suze said...

In 1990, I memorized world capitals. I don't remember when it was that I realized my 'knowledge,' for which I had studied hard, had become obsolete; but when it did happen, I could not stop thinking about the implications for my own continent. I think of Mexico, the United States and Canada as permanent entities and yet this is far from the truth.

Unsettling, to say the least. Driving home my provincial mindset, to say the most.

Rubye Jack said...

I'd like to find the book myself and get refreshed on the history. It doesn't seem that long ago that all those countries made such drastic changes and I am particularly nescient with regard to all of it, as well as the not so blue Danube.

Friko said...

I will have to read this book.
But you will have to read Patrick Leigh-Fermor and his

'A Time Of Gifts'
'Between the Woods and The Water.'

If you haven't read him, you really MUST. It's essential that you do.

You'll never read a better account of one man's journey through Europe.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. such an interesting read - with some extremely informative comments and books to read ..

The Danube was part of the "Iron Curtain" and at the fall of the Wall .. the ecological differences on each side of the Danube make an interesting read .. I wrote a post - it's not very erudite .. but certainly enlightened me.

I'd love to read Magris' book, as well as the others mentioned ..

Many thanks - enjoyed this very much .. Hilary

Susan Scheid said...

Such wonderful comments from you all—so many new threads to follow! And, in response to you each, I say (in two comments, as blogger will not allow me as many characters as I need!):

Jane and Lance: I love to think of you, in Budapest, listening to the Vienna Philharmonic play the Blue Danube Waltz as you read this post. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Along with Magris’s treasure-chest of a book, your comment makes a trip along the Danube, and certainly including Budapest, all the more irresistible.

David: So of course I had to run right over and retrieve Danube from the bookshelf to look up what Magris said of Ruse. There is hardly a line of this book that isn’t worth quoting, and, for anyone else may happen by, here is a bit on Ruse:

At the corner of the Square of September 9th the District Savings Bank has a symbolic façade depicting this world—voracious and chaotic but at the same time bogged down in decorum. Around the doors of the old bank are reliefs of leering masks, the head of a satyr, a Moloch of money, who flaunts a great mustache that stretches out and dissolves into Art Nouveau flourishes.

As to your comment that “these epic travel journeys can sometimes be richer just in the reading,” I know what you mean. Doubtless, Magris’s Danube would be an essential accompaniment to a “real life” trip. And this, of course, reminds me of another quote from Magris, as he follows in the footsteps of journalist Alberto Cavallari, who covered the 1956 Hungarian revolt:

It is a tragic breviary for a harmless journey, which we none the less take with us as Bérard carried the Odyssey when he travelled round the Mediterranean, to identify places and their secrets from that kind of Baedeker which the poem contains.

la rose: What a gift you’ve given by identifying Annea Lockwood's recording "Sound Map of the Danube,” which, as I hope you’ll see, I’ve now added as a postscript, with a link to this treasure of a work. Would that I knew more than a few words of German so as to understand the interviews—though I see that a translation, as well as a map, are included with the CD.

Maggie: Welcome to PD, and I’m delighted to learn of you as well. (Friko’s World is indeed a fine world in which to travel, don’t you think?) And you’ve offered up yet another route to follow, from Smetana to the Vltava of your imagination. Of course, I immediately had to give Die Moldau another listen and look up what I could about the river and Smetana’s work.

Gary: Great rivers capture the imagination in a particular way, don’t they? After all, by their very nature, they take us on a journey, and, as enriched by a Magris or Smetana, the journey is not only physical, but many-layered in space and time.

Susan Scheid said...

Mark: Ah, I do hope you get to Maine. I suppose we are all, each in our own way, idiosyncratic travelers, aren’t we? Of course this is why I love Magris’ description of himself carrying his “baggage of fads and quotations,” thereby giving each of us permission to do the same. As for Maine, while perhaps I’ll be able, at some point, to stitch a post together, I fear my understanding is terribly superficial, consisting mostly of repeated trips to Shell’s waterside shack for lobster tacos and various farmer’s markets for quarts of Maine blueberries . . . among attempts to capture images of eiders, guillemots, ospreys, and other waterbirds, not to mention the ever-changing beauty of the light and landscape (including in the rain, of which there was an elegant sufficiency).

Suze: Amusing, about memorizing the capitals. On our way to Maine, it took much head-scratching among four travelers to come up with the capital of New Hampshire (Concord), despite its stability as capital of that state.

Linda: Yes, this is a part of the world about which I also knew next to nothing, so reading Magris (each time) was revelatory, to say the least. I’m now trying to make it my business to be on the prowl for poetry and literature from Danubian countries to the east, in particular.

Friko: I must, indeed, and therefore, I will! As soon as I had access to the internet, I searched for and found the books you recommended. (Had they been available for download, I would have ordered them on the spot!) They sound wonderful, and I will be ordering them today. I hope you enjoy Magris’s Danube, as well.

Hilary: What an interesting perspective on this area. Thanks so much for noting it. I wonder how the iron curtain “green belt” fares today? Perhaps you’ll do a follow-up post at some point.

For other readers, Hilary’s wonderful post can be found here.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan - thanks for highlighting my post .. I wonder if it's changed that much in two years .. as it now is.

Someone noted that Korea has the same situation .. the northern side a wildlife world of wealth .. a definite 'NO GO' .. whereas the South - westernisation will have crept as near as possible.

I wonder if the west are learning to recreate total wildlife corridors .. there's talk of it.

Thanks - Hilary

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