Joyce in Trieste: in the great writer’s footsteps
June 16th is a landmark date in modern literature. It is, in fact, known as Bloomsday, or the day in which the events in the life of the Leopold Bloom unfold, the main character of Ulysses by James Joyce. The novel is one of the most discussed, most loved and most hated of the 20th century. There are those who boast of devouring it whole, while others have tried a hundred times to read it and have never gotten past the first twenty pages. At any rate, the novel has clearly changed the way in which we perceive the world and the way in which the world is reflected back to us through literature. The book is a symbol of modernism and is known for its varied styles: slang and phonetic plays on words, parodies and streams of consciousness, long, uninterrupted monologues through which the characters let their thoughts pour out.
Although it is set in Dublin and is a thoroughly Irish work, Ulysses also conceals an Italian spirit. In fact, Trieste is closely linked to the life of the Irish writer and his most famous book.
Balanced between the West and the East, between the Mediterranean and Middle Europe, between mountains and the sea, at the intersection between races and cultures, the city hosted James Joyce for many years and it was during this period that the writer completed many of its earlier works and three chapters of Ulysses. Hence, Trieste provided fertile ground for its narrative and whether willing or not, whether disguised or not, was reconsidered and re-imagined in its pages.
The writer’s first trip to the city was in 1904 and he stayed for a long time, until 1920. He lived with Nora, his life-long partner, who uttered the famous question, “Why don’t you write books people can read?”
What was Trieste like at that time, what places did he frequent and what was his life like in this city on the Adriatic?
During his period in Trieste, his talent was still undiscovered, so he did whatever work he could find in order to get by. He was a speaker, a journalist, a clerical worker and a translator, but mostly he taught English. He held a position with the Berlitz School, but also taught the children of the city’s wealthy merchants in their homes. One of the local sites associated with Joyce that has survived the passage of time is the villa of Leopoldo Popper and his daughter Amanda, located in Via Don Minzoni, 16.
The part of the old town that Joyce frequently visited to find inspiration, and is currently the city center, was at the time rather run down. The houses were overflowing with tenants and running water was not available. As it was near to the sea, this area was also full of sailors passing through the port and hence, there were many bordellos. The one near Piazza Cavana, in Via Fortino, was Joyce’s personal favorite.
A port town, Trieste was particularly lively at night: there were many cafes, some elegant, others less so, that sold alcohol and absinthe. Inebriation dulled inhibitions and underlying ethnic, political, social and religious tensions often led to fights and brawls. Once, Joyce had just stepped off a train, when he reluctantly became involved in a fight and ended up spending a few hours in prison.
Caffè Tommaseo in Piazza Unità d’Italia, one of the largest and most picturesque in all of Europe, was a favorite spot for Joyce. It was there that he met Italo Svevo, who became a close friend as well as one of his students. San Marco was another cafe that Joyce loved.
Joyce also enjoyed, perhaps even preferred, the dives patronized by the working classes and sailors, with whom he shared a passion for strong drink. Certainly they provided some of the episodes and settings that ended up in Ulysses.
Joyce and his family changed houses several times in Trieste, but moving was a constant throughout his life, not just in Italy. The house in which he lived the longest, from 1913 to 1915, was in Via Bramante, 4. In the relatively short time he was there, he finished A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, wrote his only play, Exiles and some chapters of Ulysses.
Joyce learned the local dialect, and Trieste’s multi-cultural character provided him with some of the stylistic accouterments that he used in his masterpiece. In addition, Trieste’s mixture of religious faiths led him to learn about and attend services of other religions and supplied a critical part of the complexity of Ulysses. Having grown up in devoutly Catholic Ireland, taught by Jesuits, he escaped from its narrow culture and found in Trieste an opportunity to experience other faiths. In the Jewish ghetto there were two synagogues, which have since disappeared and which Joyce attended, and he participated in Greek Orthodox services occasionally at Saint Nicholas Church, and Serbian Orthodox services in Saint Spyridon Church. The latter was located in one of the most interesting areas of Trieste, known as the Grand Canal. One of its bridges has a statue of the writer in bronze.
But this is not the only place that tells about Joyce’s life. In the last 15-20 years, 45 plaques have been placed in Trieste that were important in his life. He certainly provides an interesting context in which to discover the city, one of the most beautiful in Italy.
Via Madonna del Mare 13,
Monday through Saturday from 9:00am to 1:00pm and Thursdays from 3:00pm to 7:00pm
Entrance is free.