tarry easty

Roy Foster

  • The Years of Bloom: James Joyce in Trieste 1904-20 by John McCourt
    Lilliput, 306 pp, £25.00, June 2000, ISBN 1 901866 45 9

A few weeks ago I wandered round inescapably bourgeois Rapallo, at the end of the season: just down the coast from Genoa’s seductive murkiness, and the bay of San Remo where Ripley bludgeoned Dickie Greenleaf to death, but a world away from both. The resort now thrives on conferences, and there was a world congress of Nietzscheans in full swing. This was apposite. Even if its attractions stop short at the Edwardian bathing-huts still primly apportioned out around the bay, and the sun on the rocks along the palm-fringed shore, this was where Nietzsche, Hauptmann, Beerbohm and Pound lived much of their writing lives; and where Yeats also wintered in the late 1920s, rewriting A Vision and working on many of the astonishing poems of the ‘Byzantium’ period. It took several fruitless enquiries to locals, and then a lengthy investigation by a Tourist Office official who eventually disinterred a file of literary notes, to find that Yeats’s Via Americhe has changed its name, like much in Rapallo. Even the little boulevard by the beach, where Yeats watched Pound feeding the stray local cats, is now called Via Gramsci, which would please neither poet’s ghost. And though there are plaques on all the apartments that housed the resident luminaries, nothing adorns 12 Via Marsala, where the embarrassing Pound held court and praised Mussolini.

Italian history has moved on, and Yeats is firmly identified with Sligo and Galway, though he spent far less time there than in Dublin and London; and what Italy meant to him in the 1920s is very rarely considered. Irish writers may discover their voice in exile, but critical attention concentrates on the vision of Ireland thus achieved, rather than the way it may have been conditioned by their foreign surroundings. One would expect Joyce to be the exception, but critics and biographers’ attention has generally presented him as a committed exile who by a tremendous act of creative will magically preserved an unchanged Dublin within. So much of the received image of Joyce is that of the carefully finished man, the sacred monster living a slightly subfusc life in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, moving from one good bourgeois restaurant to another on the strength of Harriet Weaver’s subsidies, flanked by female relations dressed in black. He had become the man who, according to Eliot, affected elaborate politeness as a form of arrogance, and whom his exasperated friend Stuart Gilbert finally compared to Adolf Hitler. This is the Joyce portrayed in Gilbert’s Paris Journal, in the memory of many of Ellmann’s interviewees and the photographs of Gisele Freund.

When one looks through this prism, it is hard to recapture the handsome, scornful wunderkind who dazzled his university generation thirty years before, who told Yeats to his face that he was ‘too old to be helped’, who mocked Augusta Gregory even as she helped him, and who left Dublin in 1904 aged 22, with a glamorous student reputation and little else. Four years later Stanislaus Joyce remarked that his brother had failed ‘as a poet in Paris, as a journalist in Dublin, as a lover and novelist in Trieste, as a bank clerk in Rome, and again in Trieste as a Sinnfeiner, teacher and University Professor’. But the years from 1904 to 1915, spent in Trieste, saw the completion of Dubliners, the transformation of Stephen Hero into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the composition of Exiles and Giacomo Joyce, and the beginning of Ulysses. He returned briefly to Dublin in 1919-20, but by 1915 his artistic soul was forged.

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