And Trieste, ah trieste ate I my liver!
When he settled in Trieste in 1904 James Joyce was twenty-two, the same age as Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, and when he left the city for the last time in 1920 after a brief return, he was thirty-eight, Leopold Bloom’s age. Joyce as man and writer was positively medieval in his enthusiasm for numerology, and as John McCourt points out in his Joyceanly titled The Years of Bloom, by giving these significant ages to his chief male characters in what was to be his masterpiece, Joyce was paying a covert compliment to the city which took him in as a young man and sustained him for more than ten years, the “città immediata” where, despite poverty, travail, and the world’s indifference, he came artistically of age.
John McCourt was born in Dublin in 1965 and was educated at Belvedere College and University College, the former Joyce’s old school, the latter his alma mater, and has lived for the past decade in Trieste, where he teaches at the city’s university, and where he founded and directs the annual Trieste Joyce School. He is eminently well qualified, then, to write a study of Joyce’s Trieste years. His book is a revelation. Most of Joyce’s biographers, even including Richard Ellmann, the daddy of them all, agree more or less with the judgment of Stanislaus Joyce, James’s brother, that “Trieste did not give Jim anything,” but as McCourt convincingly demonstrates, the city was a defining influence on him and on his work. “Trieste was the ideal location for Joyce…because it provided him with foreign echoes of Dublin while at the same time offering distinctive material of its own to be moulded to fit the world of his Hibernian metropolis.”
In Trieste Joyce wrote most of Dubliners, all of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, his only play, Exiles, and large sections of Ulysses, while the odd little prose-poem “Giacomo Joyce” is suffused with the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. Finnegans Wake, too, owes a large debt to Trieste, that clearinghouse of languages, races, cultures. Joyce, writes McCourt,
was not one to suffer fools or foolish places gladly and clearly there were things about Trieste that kept him there: the Eastern atmosphere, the mix of peoples from “all ends of Europe” (Ulysses), the linguistic mishmash, the multifarious activity of a bustling port city, or, to put it in the local dialect of Triestino, “El gran mismas dela gente per le strade” (the great coming and going of people in the streets).
Any Irishman arriving in Trieste today will be struck, despite the oddness and exoticism of the city, by how much it resembles Dublin. There is the same shabby genteel look to the streets, the same tarry tang of sea air, the same atmosphere of dreamy, bittersweet melancholy, the same picturesque jadedness of a once-great port now slightly down on its luck. When Joyce first…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.