A Ghost in Trieste
by Joseph Cary, drawings by Nicholas Read
University of Chicago Press, 291 pp., $27.50
Trieste is hardly on the beaten track for Italophiles. Almost a hundred miles east of Venice and on the wrong side of the Adriatic, it seems to gaze back at the bel paese, instead of being a part of it. It has no great art galleries, museums, or monuments. The weather is notoriously harsh. And even identity is a problem: a windswept stone’s throw from the Slovenian border, Trieste is home to three distinct ethnic groups: Slav, Germanic, and Italian.
“I am Slavic-German-Italian,” wrote the writer Scipio Slataper, the first to claim (around 1910) that there was in fact a “Triestine type.”
From my Slav blood I have within me strange nostalgias, a desire for novelty, for abandoned forests, a sentimentality (or sensibility) that demands caresses, praises: an infinite limitless dreaming. From my German blood I have my mulish obstinacy, my dictatorial will and tone, the certainty of my plans, the boredom I feel at having to accept discussion, my desire for domination, for exertion. These elements are fused in the Italian blood which seeks to harmonize them, to balance them out, to make me become “classical.”
The local intellectual Roberto Bazlen was more skeptical: “A melting pot,” he writes, “is a utensil into which are put the most disparate elements, which are then melted; what is produced is a homogenous fusion, with all its elements proportionately distributed, with constant characteristics. But in Trieste, as I know it, a fused type has never been produced, nor any type with stable characteristics…. And since a unique Triestine type does not exist, so a Triestine creative culture does not exist either.”
His contemporary and fellow citizen Giani Stuparich agreed: “There is something in this city of mine that blocks any initiative designed to give it a cultural character of physiognomy, not only in its disintegrative atmosphere but in its individuals, who willingly isolate themselves or go elsewhere. It has a bitter air….”
Yet in the early years of the twentieth century, the small and troubled town of Trieste was home to three writers who would later be designated “great”: Italo Svevo, James Joyce, and the poet Umberto Saba.
Of course writers and above all groups of writers tend to encourage mythologies about themselves, their lives and achievements: Gertrude Stein and her school, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway. And readers too are often eager to surround the texts they love with anecdotes, and to attribute remarkable qualities to the authors they admire.
In Trieste, a port city with an uneasy history of difficult allegiances and blurred racial boundaries, the question of identity and ethnicity was bound to play a part in the formation of such mythologies. Hence it’s hardly surprising, for example, that both Svevo and Saba are pseudonyms, and that the names should be the starting point for a great deal of literary speculation: Was Ettore Schmitz, alias Italo Svevo, who was educated in German, grew up speaking Triestine dialect, and indeed lived most of his life under Austrian rule, really …