The city of Trieste is in border country. Follow the coast all the way around, as James Joyce did in the early years of the twentieth century, and pretty soon you’ll be in Slovenia, with Croatia just a few miles further south. You are as likely to hear people say ‘dober dan’ as ‘buongiorno’, and the phone book is full of names like Gravnik and Decic.
Trieste has always inhabited an ambiguous position: part Slav, part Italian, part Austrian. The city only became officially Italian in 1954, before which it was, by turns, the premier port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then part of the Kingdom of Italy after World War One, although most of its hinterland went to the newly minted Kingdom of Yugoslavia. (Trieste had secretly been promised to the Italians as an inducement for Italy to enter the war on the side of the Allies.) After World War Two, it experienced a fractious period divided between occupying armies, before briefly becoming an independent Free Territory under the auspices of the United Nations, when no one could agree on a governor.
The Austro-Hungarian influence is obvious as soon as you step off the train. The station is impressively imperial, and there’s a statue of the Empress Elisabeth, or ‘Sissi’, in the square outside. Aside from the traffic, the area hasn’t changed much since that fateful day in 1904 when a young James Joyce arrived with his mistress, Nora Barnacle. The story goes that while she waited on a park bench opposite the station, he hunted for a place to stay, only to get arrested along with some rowdy sailors. He was later rescued from jail by a reluctant consul.
It’s an episode that set the tone for much of his life in the city over the next fifteen years. The James Joyce story at this period was a tale of penury, obscurity and a certain amount of recklessness. It was the last period of his life where he was able to live as an ordinary person, before he found fame, or fame found him.
Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia, Piazza Unità for short, is said to be one of the largest squares in Italy. It’s certainly a grand space, surrounded on three sides by imposing buildings, imperial baroque with a dash of art deco, with the fourth side open to the sea. I whiled away an hour or so at the Caffè degli Specchi, the Cafe of the Mirrors, sipping a cold drink and studying a leaflet mapping out the stops on the James Joyce trail, the main reason for my visit. It isn’t the cheapest of places to visit, so was something of an extravagance, but how often would I get the chance to linger in the sunshine of an Italian piazza, surrounded by the ghosts of empire?
For all its charms, Trieste is not a major feature on the tourist trail, so visitors rarely overwhelm it. The occasional cruise ship will stop by, but even then the city manages to keep the upper hand. That day the square was quiet, with just a couple of families lingering by the Fountain of the Four Continents.
The only vessels in port were a Turkish frigate and a Greek ferry, a far cry from the city’s glory days when it was the prime port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Trieste had been under Habsburg sovereignty since 1382, but the empire didn’t take a keen interest in the city until the early eighteenth century, when it was declared a free port, and re-developed. As time passed, it became a haven for commerce and trade; and home to a dizzying array of peoples from around the empire and beyond.
The city’s reputation for the hard-headed pursuit of business was well deserved, but it also became a place where the arts, particularly literature, could flourish. There must be something in the air. Dante is said to have written part of The Divine Comedy at Duino Castle a little further down the coast, and Thomas Mann wrote Buddenbrooks at the Hotel de Ville. The French writer Stendhal and the alarming and scandalous explorer Sir Richard Burton were both consuls here, the latter passing the time by translating the Thousand and One Nights. The writers Italo Svevo, Umberto Saba and Claudio Magris also called Trieste home. And then, of course, there was James Joyce, whose ghost still haunts the city.
Joyce arrived in Trieste to take up a post teaching English at the Berlitz School, but the city soon became both a refuge and an inspiration for him. His friends and students formed the basis of many a character in his novels, while Trieste itself, with its own unique dialect and air of intrigue and revolution, influenced his writing in many ways.
He remains a formidable presence in the city. I particularly like the jaunty statue on the Ponte Rosso over the Canal Grande, and the James Joyce Trail, highlighting places he frequented during his stay, including the school where he taught, the many apartments he lived in (he was often kicked out for not being able to pay the rent), and the cafes and bars where he drank. There’s a James Joyce Museum, and every year the University of Trieste hosts a James Joyce Summer School. In 2008, the guest author was the Man Booker prize-winning author Anne Enright.
Money was a constant problem for Joyce, despite being in demand as an English tutor and writing articles for Il Piccolo della Sera newspaper. He managed to turn getting money from friends, relatives and students into an art form, but reckless spending and frequent drinking binges kept him in penury.
Yet, despite this unpromising background, Joyce wrote Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man while living here, and he also devised what became Ulysses. According to the writer Anthony Burgess, in an article in The New York Times in 1982, “Ulysses may be about Ireland, but only turbulent and cosmopolitan Trieste could have given Joyce the impetus to start setting it down.”