An Honorary Jew

An honorary Jew
By Saviona Mane
He is one of the leading intellectuals in Italy, an author, essayist, expert on German literature, and scholar of Eastern European Jewish culture. He follows what is happening in Israel closely, takes an interest in its literature and easily quotes Joseph Roth and A.B. Yehoshua. In the past few years, he says, he has even become "a kind of honorary Jew."
Despite that - and the fact that he was once again mentioned this year as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature - Claudio Magris is not really known in Israel, none of his books have been published in Hebrew, and he had never visited Israel until two weeks ago. "It just worked out like that. My research always took me to all kinds of little shtetls in Eastern Europe," he said from his hotel room overlooking the Ben Hinnom Valley in Jerusalem. He added that he liked what he saw - or rather, what he did not see -during his stay: "I visited the Old City and I did not see one policeman, not even a traffic policeman, and so far my impression is most pleasant."
The event that finally brought the 69-year-old scholar to Israel was a unique literary convention organized at the initiative of the Italian Cultural Institute: three days of intensive dialogue on the subject of "Literature and Commitment," in which 60 well-known writers from both countries participated. The conference took place at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, and was inaugurated with speeches by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and by President Shimon Peres.
It was not a coincidence that the literary event took place at the same time as the state visit here by Napolitano, according to Simonetta della Seta, the director of the cultural institute in Tel Aviv, who organized the event. While the visit was being prepared, Napolitano and Peres, both known for their love of books, insisted that the literary convention be held concurrently, so that they would be able to attend and thus demonstrate the importance they attributed to it.
The idea of holding an Italian-Israeli dialogue sprung from the great interest that Italian literature arouses here, and the exceptional success of Israeli literature in Italy. Magris, a tall man with a determined expression and a penetrating gaze, is also enthusiastic about Israeli literature. "It is a mirror for my existence, too," he said in his address at the opening of the conference. There is, however, a profound difference, he notes, between Israeli and European literature because the former has to deal with issues of a completely different nature.
"When you read the books of Israeli writers who do not deal with politics or nationalism, but rather with the problems of fathers and sons, or of husband and wife, you get the feeling that this literature does what literature is supposed to do," Magris explains. "That is, it deals with the big issues of the world, of life, of significance and lack of significance, in which the national, dramatic problem of the conflict, of the tragedy, with all the doubts and mistakes, becomes at certain points an inseparable part of the distress. So, when you go over to Western literature - there are, of course, exceptions - you get the feeling that you are moving to atmospheres slightly vitiated."
"At the same time, the Israeli writer has a disadvantage," Magris adds, "because, contrary to his French colleague, for example - who, if he is not nationalistic, forgets that he is French - he cannot allow himself to forget that he is Israeli. And over a long period of time, this is likely to prove dangerous."
Magris was born in 1939 in Trieste where today he lectures on German literature. Following his studies at the Universities of Turin and Freiburg, at the age of 24, he published an essay entitled "The Habsburg Myth in Modern Austrian Literature," which immediately received favorable reviews. He then began to research Eastern European Jewish literature, and has since published more than 20 books, including essays such as "Joseph Roth and the Eastern European Jewish Tradition," and the novel "Danube," which has been translated into 17 languages and granted Magris the status of one of the greatest contemporary Italian writers.
From 1994 to 1996, he served in the Senate as head of an independent list, but thereafter decided to leave politics. Today Magris deals with that subject mainly in the pages of the daily Corriere della Sera where, last May, he lambasted calls for a boycott of the international book fair in Turin because Israel was the guest of honor. "They belong in the garbage can," he wrote.
Despite the fact that the cybernetic world has taken over our lives today, the scholar from Trieste does not foresee a black future for literature. "If by the term 'literature' we mean a process of telling stories, of looking for the significance of life, then indeed literature still has a vital role to play. But literature as a tool for telling stories does not have to be written. There was no written literature during Homer's time," he points out. "The instrument is not really important:
Films can also be literature - 'The Bicycle Thieves' of [Vittorio] de Sica, for example."
Magris thinks it is pretty absurd that today, when we are overwhelmed by information, we actually know less than we did in the past. "A person like me, for example, who reads newspapers and watches television, does not know what is really going on in Afghanistan, who is really in control there. In fact, he knows less than a reader who followed the writings of Rudyard Kipling a century ago."
He is aware of the advantages of the virtual world, which makes it possible to have unlimited freedom of expression, but is afraid that this will eventually turn into a double-edged sword: "Ever since the mass media started dealing with literature, they reveal a greater number of writers to the public, but wipe out the existence of those whom they do not mention. Once we used to know that there were also writers who lived in the shadows, but today [the media] have taken away from them their right to exist."
Magris also fears that it may induce us to lose our sense of proportion. As an example he compares the media interest in the wedding of movie star Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956, and the coverage of the death of Princess Diana in 1997. "At the time, I too was interested in Grace Kelly, I too paged through the magazines when I went to the barber, I too was captivated by her beauty. But it was only some kind of entertainment. No one dreamed then of giving the event any greater importance, or of putting it on a par with masterpieces such as the book I read yesterday, by Edouard Glissant from Martinique. But Lady Diana's death, her funeral, are taught today at the University of Berlin!"
Is Magris pessimistic then? "Circumstances force me to be pessimistic, but my nature forces me to be optimistic." Haaretz


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