And Trieste, ah trieste ate I my liver!
—Finnegans Wake

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 saw the city it was still one of the major trade centers of the Mediterranean world. It was part of Austria then, although there was, as McCourt emphasizes, an “indefatigable Italian irredentist spirit” with which Joyce the youthful Irish nationalist readily identified. He fell at once for the cosmopolitanism of the place, its din and color and salt-washed architecture. On a visit to Ireland in the summer of 1909—he was to return there later the same year with the unlikely intention of opening a chain of movie theaters in Dublin, Cork, and Belfast—his letters to his beloved Nora mingled longing for her with homesickness for their adopted city: “La nostra bella Trieste! I have often said that angrily but tonight I feel it true. I long to see the lights twinkling along the riva as the train passes [the castle of] Miramar. After all, Nora, it is the city which has sheltered us.”

There were occasions, however, when the city threatened to revoke its offer of shelter, and literally so: more than once the impecunious Joyces were in danger of finding themselves thrown out on the streets. They had left Dublin together—embarking separately, though, to avoid family disapproval of their unmarried status—on October 8, 1904, with a little money cadged from assorted and mostly unwilling benefactors, including Lady Gregory, George Russell (AE), and Joyce’s father. As McCourt points out, most Irish emigrants at the time would have headed for England or America, but Joyce’s heartland was the Europe of Dante and Vico. Initially the couple were bound for Zurich, where Joyce had been promised a teaching position at the Berlitz School; when they arrived in Switzerland, however, there was no job, although it was suggested there might be one at the Berlitz in Trieste. They boarded the train again, and after a journey of many mishaps they arrived, practically penniless by now, at the Adriatic port, where Joyce left Nora sitting in a park near the station and set off to walk into the city, only to find himself involved in an altercation with a band of English sailors, which led to his being arrested by the police and briefly detained. It was the first of many grotesquely comical contretemps Joyce would land himself in over the coming years.


As it turned out, there was at the time no job for him in Trieste, either. However, the owner of the Berlitz School, the mellifluously named Almidano Artifoni—he, or at least his name, figures in Ulysses—was about to open another school in Pola, on the Istrian coast. So Joyce and his Nora had to gather their bags and set off southward once more. They spent five unhappy months in Pola, which Joyce found undistinguished and parochial. He was, it seems, a good if alarmingly unsystematic teacher. Many of his pupils afterward told of how, instead of drilling them in grammar and syntax, he would engage them in erudite, witty conversation, or amuse himself and them by writing psychological portraits of them, especially if they were female; sometimes he would abandon the lesson altogether to play the piano and sing to them.

In these first months relations between Joyce and Nora were often strained, at times to the point of violent argument. Nora Barnacle—on hearing her surname, Joyce’s disapproving father wryly remarked that at least she would never leave him (nor did she)—was a country girl, a native of Galway, who had come to Dublin to work as a hotel maid. Richard Ellmann describes her as “a tall, good-looking young woman, auburn-haired, walking with a proud stride.” She had, as Joyce admitted in a letter to his brother, “an untrained mind,” but was a very remarkable person nevertheless, and with the exception of a couple of not very serious dalliances, Joyce was to remain faithful to her all his life.

In the same letter to Stanislaus, Joyce wrote that “her disposition, as I see it, is much nobler than my own, her love also is greater than mine for her.” Above all, he trusted her, something that was very significant for this most suspicious and jealous of lovers. But Nora was bored in Pola, with nothing to do all day, no friends, and unable even to converse with neighbors or shopkeepers because of her lack of Italian. And then she got pregnant. On July 27, 1905, an “old aunt Jewess” in the house where the Joyces’ apartment was greeted James with the news: “‘Xe un bel maschio, Signore.’ So then I knew an heir was born.” By that time, Joyce and Nora were back in Trieste, where they were to live until 1915.

They would have two children, Giorgio and Lucia, the latter of whom would bring such anguish to Joyce in his later years, when she developed schizophrenia. But the early days in Trieste were mostly gay and adventurous, despite lack of money and the tedium of Joyce’s teaching job; at one point the Joyce household had eleven members, including two of James’s sisters and, incredibly, a live-in maid. Nora was never a great homemaker, and the family mostly ate out, and at good restaurants, at that. She dressed the children well, and, according to McCourt, at the end of the year would throw out their clothes and buy new ones. How all this was managed on Joyce’s pitifully small earnings is a mystery.

The couple were bailed out on countless occasions by James’s brother Stanislaus; if ever an atheist deserved canonization it is this saintly and long-suffering if irredeemably dull young man. One’s heart goes out to Stanislaus; once when he was supposed to travel to Dublin on a family visit with little Giorgio, James at the last moment decided he would go instead of his brother, “as I had always inwardly suspected he would.” When James arrived in Dublin the first question asked of him was “Where’s Stannie?” Reflecting on the occasion in later years, Stanislaus mournfully confessed, “It’s a question I have often asked myself since.”

By the time Joyce arrived there, McCourt tells us, Trieste was the world’s seventh busiest port, and second in the Mediterranean after Marseilles. Joyce loved the sea—he had planned to write a novel about it after completing Finnegans Wake, but died before getting down to work on it—and the busyness and clamor of a great port city excited his imagination. It may seem ironic, therefore, that in the first substantial work he completed there, the stories that would make up Dubliners, he would seek to express not the Mediterranean exuberance of his new home, but the grim, introverted spirit of Edwardian Ireland; in a letter to his publisher Grant Richards in 1905 he famously boasted of “the special odour of corruption which, I hope, floats over my stories.” It should be remembered, of course, that Joyce was still a very young man, albeit with an extraordinarily mature artistic sensibility—there are critics who will contend that Dubliners is Joyce’s finest achievement, a judgment with which even Joyce himself, late in life, may have been inclined to agree, if anecdote is to be believed.


It was on Ulysses, however, that Trieste exerted the most marked influence. The best pages of The Years of Bloom are devoted to tracing that influence. McCourt has opened a whole new vista on Ulysses, for this reader at least. No other critic or biographer has so clearly identified the cosmopolitan, indeed, the Oriental, aspects of Joyce’s great symphony of cities. The plural here is used advisedly. It is McCourt’s claim, and surely it is a justified one, that Ulysses owes as much to Trieste as it does to Dublin. He writes:

The influence of Trieste as a crossroads of competing cultures can be seen most clearly in the characters of Leopold and Molly Bloom. While Stephen Dedalus was largely formed by the time Joyce left Ireland, Leopold and Molly are in great part products of his exile in Trieste. Bloom—a Jew with Hungarian roots—does not fit into provincial Dublin, while Molly is as much a Mediterranean Jewess as she is Irish: and the elements that attract them to one another are precisely the non-Irish ones which Joyce found among “the cummulium of scents in an italian warehouse” (Finnegans Wake)—Trieste.

In the section “Visions of the East,” McCourt subtly and illuminatingly disentangles this “cummulium of scents.” Triestino, he writes, “united elements of many other Italian dialects as well as Armenian, English, Spanish, Turkish, Sicilian, Maltese, German, Hungarian, Slovenian, Croatian, Czech and Greek.” The traveler who listens to the babble of tongues in Trieste’s streets and witnesses the jostle of beliefs as evidenced in the jumbled architecture—today, in the heart of the city, at the end of the Canale Grande, certainly one of the shortest grand canals anywhere, a Catholic church, a Jewish temple, and an Islamic mosque stand shoulder to shoulder—will realize that he is at one of those crossing-points where East and West converge. Climbing up to the Carst, the extraordinary limestone plateau above the city, and gazing off eastward, one is led to feel that this landscape must flow off uninterrupted until it merges with the steppes of Central Asia. McCourt observes that

Trieste was in two crucial ways an Oriental workshop for Joyce. Firstly, it genuinely contained aspects of Eastern countries, in its population, its culture and its architecture: and secondly, it actively partook in the creation and maintenance of standard Western stereotypical visions of the East.

One of the main tributaries feeding Joyce’s Orientalism was his discovery in Trieste of the rich tradition of European Jewish culture flourishing there. Coming from Catholic Ireland, he had never before encountered Jews in any number, and knew little of their religious customs and way of life. In Joyce’s time there the Jews of Trieste were almost entirely assimilated, partly thanks, ironically, to Empress Maria Theresa, no friend of Jews elsewhere, but who in 1771 drew up statutes guaranteeing tolerance to the Jewish community of Trieste, because in its business acumen, it was useful to the city and the empire.

Joyce was fascinated by Triestine Judaism, and threw himself with enthusiasm into “the society of the jewses,” as in Finnegans Wake he punningly combines a new and an old source of interest and inspiration—the Jesuits are known as the Society of Jesus. Joyce now began to see in the Jews a sister race to the Irish: both peoples had suffered and continued to suffer persecution and exile; both had a strong sense of the tragic and comic aspects of life; both held a strong belief in the centrality of the family; both were obsessed by the power, and the potential treachery, of the word. He genuinely liked and admired the Jews, and in that he is a shining exception among his fellow Modernists, a very great many of whom were virulent anti-Semites. His cleaving to the Jews was also a gesture of solidarity; as McCourt observes, “By placing an endlessly complex and deeply human Jewish figure [Bloom] at the centre of his novel, he was also engaging in a political act, a challenge to Europe’s hostile attitudes towards the Jews.”

Joyce had many Jewish friends in Trieste, including Ettore Schmitz, who under the pen name Italo Svevo had written two novels, but had abandoned writing by the time he met Joyce. However, Joyce admired his work, and encouraged him to take up writing again, which he did, and produced in 1923 what is perhaps his finest novel, Confessions of Zeno. Schmitz and Joyce were good friends, and indeed some of Joyce’s biographers treat his time in Trieste as significant only because of his interest in the Italian writer. McCourt, however, perhaps surprisingly, pays scant attention to Schmitz, and goes so far as to inform us that however close they may have seemed, the two men never got to the stage of addressing each other familiarly as tu. But certainly Schmitz was a source of much information on Judaism, to the point of asking Joyce with an exasperated laugh one day how he would feel if he were to be pressed so relentlessly on what it was like to be an Irishman and a Catholic.

More significant perhaps were Joyce’s relations with a number of young Jewish women in the city, including the mysterious, unnamed “chill pale girl” who is the love object at the center of “Giacomo Joyce.” It is hard to place this work in the Joyce canon; it is part diary, part confession, part love letter, but most probably was a kind of laboratory in which Joyce worked out a new kind of prose-poetry in which he would write A Portrait and even some sections of Ulysses. Critics have put forward various real-life candidates for the part of the mysterious lady, but McCourt, who is something of a sleuth in nosing out Joycean sources—he finds in Triestine annals of the period the significantly named Luis Blum, born in Budapest of Hungarian parents—holds that she was probably based mostly on Amalia Popper, the graceful young daughter of a painter mother and businessman father, although he acknowledges that Joyce must also have used Nora at least partly as a model. Joyce may have had an affair with the unnamed woman, but it seems more likely that she was an object of fantasy for him at a time when he was still uncertain he would stay with Nora. Whoever the longed-for one may have been, Joyce celebrates her in some of the most beautiful writing of this early, pre-Ulysses period, displaying at once his adoring attitude toward women and his faint fear and resentment of them:

She raises her arms in an effort to hook at the nape of her neck a gown of black veiling. She cannot: no, she cannot. She moves backwards towards me mutely. I raise my arms to help her: her arms fall. I hold the websoft edges of her gown and drawing them out to hook them I see through the opening of the black veil her lithe body sheathed in an orange shift. It slips its ribbons of moorings at her shoulders and falls slowly: a lithe smooth naked body shimmering with silvery scales. It slips slowly over the slender buttocks of smooth polished silver and over their furrow, a tarnished silver shadow…. Fingers, cold and calm and moving…. A touch, a touch.

Whether or not there was an affair, nothing came of it, and in the end Joyce clung to the soft but immovable rock that was Nora. And Nora, in return for his steadfastness, made a man of him, and probably made a finer artist of him, too, than he would have been without her.

The Trieste the Joyces knew in those early years of the century was a thriving metropolis that seemed destined to enjoy continued growth, both economic and cultural, for many years to come. “But as Trieste grew, becoming the third urban centre in the empire after Vienna and Prague,” McCourt writes, “something in the political atmosphere was quietly changing: the seeds of nationalism were beginning to take root.” Those seeds would quickly sprout, so that when Joyce returned to the city in 1919 with the aim of resettling there, “he soon came to realize that the rich and varied elements which had provided him with an invaluable workshop for his writing no longer existed.” The changes war had wrought in the city—not the least its transfer from Austrian to Italian rule—he found deeply unsettling. McCourt quotes Joyce’s friend Boris Furlan’s account of meeting him by chance in the Piazza Caserma:

…He complained that the town was dirty, especially the streets… and he used the word “letamaio” (dungheap) but I am positive he was thinking about all the other changes, all the new people pouring in from Italy looking to make money, generally they came poor to Trieste. Many of his former friends had gone, well, it must have looked like “the dead man’s return.”

It was a far cry from the days of la nostra bella Trieste. After an attempt to settle down in the old life, teaching English at the Instituto de Commercio “Revoltella,” working on the Nausicaa episode of Ulysses, and in the evenings drinking with his old cronies in the città vecchia, Joyce finally admitted that, for him at least, the Trieste he had known and loved was no more, and with Nora, Giorgio, and Lucia, he set off in July 1920 for Paris, the capital of Modernism, partly at the invitation of Modernism’s chief impresario, Ezra Pound. Joyce was never again to see Trieste, the “tarry easty” of Finnegans Wake, though the voice of the city by the sea would never cease to sing to him, and in his work.

This Issue

February 8, 2001