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Magris graduated from the University of Turin, where he studied German studies, and has been a professor of modern German literature at the University of Trieste since 1978. His first book on the Habsburg myth in modern Austrian literature rediscovered central European literature. His journalistic writings have been collected in Dietro le parole ("Behind Words", 1978) and Itaca e oltre ("Ithaca and Beyond", 1982). He has written essays on E.T.A. Hoffmann, Henrik Ibsen, Italo Svevo, Robert Musil, Hermann Hesse and Jorge Luis Borges. His novels and theatre productions, many translated into several languages, include Illazioni su una sciabola (1984), Danubio (1986), Stadelmann (1988), Un altro mare (1991), and Microcosmi (1997).

His breakthrough was Danubio (1986), which is a magnum opus. Magris tracks the course of the Danube from its sources to the sea. The whole trip evolves into a colorful, rich canvas of the multicultural European history. His latest novel is titled, "Blindly" (2011). Magris won the Bagutta Prize in 1987 for Danubio and the Strega Prize in 1997 for Microcosmi. He was also awarded the Erasmus Prize in 2001 and a Prince of Asturias Award for Literature in 2004. On July 31, 2006 he won the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. On October 18, 2009 he received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade during the Frankfurt Book Fair.