Jan Morris

My Little Town

James Joyce and Italo Svevo: The Story of a Friendship


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This fascinating work of scholarship concerns the association between two great 20th-century writers and the city that brought them together. The writers were the Italian Italo Svevo (1861–1928) and the Irishman James Joyce (1882–1941). The city was Trieste (45˚38’N 13˚46’E).

All three – the two men and the city – were almost equally complex in status, origin, style, condition and intention. To my dilettante mind the governing presence of the triad, binding it together in a kind of posthumous trinity, was the city, standing as it did upon an ethnic and historical fault line, and notorious for its genius loci, a gale-force wind called the bora.

The three of them are properly matched, and for me perhaps the most telling passage in the book (which is essentially a work of advanced cultural reportage) describes the two writers walking together in the city when the bora blew in one day. An eyewitness reported that they clung like mountain climbers to the safety ropes fixed in the downtown streets, but never stopped talking as the genius howled around them.

They met in Trieste in 1907: Joyce was scraping a living teaching English to Italian residents and Svevo came to him for lessons. Nothing in the tale, though, is as simple as that. Svevo, who was born Ettore Schmitz, was twenty years older that his teacher. He was a prominent local businessman whose family had enriched itself by making a unique kind of underwater paint, and he was not yet a writer at all. His only vice, it seems, was chain-smoking. Joyce, on the other hand, was already writing books of startling originality, was nearly always in debt and was a notorious drunkard. Yet the two, it seems, recognised the genius in each other, however latent, and were to remain friends and colleagues for life.

Perhaps the anomalies in both their characters drew them together. One was an Italian Jew who had abandoned his family faith, the other a lapsed Catholic who nevertheless habitually haunted the varied churches of Trieste. Joyce, the very model of your wayward artistic prodigy, also toyed with capitalism: he backed a syndicate to finance the introduction of cinemas to Dublin, and was the Trieste agent of a business called the Dublin Woollen Company. Svevo was a convinced pacifist yet the family firm had been made rich by manufacturing the paintwork of almost all the world’s great fighting fleets, notably the British and German navies that were so soon to be destroying each other. The archetypically unconventional Joyce ended his life feted across Europe; the liberal Svevo was to be knighted in the end by the dictator Mussolini.

Was Trieste responsible? As an influential example the city was hardly reassuring. During the lifetimes of our two champions it had been at one moment the prime seaport of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, honoured by Emperor Franz Josef himself as Urbs Fidelissima, and later a show city of the fascist calendar (Anno I–Anno XXI). It was an unsettled kind of place, multinational, multilingual, multi-faith (there were four synagogues), on the frontier between the Germanic and the Slav civilisations – or perhaps, as Bismarck once declared, on the last frontier of civilisation itself. You might call it a Freudian kind of city, and as a matter of fact Joyce was sometimes accused of having adapted the technique of the interior monologue, so important to his art, from Freud’s psychological notions.

Svevo was a true-born Triestino, and although he spent much time in England (his firm had a factory in London), he spent most of his life in his native city, wrote often in the Triestine dialect and died there. Joyce, on the other hand, was not only Dublin born and bred, but was also to make the subject of his greatest novel a single day spent wandering the city’s streets. He lived for long periods in Paris and Rome and died in Zurich. In all he spent only eleven years in Trieste. Both writers, however, recognised their debts to the city. To Svevo it was ‘my little town’ (although after his death his Jewish family was to be cruelly treated by its governing fascists). To Joyce it was the place, he said, where he had met more kindness than anywhere else. And as one wrote of the other, ‘We Triestinos have a right to regard [Joyce] with deep affection, as if he belonged in a certain sense to us…’

Of course, I write impressionistically, or perhaps myopically, about this unique literary friendship. Stanley Price’s admirable book, so rich in detail and characterisation, tells the whole story in a far wider perspective – the family relationships of the two protagonists, their economic ups and downs, their attitudes to critical receptions and the passing of time. I write only out of my own responses, as a sort of Triestina manquée myself, and this last conclusion is mine alone.

It is this: that the story of these remarkable men, and their relationship, is one of essential decency. Svevo was always grateful for the example and the encouragement of the younger man. Joyce, at the height of his own celebrity, took immense trouble to foster and broadcast the reputation of his pupil – Svevo’s widow likened his lifelong help to ‘a kindly star in the sky’.

And Trieste, Svevo’s ‘little town’? Joyce, like me, was sometimes downhearted when he was in the city, but pined for it when he was away. Such is the tantalising nature of the place. Sigmund would understand…

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