A Date with Trieste
by Julian Neylan
Thirty years ago I fell under the literary spell of James Joyce. Ever since I have wanted to visit the Italian city of Trieste. The connection is with Leopold Bloom, chief protagonist of Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses. Bloom plays an outsider and a Jew in the cosmopolitan Dublin of 1904. Outsider and Jew - it could be a tautology. Put them together and there can be no doubt about Joyce’s intention. He was at pains to cast a new light on Ireland through the lens of an outsider. Characterising Bloom as a Jew fitted this purpose to a tee, which is where Trieste comes into the equation.
In 1904 when Joyce, at the tender age of 22, decided to exile himself from Ireland, it was Trieste where he settled one year later. He went there on the pretext of a teaching post at the Berlitz School of Almidano Artifoni (whom Joyce later wrote into Ulysses). His employment at the School was both problematic and short-lived and it soon became apparent that this and other jobs he took on were merely tolerable ways of earning enough to support his family and writing ambition. Indeed over the next ten years he would transform himself from a literary unknown to a writer of international importance. By the time the Great War sent him off to a Swiss refuge, he was well on the way to creating the novel often labelled the greatest in modern literature.
When Joyce and his partner Nora Barnacle arrived in Trieste, he was an exceptional but unrealised talent, an outsider with brash ambitions living miles from Ireland yet steadfastly obsessed with the plight of his homeland. Trieste at that time also had the largest Jewish population of all European cities, many of whom were leading intellectuals or entrepreneurs whom Joyce fell in with. When you put it all together these first years of his exile surely set him on a path to write a novel like Ulysses. I wanted to experience the city that launched him on this quest. That opportunity came in May 2022, the year that marks the centenary of the publication of Ulysses.
Trieste is a port city at the top arc of the Adriatic. It is perched on the eastern side of the arc, looking west across the sea to the main Italy peninsula, and in particular to Venice, not that you can see it. It is very close to Slovenia’s border to the east and south. Slovenia has a tiny Adriatic coastline just below Trieste, after which the coastline becomes Croatia’s. And up to the north of Trieste are the Dolomites and Austria. It is certainly a rare blend of many cultures, though dominated for 500 years by the wealthy Hapsburg monarchy (Austrian). So Trieste feels like it doesn’t quite belong in Italy. Which it didn’t until Italy annexed it from Austria after the Great War. Meanwhile Slovenia, Croatia and the other Balkan states were brought together under President Tito to form the loose confederation of Yugoslavia, now disbanded following the Balkans war. So in 1904 they were all under the rule of the wealthy Hapsburg dynasty, within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Trieste included.
When Joyce arrived he was a ‘nobody’ in the writing world, equipped only with a fierce self-belief and desire to express himself through the written word. Back home he regarded the constraints of religion, British rule and a Celtic cultural malaise as keeping his countrymen repressed. They were a limited people in his mind, self-satisfied, nationalistic and rigidly Catholic. He was determined to counter this through a self-confessed brand of ‘silence, exile and cunning’, to present back to them an unvarnished reality check that would shock their moral and cultural sensitivities. Little did he know how well Trieste would suit his purpose. Ireland’s position in the British Empire was not unlike Trieste’s within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The most populace culture was Italian, of whom many came under the banner of irredentists, actively seeking to have Trieste become more Italianised. This was Austria’s sea gateway to the Mediterranean, receiving exotic cargoes and settlers from all over the Orient and Europe, and an emerging hub for literature and music. Indeed at the junction of the Latin, Germanic and Slavic cultures. By the end of the nineteenth century the dominant Italian population was becoming resentful of Austro-Hungary’s “germanization” of the city and the threatening nearby Slav world. It was in this complex cultural mix that Joyce found himself from 1905 to 1915.
And so we come to May 2022. We arrived on a slow but scenic train trip from Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. The approach route took us up and over the Karst Plateau to its western escarpment, then down over the Slovenia-Italy border and through the karst hills that naturally delimit the landward sprawl of Trieste. As we descended the water views gradually increased until the full panorama of Trieste emerged, perched around a large harbour and backing up into the karst hills. Some distance out from the train terminus the line flattens out to hug the hillside above the shoreline and merges with the Venice line, becoming the only track in and out of Trieste. This was the same view Joyce would have observed when first approaching Trieste some 108 years earlier.
Our next day, 30 May, was packed with curiosity. The city’s tourist office has put together a 22-site itinerary brochure for tragics like me, titled The Trieste of James Joyce. The sites span the city’s neoclassical Austrian quarter, which fronts the harbour, and most can be visited on foot. So a useful framework for seeing the city’s important landmarks while capturing the Joycean experience. The route from Joyce haunt to Joyce haunt takes you past the best of Hapsburg-built architecture, with ornate, cream-stone civic and residential buildings at every turn, grand palazzos opening onto piazzas and the churches of many religions. It’s another level again for northern Italian provincial centres.
Immersed in these surrounds it is easy to imagine the cultural tapestry of a century earlier. Most synagogues and the Jewish quarter are gone, due to Mussolini’s purge of the 1940s. But many of the churches, theatres, cafes, educational institutes and civic buildings Joyce visited remain, as do the layout of streets, alleys and piazzas, the Grand Canal fed from the harbour (on which a lifesize Joyce statue is mounted) and the buildings in which the Joyces rented their many living quarters, where both their children were born and where he worked on his novels and daily correspondence. The imposing Teatro Verdi and the Stella Polare café, both of which he frequented often, are still operating as they were then. And there are several recent faux additions -Joycean ‘monuments’ seeking to cash in on the tourist dollar, such as a hotel and a café that bear his name.
The walking route is marked with plaques pointing out the places and people of significance for Joyce. Invariably the people were local intellectual companions. In particular, author Italo Svevo and poet Umberto Sava. These were new threads of his Trieste years for me to pursue. I learnt that in 1907 he became English tutor to the half-Italian, half-German Jewish writer Ettore Schmitz, better known by his pen-name Italo Svevo. A Jew, he became most important for Joyce. It was Svevo who inspired Joyce to create the character of Leopold Bloom. It was also Svevo’s enthusiasm that badgered Joyce into completing his abandoned draft of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. At the same time Joyce was teaching Svevo English and became number one advocate for Svevo’s unpublished works, which Joyce called the ‘neglected’ novels. There is a small Svevo-Joyce Museum in Trieste setting out their relationship. The displays are mostly in Italian except for some rare original letters and postcards which Joyce and Svevo exchanged when either was travelling. One such postcard, postmarked 26 July 1912 from Galway, features a picture of an old man beside Galway Bay with Joyce’s accompanying message, “A portrait of the artist as an old man”. It seems Nora also benefited from the relationship, to the extent that she and Svevo’s wife Livia Veneziani became well-acquainted.
Joyce fell in easily with Triestine’s intellectuals, regularly joining them in patronising the cafes, tavernas, theatres and brothels around town. Such relationships were essential, as he relied on these new connections and his powers of persuasion to fund his excessive habits. He was often unemployed and any revenue from sales of his first three books only started coming towards the end of his Trieste days. Mixing in the company of generous, influential ‘somebodies’ of many nationalities- Italian, Jewish, Slovene, Austrian etc – while surrounded by the beauty of Hapsburg architecture, must have been uplifting for a penniless Dubliner, used only to the squalor and greyness of 'dear dirty Dublin’. This was nothing like the limited creative environment Dublin could offer. And so his writing flourished.
Meanwhile Nora had both their children during the Trieste years, and lost a third. Their particular experience would have been quite different from that of their erudite but neglectful partner and father (they were not married). His free-roaming, freeloading and bouts of heavy drinking across Trieste’s 600-odd bars was in stark contrast to Nora’s plight. On top of frequent stretches with little money to run the household, Trieste for her was an isolating city. She struggled with language barriers, had little support to raise their children and was entirely dependent on an enigmatic, abrasive and often absent partner. His regular gallivanting at his friends’ expense must have been galling for her.
The onset of World War One did not immediately impact on Trieste and Joyce. Though the city belonged to Austria and was therefore aligned with the Kaiser, its curious location as a multicultural city stuck between western and eastern Europe caused a delay in its entry to the Austrian war effort. But eventually the military knocked on Joyce’s door in 1915 and, at 33 and an Austrian resident, insisted he join up to fight for the Huns. But of course all Irish then were British subjects, hence Joyce faced a call-up from the British military as well. So he greased some Trieste palms and quietly fled to neutral Zurich. However his brother Stanislaus and sister Eileen, who both lived with their eldest brother’s family, faced different fates. Stanislaus was arrested and jailed for four years as an enemy citizen, while Eileen escaped that fate by marrying a Triestine Hungarian.
By then Joyce had written and published Dubliners, Portrait and Exiles, and had started on Ulysses. All in this Triestine other-world, far from Dublin. He was now fully formed as an artist, working with great intensity and with a new found confidence borne of the success in seeing his first three works published. In a postcard to his brother Stanislaus dated 16 June 1915 he revealed he had completed the opening episode of his new novel. He would carry this work rate on to Zurich where he drafted most of Ulysses whilst sitting out the war.
While he took Dublin with him to Europe and rendered it with precision in Ulysses, he also brought Trieste to the Dublin of Ulysses. Exiled so far from Ireland, he would have had limited first-hand knowledge of the Jewish situation in Ireland ten years hence. He surely made up for this through his exposure to the synagogues, shops, language and attitudes of Triestians. This was a community composed particularly of rich merchants, successful intellectuals, Italian irredentists and Zionists. He regularly visited the synagogues, but also the other places of worship, from Catholic, Greek and Serb Orthodox, to Armenian Mecharitists, Swiss Protestants, Lutherans, Anglicans and Methodists. From this he was able to weave a rich strand of Triestine Jewishness into the character of Bloom and embellish the anti-foreigner attitudes of the Dubliners of his Ulysses.
Beyond the importance of Trieste for Ulysses, it would be remiss to not also mention its importance for Joyce’s last novel, Finnegan’s Wake. Long an exile from Ireland, in Finnegan’s Wake Joyce chose to also be an exile from his native language. In separating himself from English as it is commonly understood, he came up with a language based in English but which is constantly new and at times makes impossible demands on the reader. He would have heard an extraordinary mixture of languages in the streets of Trieste, reflecting the many cultures of its residents and visitors. As a result he learnt to speak brilliantly the very complicated Triestino dialect. This helped enormously in developing his genius at bending the English language into new words and double entendres, both hallmarks of Wake. The other notable contribution to it was Livia, wife of his close friend Svevo. It was she who inspired Joyce’s fictional character Anna Livia Plurabelle, symbol of the universal female and whose ‘long tawny mane’ became a metaphor for the water flowing in the river Liffey.
In a day filled with wonder, my lasting memory of Trieste will likely be the poignancy I felt standing outside the various homes where Joyce and the family lived, beginning with their first apartment in March 1905 overlooking the marketplace of Piazza Ponterosso. Seeing his many haunts for drinking with confreres, reading drafts of his chapters to them, attending the theatre and teaching English, it was easy to conjure up images of the young artist in action. I tried to imagine what he saw and thought walking along the same vicolos and piazzas, gazing at the world of Trieste over his morning coffee and afternoon wine, and what impression these scenes had on his creative imagination. It was such a buzz to have that peek into his world.
Considering Joyce was only 23 when he arrived, I came away convinced that Trieste had the most formative of influences on his coming of age, as a writer and a person. And I felt sure his rubbing up against the many gifted, older Jewish intellectuals, and their unconscious fostering of his ambition, was critical for the development of his craft and the confidence to extend himself. As an artist and genius absorbed in his own world, he may well not have seen things quite this way. However he would later recall the Triestine experience with great fondness:
[it was] a ramshackle affair but it was charming and gay, and I experienced more kindnesses than ever before or since in my life (Herbert Gorman’s biography)
* * * *
Later that same day we decided to take the funiculaire-tram up to the mountain ridge above. But the funiculaire was closed, so we caught a local bus up. This took us to a lookout with panoramic views of the city and Adriatic. Nearby we found the start of a walking path heading north along the ridge line, part of an ancient Roman “path through the woods”. It ended at the ridge-line village of Prosecco. Further inquiries revealed that yes, this is the very area that gave its name to the drink. The village was originally called Prosek, a Slovenian name, and the grape variety that makes prosecco originates from there. Another delightful discovery from our date with Trieste.
That evening we dined it up a little, going al fresco on the Piazza Grande with a booking timed to catch the 8:30 sunset over the harbour. Maria started with a glass of the local prosecco of course. But it was a sobering beer for me. Too much excitement for one day.
Everything and everyone
Passes El Ponterosso
Revoltella in a carriage with the Hapsburgs
Levantines in turbans
The smells of halva and fried fish
And Greeks and Turks
And Dalmatians and Croats
And the Swabians from Bieska
The Jews from Weimar
Shuffling to set out their stalls.
Carolus Cergoly (Trieste)