People who know how to sing while shaving are fortunate.

A Different Sea, by Claudio Magris and translated by MS Spurr

civilization, like gardening, is the art of pruning.

This is an unusual one – a book that utterly subverts itself. By a quarter of the way through I loathed its protagonist. By half-way through I realised that was the point.

Love that cover.

As the book opens Enrico is heading by sea from Trieste to Argentina, where he plans to live a quiet but noble life in the wilds of Patagonia. He is fleeing military service, unhappy with the required haircut and finding the boots uncomfortable.

He looks back on his youth and his childhood friends Carlo and Nino. Carlo is a philosopher and believes that Enrico’s departure represents a truly philosophical act that encapsulates everything Carlo wishes to write – a rejection of the world’s vanities and an embrace of the absolutely pure and simple life.

Carlo had taught him that by virtue of philosophy – the love of seamless wisdom – distant things could be seen close up, and the urge to grasp them could be overcome, since, after all, they exist in the great quietness of being.

Enrico means to write to Carlo of his adventures, but finds he can only jot down a few inanities on postcards. Carlo in turn writes to him proclaiming Enrico a kind of saint, for Enrico is living amid wilderness with barely a handful of possessions and without attachment.

By this point, not that far in, I was already growing weary of Enrico. He struck me as a rich kid on an extended gap-year; his friends back home talking about how meaningful it all was. I thought Magris meant me to take him as he took himself. I was wrong. When Magris comments:

And yet it is true to say Enrico never thinks of his father’s mills in Gorizia, nor knows anything of his share of the inheritance or even how much money his family has.

Magris doesn’t mean that Enrico is beyond such things. He’s making the subtler point that Enrico can afford to be beyond such things.

Time passes and letters from Italy bring news of lives lived and lost. Nino marries, opens a bookshop, has children and dies in a climbing accident. He lives. Enrico meanwhile trades a few horses and develops scurvy for lack of vegetables in his diet.

Eventually Enrico returns to Europe (don’t worry, I’m not going to set out the whole plot here), driven out by his inability to make a living in Argentina. On his return he tells tall tales of his adventures on the Pampas. Yes, people invite such tales from him, but there’s a vanity in obliging them rather than telling the truth.

More time passes, war breaks out, communities are split. Enrico, ever the adolescent philosopher, continues to pursue a life of detachment and contemplation of the same few books he took on his trip to Argentina and that were all he came back with.

Enrico notices another aspect of this tragic war in which his friends were set each against each other, but does not try to understand. He says nothing when they speak of a drink of water given to a wounded man under fire, of a soldier who threatened to shoot his own comrades, brutalized from weeks in the trenches, to prevent them butchering a prisoner.

People fight and die and console and betray and all the things that happen in war, and what does Enrico do? Nothing. He becomes a mediocre teacher because that allows him to maintain his detachment.

This then is not a study of a life lived consciously and with meaning. Instead it’s the story of an utterly pointless life, a wasted one. Enrico lives according to his philosophy and does nothing, helps nobody. His self-realisation is simply entitled selfishness enabled by his family’s money.

Eventually he too marries. He forces his wife to live in the same state of abnegation that he does, despite her being plainly unhappy.

He brings with him from Gorizia some of the roughest and most worm-eaten pieces of furniture that had been stored in the cellar, and a supply of old clothes so that he would never need to buy any more. There are no clocks in the house, only a sundial attached to the grey exterior wall. Two chairs next to the bed are more than enough for laying out one’s clothes before going to sleep; pleasure comes from being independent of whatever is not absolute …

He has land some of which he rents. He breaks his usual reading to study the law on tenancies and scrupulously enforces it against his tenants. Although he doesn’t care for possessions or property he’ll be damned before he’ll let these paupers enjoy anything any more than they’re strictly entitled to. He prohibits them rearing more chickens than are permitted by law. He watches their children to make sure they don’t help themselves to his fruit, even though he doesn’t intend to pick it himself:

he is of one mind with Buddha, with no wish for life and no yearning. Nevertheless, in the meantime, no one is going to eye his figs let alone touch them.

Enrico’s internal monologue is all about truth, enlightenment and freedom. His outer reality is a grasping draft-dodger unwilling to bend even an inch for those closest to him. He gets by mostly on the fact that he’s very good looking and people tend to read his silences for profundity, but the banality of his thinking is underlined by his continual inability to write any of it down.

Most reviews I’ve seen of this take Enrico as he takes himself, as living an authentic life, but I think that’s a misreading. I think Magris intends us to be critical. He gives Enrico every advantage at the outset – youth, loyal friends, money, good looks. Then he shows us Enrico’s failed adventure in Argentina brought down by dietary issues everyone else there seems to find a solution to. He shows us Enrico’s indifference to the struggles of his day and then his miserly treatment of his tenants.

Adolescents often swear that when they get older they won’t compromise as their parents did. Enrico shows what happens when you achieve that.

Two asides. Firstly, the writing is at times remarkably beautiful. Here’s two examples:

He lay face-down. Paula lay on her back, her head thrust backwards, her dark hair, black in the wind, brushed against his face. Behind her black hair the blue sea shimmered, and beyond lay the strip of red earth and the soft, dark green of cypresses and pines. The underside of a seagull shone ivory as it plummeted and skimmed over the water. An olive tree spread its branches with the stark sexuality of nature.

He names his boat Maia, a small ten-footer, just big enough to venture out to sea with its white sail – the veil of Maia. The haze shimmering in air and on water on certain afternoons is either the final veil drawn over the pure present of things, or is already perhaps in itself, pure present. The sail glides over the sea, slips through a cleft in the horizon, and falls into a milky blue bound by no shore. Summers open out and solidify. Time rounds out like blown glass in water.

The second is that unfortunately Enrico is incredibly sexist, arguably misogynistic. His looks make it easy for him to get women, but he has no attachment to any and sees them as essentially interchangeable bodies. For him the inner life is a quality possessed only by men.

There’s nothing wrong with prejudiced protagonists. Enrico has many unlikable traits and his sexism is of a kind with the rest. The trouble is it leads to an awful lot of passages where women are described in an incredibly dismissive way. Mostly it’s the omniscient narrator reflecting Enrico’s own thoughts but it comes up so much I started to wonder if it was just Enrico or if there was a bit of Magris there too.

Women “can’t be trusted, since they can play some pretty nasty tricks.” Enrico reflects that “nature has fitted women for reproduction. They have to deal with all those effluents, bulges, pregnant tums, suckling, pap, dribble, potties, wee-wees, wailing – with no chance to open a book.”

The women he meets in Argentina are “fine mounts with strong flanks that know how to carry a good weight”, but “whenever Enrico thinks about them, he can never conjure up any single one in all her particulars. He never remembers which face goes with which oversized breasts or with which gargantuan rump.” They are “all just a gaggle of silly geese”, and so it goes on. I could have quoted many more examples.

In a way it doesn’t matter whether the sexism is just Enrico’s in-character or is reflective of authorial attitudes (I suspect the former but I’d be interested in comments from those who’ve read other Magris). Either way it just became intensely wearying.

I thought A Different Sea clever, and I thought it daring in taking such an unlikable character and on the surface showing them as heroic while undermining them through constant little asides. I thought the descriptive passages stunning. In character or not though I found the sexism wearying. The point was made long before Magris stopped making it.

Finally, my thanks to Stu of Winston’s Dad’s Blog. His review here put me on to reading this.

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6 Comments

Filed under Italian fiction, Magris, Claudio

6 responses to “People who know how to sing while shaving are fortunate.

  1. I love that cover too – it would definitely prompt me to take a closer look at the book. That’s a pity about the sexism – as you say, irrespective of whether it’s in character or not, it can get rather tiresome after a while. Sometimes you want an author to take risks and push the boundaries a little, but maybe not if it’s this comes at the expense of maintaining the reader’s engagement/curiosity.

  2. I think the sexism you mention would get on my nerves and I’m more in need of soothing reads at the moment than of irritating ones.
    Beautiful cover and great style, according to the quotes.

  3. The style is great. He’s more famous for his non-fiction work Danube so perhaps I should have started with that.

  4. Magris is one of those writers who I find it hard to conceive of reading their fiction – Raban is another, and Geoff Dyer as well. My mistake maybe.

    I’ve read Danube, which captivated me many years ago, and also more recently Microcosms, which I recall havng some beautiful things in it but overall being a little dull. He is certainly a marvellous stylist.

    I don’t recall anything in those books like you describe here…

  5. I did wonder if it was a character issue. That’s why I was keen to hear from someone like you more familiar with his work. In that case it’s another example, among many in the novel, of Enrico’s blindness and solipsism.

    Still gets wearying though.

  6. Pingback: Time played its usual trick in the presence of Holt House. | Pechorin's Journal

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