- 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.
The Trieste decade, it seems, has not received its due. Ellmann devotes more than a quarter of his biography to the period, but the city remains firmly in the background; more strikingly, a recent book about the young Joyce by Peter Costello, which ends in 1914, provides much valuable new material about his Dublin background and youth but devotes only sixty of nearly four hundred pages to his time in Trieste. This has not gone unnoticed in Joyce’s temporarily adopted city. A map produced by the Azienda di Promozione Turistica, offering a guide to ‘Walking around Joyce’s Trieste’, ticks off Ellmann and others for ‘failing to place the appropriate stress’ on the influence cast by the city on the master’s work; Renzo Crivelli, director of the Laboratorio Joyce, has placed all the relevant Joycean locations in James Joyce: Triestine Itineraries. And now John McCourt, founder and director of the annual Trieste Joyce School has published a study of Joyce’s life and work in that first decade of exile, with a brief coda covering his return after the end of the war.
The details offered are not often new: after Ellmann, and then a generation of dedicated truffle-hunting, one wouldn’t expect them to be. But McCourt has succeeded in putting the background into the foreground, and making Trieste – his own adopted city – a character too. Moreover, it is a Joycean character, ‘his città immediata, by alley and detour with farecard awailable getrennty years’: a place of confluences, fractured and portmanteau languages, disputed authorities, sensual byways, complex layers of social caste and professional standing. In the years up to World War One, Austrian rule was rather haphazardly undercut by Italophile agitation, while the city and its inhabitants were affected by Slovene influences and the cosmopolitanism of a great seaport. Previous literary exiles had included Stendhal, Charles Lever and Richard Burton. In addition, Trieste had its own literary world: Futurism flourished there, Marinetti visited frequently and contributed to local papers, and Joyce’s pupil and friend Ettore Schmitz would later – encouraged by his teacher – become famous as Italo Svevo.
It is all, in fact, rather Irish. McCourt is enthusiastically aware of this, and argues persuasively that Joyce recognised it too. Sometimes he takes it a step too far: when the Virago in the Circe section of Ulysses says, ‘More power to the Cavan girl,’ is it really a concealed reference to the Cavana area of Trieste? Are the recurring images of fruit necessarily a result of Joyce’s time in ‘tarry easty’? Indeed, is the whole theme of Mediterranean Jewishness? But McCourt’s portrait of the city does establish it as a kind of Levantine Dublin, a place of sea winds, churches of every denomination (Joyce favoured the Greek Orthodox), and an inexhaustible range of bars. It also seems to be situated at an angle to its hinterland, if not to the universe: a place whose inhabitants often seemed to be looking elsewhere, whether to an Austrian, Italian or Slav Utopia, while also getting on all right together in the here and now. It must have been fun.
Unlike Dublin, Trieste was polyglot: Artifoni, Joyce’s chief at the Berlitz School, even founded a newspaper called Il Poliglotta. McCourt ingeniously combs Finnegans Wake for phrases in Slovene, Italian, Greek and the several varieties of local dialect called Triestino – which, he claims, ‘used and misused, understood, half-understood, sometimes misunderstood by all’, is the ancestral language of the Wake. It is a nice notion: after all the domestic language of the Joyce family in their Paris years, described by observers like Wyndham Lewis as Italian, was actually Triestino. The dismissive tone in which Brenda Maddox and others refer to the city does it scant justice, as McCourt points out. It had a vibrant theatrical and musical culture: on just one night in 1905 citizens had to choose between Elenora Duse in La Moglie di Claudio and Mahler conducting Mozart, Beethoven and his own Fifth Symphony. A lively opera house regularly featured Wagner, Massenet, Verdi and Joyce’s beloved Puccini; in 1909 there was a legendary Modernist production of Strauss’s Salome. By the same year there were more than twenty cinemas in the city, inspiring Joyce to set up an ill-starred partnership and – on a brief return visit – start the Cinematograph Volta in Dublin’s Mary Street.
All this reflected the tastes and needs of a powerful local bourgeoisie: Trieste contained more millionaires per capita than any city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the same time there was a good deal of unemployment and industrial dislocation, and a thriving socialist subculture – much of it centred on the Berlitz School. McCourt has investigated this thoroughly, tracing Joyce’s political opinions during this period back to the company he kept and the ideas he was exposed to in his Trieste employment.
The implications are far-reaching. For about three years Joyce defined himself as a socialist, and the connection with his apparent rejection of Irish nationalism is clear: Triestine socialists saw the irredentists who surrounded them as neanderthal reactionaries. McCourt suggests, however, that Joyce’s eventual dissatisfaction with socialism derived from a recognition of ‘the inexorable rise of nationalism’, and that his sympathy for the early Sinn Fein movement owed as much to its advanced nationalism as to the ideas of economic and cultural independence advocated by its leader Arthur Griffith. Certainly, Trieste’s new recruit to socialism Berlitz-style wrote an article about Fenianism for the irredentist Piccolo della Sera, to the discomfiture of his political companions, but his approach is distanced and ambiguous. He wouldn’t be easily accommodated in any political faith.
Trieste gave Joyce the space to breathe which Dublin had conspicuously denied him. The complexity of his thoughts on Irish nationalism, as on most things, is inexhaustible, as scholars like Emer Nolan and Dominic Manganiello have shown. McCourt’s treatment of the subject is intelligently nuanced, and closely linked both to the journalism Joyce produced in his Trieste years and to the circumstances of his life there. The creation of Leopold Bloom, the Hungarian Jewish Irishman, is seen in the context of the people and ideas Joyce encountered on his journalistic forays, rather than – as in the Costello book – related to shadowy Dublin inspiration. And it is through Bloom, of course, that Joyce would eventually articulate the argument for a non-racial nationalism against the aggressively historicist and irredentist ideas of the Citizen. If Joyce was in any sense an Irish nationalist, his nationalism took the form of asserting a complex, plural and secular identity for his country – and this may valuably be connected to the life he experienced outside Ireland. McCourt considers Triestine parallels and echoes, reconstructing the networks and influences of the day, as well as the coverage of Irish affairs in the local papers; and provides a judicious analysis of Joyce’s own articles on the ‘snarled’ Irish question, written in 1907. In the end, convinced that ‘either Sinn Fein or Imperialism will conquer the present Ireland,’ Joyce knew which side he preferred. But at the same time, taking sides with ‘public opinion’ was anathema for him; he consistently admired James Clarence Mangan for refusing ‘to prostitute himself to the rabble or make himself the loudspeaker of politicians’. His contempt for the British Empire was unwavering but in later life he was to have a nostalgic affection for the ‘ramshackle affair’ in whose name political authority was exercised from Vienna over Trieste before the war. ‘I wish to God there were more such empires.’
McCourt meticulously positions Joyce’s work of this decade against the political and cultural currents swirling around him in his Adriatic exile. The lectures and journalism provide much insight, and some novelty: he has, for instance, highlighted in the Joyce papers at Cornell a vintage fragment from the 1912 lecture on Defoe, in which Robinson Crusoe is described as epitomising all the essential traits of the English: ‘the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow but effective intelligence, the sexual apathy, the practical and well-balanced religiosity, the calculating silence’. But these are also the years of the long-drawn-out birth agonies of Dubliners, which was shunned by Dublin printers and sent the weaselly publisher George Roberts running for cover; the sexual preoccupation with an unidentified pupil that inspired Giacomo Joyce (McCourt produces a new contender); the emergence of the Portrait out of the more roughly hewn Stephen Hero; the writing of his first and only play. All this has been often told; so have the fraught relationships of the Joyce entourage as they moved from flat to flat and debt to debt, but it emerges with a new vividness here. James and Nora were committed to living beyond their means: meals were meant to be eaten out, not in, and clothes to be replaced with each new season. But even Triestine bailiffs apparently had a certain charm. ‘Dear Signora!’ wrote a shipping agent to Nora, ‘please be so kind as to pay what is due to my company within three days, otherwise I will have no choice but to place the matter in the hands of my lawyers, thus causing your family added expenses and useless boredom.’
Useless boredom might have been less traumatic than the restlessness that drove Joyce to the terrible return visits to Dublin which – for a while – shattered his belief in Nora, and, more lastingly, his faith in the friends of his youth. His infuriated brother Stanislaus, at once believing in his dazzling brother’s star and bitterly resenting the impositions to which Joyce repeatedly and carelessly subjected him, has for some time been a chief witness of these years; Stanislaus, indeed, would himself become a Triestine, staying on in the ‘professorial’ role which Joyce abandoned in 1915. McCourt evaluates Stanislaus’s evidence with sympathy and care, and adds to it a whole new chorus of voices: friends, acquaintances, most of all pupils. One of the many virtues of his treatment is to remind us of the simple but enormous fact that Joyce was a language teacher, in the very years when he was ruminating the novel that would stand language on its head. His teaching methods may not have been orthodox Berlitz, but they were pure Joyce: he used, for instance, to make his students describe how they saw him. Dubliners appeared on 15 June 1914. Shortly afterwards one of Joyce’s last students, Boris Furlan, met him in the street. Forty years later, Furlan wrote to Ellmann (the recollection is published here): ‘I remember he gave me Dubliners on the “piazza grande” (now Piazza dell’Unità), coming out from a coffee-house, which does not exist any more, I think it was the Caffè Lloyd, and I gave him five kronen.’
The war destroyed the Triestine world; exactly a year after the raffish young teacher nailed his student in the piazza and extracted five kronen, he reluctantly left the city for Zurich with Nora, Lucia and Giorgio. McCourt argues convincingly that the book Joyce described as ‘an epic of two races, Israel and Ireland’, was also conditioned by his knowledge of the Jews of Trieste. Once in Zurich he desperately needed money to continue writing it, and Yeats interceded with Edmund Gosse for a pension from the Royal Literary Fund. Gosse, at his most blimpish, wrote that Joyce’s exile in Trieste created a difficulty: ‘I would not have let him have one penny if I had believed he was in sympathy with the Austrian enemy.’ Yeats replied with a masterly thrust: ‘As I have never known Joyce to agree with his neighbours I feel that his residence in Austria has probably made his sympathy as frank as you could wish.’ McCourt’s book suggests just how far Joyce’s Triestine neighbours influenced him, and how sympathetic the environment of ‘tarry easty’ was. In the years since Ellmann’s tour de force, too many Joyce studies have been inward-looking, focused on the writer rather than the reader: either fixated on the internalised hermeneutics of the academic industry, or conveying a cloying sense of self-congratulation for the author’s own ‘understanding’ of the master. The Years of Bloom evades this danger: the harbour of Trieste offers a new perspective on the life which, of all artist’s lives, seems in a real sense heroic.