James Joyce's Trieste
|by Katharine Smyth, '03|
The idea was born underground, one February morning in the Paris Metro. Weaving through tunnels the color of fluorescent light, we halted, stumbling over ourselves, before a yellowing tourism poster that was strangely symbolic amongst perfume advertisements and scrawled graffiti: a photograph of a violent fairy-tale, a photograph of a castle white and turreted, balanced upon a jagged cliff and reaching sharply towards the limits of a fierce, dark body of water, at the depths of which was inscribed once simple and mysterious word: Trieste.
We knew the word. We stopped short not for the incongruous beauty of a faded poster, but for the faded beauty of a fabled city: James Joyce's Trieste, where he wrote most of Dubliners, all of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and much of Ulysses. Still I could see the stark outline of his words in my mind, still I could remember reading them for the first time in the white stillness of my bedroom, bound for Oxford the very next day, eyes squeezed tight in desperate gratitude, and yes, ecstasy, and above all, physical relief that as it turned out, reading is like this:
...and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
And then, nearly inseparable, simply, and in italics:
So that the word Trieste, gently italicized and right on the
tail of Molly's final affirmation, becomes a part of the text:
an unknown place and an unknown noise, hissed sound silently,
meditatively, a word that rests dream-like on the floor of one's
mind, giving space, pause, to the nothingness that floods before
thought: somewhere that must be somewhere in this world, but
perhaps not as one has known it.
It was not our first literary pilgrimage, or even our first Joycean pilgrimage. If you ask Jon why he decided to spend his junior year abroad at Trinity College, Dublin, he will first joke about his trouble with foreign languages, and next tell you about the excellent English department. But then he will pause and quietly mutter something about how he is, well, kind of obsessed with James Joyce. And if you ask me why I decided to spend my junior year abroad at Oxford University, chances are I will not say it was to live in a room which once belonged to Samuel Johnson, nor will I admit my secret wish for each and every male undergraduate to drown himself for love of me as they did Zulieka Dobson. But surely it was that incomparable experience of visiting a place that has already been visited by writing that was at the root of my decision; that profound feeling of wonder and intimacy that comes from the body's arrival at a destination already explored by the mind.
As it turns out, Trieste is a part of Italy, but only as of 1954. For it is a city that has been snapped up and tossed aside at the world's convenience, enjoying its best years as one of the world's most important ports, and falling in 1919 with the fall of the Habsburg Monarchy. In the twentieth-century alone it has been juggled between Austria, Italy, the rival occupying armies of Britain and Yugoslavia, the United Nations, and Italy once more. And yet to travel to Trieste is to enter the eye of the storm: silently, calmly, seemingly oblivious to its strange story, Trieste survives.
We approach it from the south and from above, for the surrounding land swells high and slanted above the water. Our train is a secret kept from winterworn farmland and trees the color of dying sage, until, suddenly, a flash - it is Italy's ardent sun playing roughly with the sea, and I think: oh, so it is the absence of this which drives one to distraction. I return to my book - Virginia Woolf's Orlando - and when I look up next it is to see the castle sitting small and serene upon its craggy cliff. But my mind is in England with Queen Elizabeth and polished silver; so that the castle I see is Orlando's Knole; so that my book, despite being closed now, is inscribed forever upon my memory of that view. I watch the little castle until the end: it comes and goes as the train curves back and forth along the wave of the water's edge. One final curve and we are beyond it, dropping into the rusting tangle of tracks that is Trieste Centrale.
The curious tenderness I feel towards the castle is not unique. Richard Ellman writes in his biography of Joyce that he "came to share the sentimental feeling of native Triestines who see the white marble castle as their train brings them home along the coast," and that "his master Ibsen, too, recalled in old age the moment when, after passing through dark Alpine tunnels, he suddenly encountered at [Castle] Miramare 'the beauty of the South, a wonderful soft brightness,' which, he said 'was destined to set its stamp on all my later productions, even if that production was not all beauty'". It is a compelling idea, this notion of an environment's capacity to set its stamp on the writer's productions. For surely the concept of a literary pilgrimage is the inverse of this relationship: I was traveling to Trieste precisely because of my interest in the stamp that a writer's production had set on the city. But still the question remains: what exactly was I hoping to find?
It is a question that I was forced to ask myself as Jon and I walked from the train station to the city center looking for a place to stay. For imagining Trieste is quite different from actually being there, particularly if one is imagining a fantastical city by the sea which lives and breathes James Joyce. Absurdly, I was disappointed to find that people did not carry with them dog-eared copies of Ulysses, disillusioned that the few Triestines I asked about Joyce - a practice which I very quickly abandoned - did not even know he had once lived there. When I spotted a poster with a cartoon rendition of his face on it - advertising some exhibition that had already passed - I was overjoyed: it was justification, proof that I hadn't made a mistake.
But meanwhile, here was Trieste. At the outskirts it appeared ordinary: not beautiful, but containing beauty; not busy, but by no means deserted. But walk deeper, and all this changes: Trieste is falling down. Citrus-colored paint fades and peels on fractured walls; rust and dirt drip down damaged marble facades; and windows are either broken or boarded-over. Nevertheless, you can feel the flash, the brilliance, and then the end: the years of decay; once magnificent boulevards collecting cobwebs like a haunted house; the city abandoned until you alone disturb it, kicking up dust as you go. Because Trieste's strange history is told by its streets: walk down one road and you stumble upon a Roman amphitheater whose grassy benches glow brightly in an otherwise pale blue evening; walk down another and you reach the port which was once the center of trade in Central Europe. Eventually you will find yourself at the edge of Piazza Unità - a vast and glorious square purported to be the largest in Italy, whose white and elaborate buildings could be identical to the Habsburg Palace in Vienna, but whose fourth side opens to the ocean like Piazza San Marco in Venice. To face the Adriatic Sea from this square is to feel infinite promise and possibility; to walk a block north, east, or west is to return to the cramped and dilapidated streets of Italy from whence you came.
The effect of walking Trieste's streets has caused centuries of self-inquiry, melancholy, and feelings of displacement. The stamp of which Ibsen wrote is one that has been set upon the production of many writers besides himself and Joyce. There is a legend that Dante visited the nearby castle of Duino, and Rilke's Duineser Elegian was written after his own extended visit. Italo Svevo's La Coscienza di Zeno is primarily about a protagonist who wanders the streets of Trieste, and after wandering these streets himself, Umberto Saba composed a lyric about his own "grave evasive life". While Proust never visited Trieste himself, his narrator remembers it as "a delicious place in which the people were pensive, the sunsets golden, the church bells melancholy", and Saba continues by describing one street as "mirror[ing] me in long days of closed sorrow". I like to think too that there is something of Trieste's streets in Leopold Bloom's odyssey in Dublin. But perhaps the Viennese playwright Hermann Bahr described the city best when he wrote that being in Trieste is like being "nowhere at all". It is this that Jon and I felt most acutely when, still homeless, we sat down to rest at the banks of the Canal Grande. Paling in the paling light, the evening washed boat and stone and building a gentle blue: we were being effaced.
Entering the world we halfopen our eyes and walk through warm
yellow twilight towards a day. Getting up dressing sleepyeyed he
Enter from the street, not as I thought. Disappointment I imagine.
Womb red seats are the origin of I was expecting. There is a
difference between a café and a pasticceria. One smoky one bare.
One small, curvingshining machine, she is white like a nurse wears.
Must stand up to drink I expect.
And what if that were the world thought through your eyes, I wonder. Could it ever disappoint? Because suddenly a couple of exceptional pastries, a newspaper article, and an innocuous orange apartment building are enough.
* * *
Choosing a tiny street behind the grassy amphitheater at random, we ascend. In a cobblestone clearing, little boys belonging to black and white photography kick us a soccer ball. In a gloomy alley, light opens momentarily upon a tumbling church - a soft green valley of moss and broken stone. It is dark, winding this way between the houses, but at the very top darkness ceases altogether, and the hot sun shines down upon a historical freak-show. Brawny marble men wrestle atop a pedestal, forever remembering the first world war. In the near distance is the fifth-century Cathedral San Guisto, and next to it a small and well-protected fourteenth-century castle. But between us and them is the cracked marble floor of an old Roman court; some columns remain upright, but most are scarred and broken stumps strewn across the stone. It creates space, and smoothness in one's mind; the broken, white flatness a platform on which to spend the afternoon. Far beyond are the hills, gray and gray and industrialized, and at our backs, the sea.
It is like velvet today: it no longer glints or shines, but rather rolls densely outwards, consuming and carrying away secrets the way that black consumes the light. And the city of Trieste tumbles to its edges, asking why, why; and I too, ask why, why. Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. The sea takes and takes, and eyes are merely lenses: yellow, peach, terra-cotta, wire, dirt, and decay. I would not call it beautiful.
Joining Jon on the marble floor of the court, I close my eyes to the sun; in March it is already heavy on my face. I sleep, and I sleep and I wake to the rhythm of why.
I went out yesterday for a walk in a big wood outside Trieste. The damned monotonous summer was over and the rain and soft air made me think of the beautiful (I am serious) climate of Ireland. I hate a damn silly sun that makes men into butter. I sat down miles away from everybody on a bench surrounded by tall trees. The Bora (the Trieste Wind) was ro-aring through the tops of the trees. I sniffed up all the fragrance of the earth and offered up the following prayer (not identical with that which Renan offered upon the Acropolis)
Joyce wrote this letter to his brother Stanislaus in 1905; the day of the hilltop I may have offered up a similar - if less eloquent - prayer. I woke to the constancy of a damn silly sun, and felt what I almost never feel - on all sides, ineluctable and unavoidable: the very mettle of environment and the spirit of life itself. It was neither exhilaration nor magnificence, but rather a sense of the depth which encircles, unknown and untapped, a great deal of the time.
Still I suspect of Trieste a certain enigmatic grace and mystery; Joyce was not alone when he said "they call it a ramshackle empire...I wish to God there were more such empires". But I would never recommend Trieste to my friends, and have already told my parents not to bother. Indeed, even Nora Barnacle was bored with the city; in a letter home she wrote "now I suppose you will think I am very difficult but one cant live only for the sun and the blue Mediterranean sea". For I will never understand Trieste's Vague Something, nor will I ever read the secret sea, but it was Joyce and his Ulysses which led me to its edges; it was Joyce who made me care so deeply about this secret in the first place. One could argue, as I myself have argued, that literary pilgrimages are a cheap trick - a fail-safe solution for finding authenticity. And at their worst, this is true. But if travel-writing is a genre which gives meaning through language to one's journey after the journey has occurred, then literary pilgrimages are the opposite: they are journeys steeped in language from the very beginning; journeys which carry meaning even before they are begun. Still I wake to why, and still I wonder whether it was Joyce I found in Trieste or Trieste itself. But I got there in the end, and ultimately I suspect the distinction doesn't much matter.