How James Joyce became revered in Trieste, Italy
From Canada to New Zealand, Lithuania to Italy and many other countries in between, Bloomsday will be celebrated on June 16.
James Joyce is associated with Dublin, Paris and Zurich, but for those of you whose Joycean scholarship is a bit ‘rusty’, you may not be aware of James Joyce’s very close ties to the city of. Trieste in northern Italy.
To begin with, James Joyce’s novel Ulysses tells the story of a certain Leopold Bloom as he leads his life in Dublin on June 16, 1904. One could argue that Leopold Bloom’s inspiration was perhaps not at all a Jewish man from Dublin, more like Ettore Schmitz, a Jewish paint seller from Trieste!
How Joyce ended up in Trieste in 1904 is a story in itself. The family arrived in Trieste following a series of unrelated events in which James Joyce and the love of his life Nora Barnacle were “collateral damage” in acts of subterfuge, fraud – and even espionage, none of which was of their own accord. .
However, Joyce loved Trieste so much, and indeed you could say that Trieste loved James Joyce, that the city was going to be her home for 15 years.
After arriving in Trieste, he was hired to give English lessons to a young girl Letitza, daughter of the aforementioned Ettore Schmitz.
In February 2000, the young girl Letitza, then a woman in her sixties, explained that her meeting with James Joyce had radically changed their entire life. And this is by no means an exaggeration. Not only her, but her father Ettore and her mother Livia got involved in the English classes.
“From the first lesson, Joyce told us he was a writer,” Schmitz explained. For his father, this was the most important, because Ettore Schmitz was also a writer; he wrote under the pseudonym Italo Svevo. Sadly, his writings had hitherto been ignored by Italian readers and critics.
Now, however, Mr. Schmitz has had the courage to show his work to his daughter’s English teacher. Joyce was impressed. He encouraged Schmitz to send his work to English and French critics that he, Joyce, knew. Then, explained Ms Schmitz, Jame Joyce went on to write to two of the French critics stating that “the only modern Italian author that interests me is Italo Svevo”.
It worked! After years of rejection, Italo Svevo has become a literary sensation. Even in Italy!
Time has proven Joyce’s opinion to be correct; Svevo’s pioneering literary works are now recognized as having had a profound influence on the modernist writing movement in Italy.
Fortunately, this literary medium was a two-way street; for example about his masterpiece Ulysses that Joyce would write later in Paris. While preparing the novel in his mind, for the character of Leopold Bloom, Joyce frequently asked Ettore Schmitz how he would answer various questions or situations, especially with reference to the Jewish faith.
Letitza Schmitz observed again that her father was aware, through this constant questioning, which annoyed him in some way, that “he was providing material for a novel” for Joyce. With the possible exception of Joyce himself, no one could have imagined how much of a global influence this novel would have.
The more informed readers among you may notice that Ettore Schmitz’s wife was called Livia. She is the same Livia whose long reddish blonde tresses have been compared to the River Liffey and her name, Livia, has become Anna Livia Plurabelle of Finnegan’s Wake. Joyce recognized these links in his letters more than once.
James Joyce highlighted the Schmitz’s critique of his work; shortly after meeting them, he showed them drafts of novels he was working on. Letitza recalled that her mother was very moved by ‘The Dead’ of the Dubliners.
The Schmitz family’s support for James Joyce was not only creative but also financial. Neither Joyce nor Nora Barnacle were good fund managers, a problem further exacerbated by the writer’s tendency to drink heavily. Joyce asked Ettore for loans, as he did for many other citizens of Trieste.
The Triestinos seemed to be tolerant, in my opinion, of the struggling Irish novelist who was in a constant state of backlog. He had, after all, offered great support to a city son.
And more, James Joyce really loved their city. So much so that he encouraged his siblings to join him in Trieste. Three did. Two, Eileen and Stanislas, remained in the city. Their sister Eva got homesick and returned to Dublin after a few years.
It cannot be said which part of the city of Trieste was associated with James Joyce, as he is linked to the whole city! He frequently visited the city’s theaters, opera house, historic sites, churches, bookstores, taverns and cafes. As well as other “less healthy” areas of the city. In addition to enjoying walks by the sea and in the hills behind the city. Among the many literary cafes he frequented, the Caffè Stella Polare was a favorite. He frequently visited the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas which has a spectacular view of the ocean.
Via San Nicolo was of particular importance to James Joyce.
Umberto Saba’s Bookstore Libreria Antiquaria Umberto Saba, located on Via San Nicolo, was the literary and intellectual center of Trieste. The bookstore was favored by Joyce, Italo Svevo, and other city scholars. The bookstore, still in operation, is now located at No.30 Via San Nicolo, the same house in which James Joyce lived for a while and where his son Giorgio was born.
The Berlitz school was located two doors away, at number 32. James Joyce taught English there, as did his brother Stanislas. James Joyce also taught English at the University of Trieste.
Lest people think that these facts are known to me because I am one of those Joycean scholars, this is unfortunately not the case. During a visit to Trieste last week, which was more related to viticulture than high culture, I discovered these facts and many more about James Joyce’s life in Trieste.
I was taken by this beautiful, cultivated and gentle city. I was impressed with how around 110 years ago the Triestinos welcomed a native Irishman into their hearts, recognized his talent and tolerated his flaws.
I felt comfortable walking the waterfront or the same little streets or elegant squares that James Joyce had walked through about 110 years before. It was always a pleasure to discover a statue of Joyce on my way to somewhere, or to see a reference to him in words or pictures as I walked around town.
Whether for viticulture, high culture, or even no culture at all, Trieste is a city worth visiting. And a city easy to visit, especially if you are Irish! Indeed, my German half noticed that Triestinos’ faces lit up positively when they found out that his wife was Irish.
We stayed at the James Joyce Hotel in Via dei Cavazzeni, 7 in Trieste. And although I have no part in the hotel, I am happy to sing its praises. Because it was, well, just perfect, located in the old town, with easy access to public parking nearby.
The hotel is located in a building from the late 1700s, so it has a lovely “old” feel to it. Although it is right in the center of all the hustle and bustle of the old town, our room was very quiet. A gem of a hotel; it was clean, cool and comfortable – and the shower and “other bathroom fixtures” had good pressure. Plus the elevator worked – all the time!
Special mention must be made to the lovely Sara who impressed us both with her big multilingual heart.
And no, the James Joyce hotel building was never a former Joyce family home or whatever, in fact, it has no direct connection to James Joyce. But the hotel management gave the hotel its nickname as a sign of respect to the Irish novelist who chose to make Trieste his home.
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