Literary traces in Trieste and Venice

Updates: for a Slovenian literary topography see Aleš Debeljak’s Literary citizenship: cities and their writers. Trafika Europe 5 has a Slovenian focus, with extracts from Maja Haderlap’s Angel of Oblivion and much more…Hidden Europe’s place apart“City of exiles”: Trieste and its authorsLetter from TriesteFrom Slovenka to Ženski svet…Comma Press’ Book of VeniceI took the train to Trieste brings news of a Literature Museum opening in 2022, part of its City of Litierature bid

Jan Morris’ magisterial Trieste and the meaning of nowhere (Amazon), her Frank Sinatra-like ‘last book’, is the perfect companion for a literary exploration of the city. James Joyce lived there off and on from 1904-20, when disappointed by the new Italian administration he left for Paris. While in Trieste Joyce taught English to businessman and novelist Italo Svevo, a Joseph Roth type and possibly the model for Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. Perhaps best known in English for Confessions of Zeno, Svevo lived for part of his life in Charlton, while working for his in-laws’ family firm (there’s a plaque at 67 Charlton Church Lane, SE7). Joyce also made the acquaintance of Umberto Saba, a Jewish poet and bookshop owner. The antiquarian bookshop on Via San Nicolo Saba ran for more than 35 years is still in operation.

Jim and Italo also share a museum if not a website (Joyce | Svevo) next to the library, and all three are commemorated in sepia tinted walking tour leaflets, available online at Itinerari Trieste with Google maps and pictures from the period, and by life size bronze statues and plaques around the city. A fourth itinerary commemorates novelist Tomizza (1935-99) aka the Voice of Istria, an Italian patriot from Capodistria (now Koper) who left Yugoslavia for Trieste in 1955, working as a journalist for 20 years at RAI. The lives of these four writers represent the changing identity of Trieste in a nutshell.

Below, Trieste: a loitering kind of place, my unofficial contribution to Placing the Author’s Postcard Project. Update: Lily-Amber Laila Wadia’s postcard from Trieste.

Why I went

A fan of borders and edges (and the Austro-Hungarian Empire), I’ve had Trieste on my bucket list for years. In her book Trieste and the meaning of nowhere Jan Morris comments: “People who have never been there generally don’t know where it is…Visitors tend to leave puzzled and remember it with a vague sense of mystery”. In autumn 2014 I finally made it, on a journey also taking in Venice, a popular magnet for literary tourists throughout history. Trieste, temporary home of Casanova and Rilke and locus of Claudio Magris, is rather less familiar and hence all the more fascinating.

What I got out of the experience

Described by Morris as “a loitering kind of place”, Trieste is perfect for drifting. James Joyce, for me rather more accessible via his places than his writing, lived in Trieste’s seediest quarter from 1904-20, teaching English to businessman and novelist Italo Svevo, the model for Ulysses’ Leopold Bloom. As well as life size bronze statues and plaques around the city, Jim and Italo share a museum in a hidden corner of a palatial building next to the central library. Despite arriving at closing time Claudio the curator was unperturbed, happily relating tales from both writers’ lives, such as Italo’s stay in Charlton from 1903-13, where he worked as representative and manager for the in-laws’ paint firm. The lives of Joyce and Svevo, plus those of two other Triestine writers commemorated in sepia tinted leaflets, represent the changing identity of the city in a nutshell, and, perhaps, of Europe. .

The friendship of Joyce and Svevo is now the subject of a book by Stanley Price (reviews: Philip Hensher | Jan Morris | TLS).

Moving on, Claudio Magris of Danube (1986) fame has been a professor of German literature at the University of Trieste since 1978, and his Microcosms (1997, Amazon) is on order. Casanova lived in Trieste for two years from 1772, while Richard Burton (the other one), known for his translation of The Arabian Nights, ended his days as British consul there. Rilke wrote his Duino Elegies while enjoying the hospitality of the Princess of Thurn and Taxis at the nearby castle during 1911-12, while Il mio Carso by Scipio Slataper (1888-1915) deals with the relationship between Trieste and its Slovenian hinterland. Finally, local journalist Corinna Opara’s recent guidebook Three days in Trieste is in a reversible format – turn it over for a reproduction of an 1858 guidebook with a contemporary map.

Bookending her Trieste, Jan Morris’ first book was Venice, and it seems that it’s rare for a writer not to have done time in the city – from Goethe’s Italian journey and Ruskin’s The stones of Venice to Byron, in town for three years, who swam the Canal Grande, and Hemingway, injured near Treviso during WW1, who financed Harry’s Bar where the Bellini cocktail was invented on the same stretch of water. (Plus his Across the river and into the trees opens in Trieste). See Fictional cities for an exhaustive list, including non-fiction. Also worth a look is City Pick’s Venice and Blue Guide’s Literary companion, plus Robin Saikia’s The Venice Lido – I’m tempted by all three, although these literary guides are a bit like holiday liqueurs, best enjoyed in situ.

Updates: new Danish book Venedig eller kunsten at fare vild (Venice or the art of getting lost), a collaboration between beardy Jens Blendstrup and a photographer pal, looks of interest, as does Polly Coles’ The politics of washing (Amazon), discovered via R3’s The Essay. This seems to have caused a level of controversy and is hence an interesting addition to the expat writing canon. More Venice: The Venice variations “explores Venice as a prototypical city that may hold unique answers to the ancient narrative of utopia”; A local’s guide to virtual Venice.

With no time available for the full Venice through literature tour we did manage to fit in a quick peek at the Grand Hôtel des Bains on the Lido where Thomas Mann stayed in the summer of 1911.

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