On the beautiful greenish-brown Danube

The Rhine and the Danube rivers haunt A Time of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s rhapsodic account of his walk across Europe in 1933 from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. But it is the Danube of Italian scholar and writer Claudio Magris that distils the history of a region that has been the crossroads of Europe since time immemorial.

Leigh Fermor first glimpsed the Danube at Ulm, declared an Imperial City by Friedrich Barbarossa in 1181. Albert Einstein was born there. When the driver of a truck set him down on its icy cobbles, Leigh Fermor notes: “I knew I had reached an important landmark on my journey. For there, in the lee of the battlements, dark under the tumbling flakes and already discoloured with silt, flowed the Danube.”

The towns of Furtwangen and Donaueschingen have long contested the river’s source, but Claudio Magris in Danube (1986) humorously details another claim based on a leaking tap that trickles into a sodden meadow higher up the hill. Magris investigates, as he does every step of the way, which is what makes the book such fascinating reading.

Danube is an informed and informative guide to the geography, history and culture of Central Europe from the Black Forest to the Black Sea. Where Leigh Fermor focuses on the landscape and people, Magris writes a travelogue that is an intellectual excursion into fables, literary anecdotes, fantasy, peopled with intriguing and eccentric characters and whimsical observations.

Magris presents an image of Europe as without borders, whose cultures are in constant dialogue with the past and the present. Reading Leigh Fermor, we know with hindsight that Europe’s borders are about to close – in some cases for a very long time. Leigh Fermor’s second encounter with the Danube (he walks cross country from Ulm to Passau) is dramatic:

“On the other side of this barrier the sky suddenly widened and a great volume of water was flowing dark and fast. In midstream, cloudy with the hemispherical ghosts of weeping-willows, an island divided the rush of the current. There was an answering line of ice on the other bank, then reeds and woods and a fluctuation of timbered mountain… As it streamed through those wooded and snowbound ranges the river made an overpowering impression of urgency and force.”

Such a powerful river could never be blue, and Claudio Magris dispels the myth:

“The Danube is not blue, as Karl Isidore Beck calls it in the lines which suggested to Strauss the fetching, mendacious title of his waltz. The Danube is blond… as the Hungarians say, but even that ‘blond’ is a Magyar gallantry, or a French one, since in 1904 Gaston Lavergnolle called it Le Beau Danube blond. More down to earth, Jules Verne thought of entitling a novel Le Beau Danube jaune. Muddy yellow is the water that grows murky at the bottom of these steps.”

Johann Strauss first performed the Blue Danube waltz at the Dianasaal in Vienna (right) on 15 February 1867 at a concert of the Wiener Männergesangsverein (Vienna Men’s Choral Association). It was a choral version to which words were written by the poet, Joseph Weyl. Strauss added an introduction and coda for the orchestral version, first heard in the Volksgarten on the Ringstrasse on 10 March 1867. Today the Blue Danube waltz is always played by the Vienna Philharmonic at the end of the New Year’s Day Concert.

Danube by Claudio Magris is irresistible and definitive. A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor doubles as a 20th century Odyssey. Both books are masterpieces.

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