24 December 2011

James Joyce - the great years in Trieste

James Joyce

I have had a great deal of pleasure writing up the life and times of important authors and artists for this blog eg Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie, Rudyard KiplingSigmund Freud and Dylan Thomas. But writing about Irishman James Joyce (1882–1941), who lived happily in Trieste for most of the years between 1904-20, proved to be more difficult.

Had he chosen to live in Venice, Florence, Rome, Milan, Florence etc, I would have felt right at home. But James Joyce lived in Trieste, 116 ks NE of Venice.

Trieste was one of the oldest parts of the Habsburg Monarchy from the high Middle Ages until the end of WW1. And it had been a very beautiful Adriatic port. So in his years there, Joyce witnessed the last years of the city's Austro-Hungarian glory and saw the impressive buildings that had belonged to prosperous Habsburg merchants.

Presumably because of its unique location, Trieste was a cosmopolitan city loved by Bohemian artists and writers.

Bronze statue of Joyce, canal bridge in Trieste

Joyce met Nora Barnacle in 1904 in Dublin, just before the writer was attracted to Trieste. The couple arrived there in 1904, an impoverished Joyce apparently planning to fund some time on the Continent by teaching English.

map of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Trieste is marked with a cross

Joyce and Nora didn’t marry until many years later (1931), although they had two children (in 1905 and 1907). James didn’t sound like a reliable family man; in fact his family probably would not have been properly fed and clothed without the help of his younger brother Stanislaus who also moved to Trieste. Despite the brother, James Joyce’s many moves between flats seemed to have occurred because the rents were rarely paid on time and rarely paid in full. Perhaps endless boozing was responsible.

When James did manage to make a regular income, it was because he was working for the daily paper, Il Piccolo. At other times, he worked as an English teacher at the Berlitz language school and was an English tutor to some wealthy Triestine families.

Joyce breakfasted on presnitz at the Pasticceria Caffè Pirona

This was a creative and productive period. While living in this city, Joyce wrote most of the stories in Dubliners, first published in 1914. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was also written in Trieste and was serialised in The Egoist  magazine in 1914 and 1915. Portrait was not published in book form until the Egoist Press published it in 1917.

Now there is a Literary Trail. Modern visitors can walk between the eight houses that Joyce lived in during his Trieste life and to dozens of his favourite haunts. His happiest years were spent in #4 Via Bramante, near some elegant steps leading to the Basevi Gardens. The upper floors of a different palazzo have been converted into a hotel called Hotel Victoria, recently opened. It is described as a "literary hotel" because Joyce was once a tenant there.

Trieste's funicular tram

Joyce was a good walker, despite Trieste having steep hills. A funicular tramway had already opened before Joyce and Nora arrived, and operates still, offering magnificent views over the harbour.

Joyce loved high bourgeois coffeehouses like the Caffè San Marco, still evocative of Viennese elegance, and the Caffè Stella Polare near the Canal Grande. Pasticceria Caffè Pirona was Joyce’s breakfast place of choice, an historic Art Nouveau bakery still in business.  Apparently Joyce was passionate about presnitz, a horseshoe-shaped pastry stuffed with raisins and walnuts—a house specialty since Alberto Pirona founded the shop in 1900.

Via San Nicolò was where the Joyces lived above the Berlitz School which employed Joyce. Next door is the Umberto Saba Antiquarian bookshop, still in business.

I was not surprised to read that Joyce frequented the Teatro Verdi to watch opera, but alas he was limited to the cheapest seats. What WAS surprising was that Joyce enjoyed different centres of religious architecture. As the main port of the mighty Austro-Hungarian empire, Trieste embraced many different cultures. One of Joyce's favourites was the exotic Greek-Orthodox church of San Nicolò with its twin towers facing the sea. Many of his most friends and students were from the even more exotic Jewish community, which was confident enough to open a beautiful synagogue in Via San Francesco d'Assisi. Joyce's timing was perfect - he could watch every step of the synagogue's construction process (1908-12).

Trieste synagogue, built between 1908 and 1912

Susan Griffiths’ article provided very helpful information. She mentioned The Hotel James Joyce which is located in the colourful historical area of old Trieste, and I would love to know whether Joyce was ever a guest there. She also noted 45 plaques around the city that mark places of Joycean interest. One of these plaques highlights the red light district of the Città Vecchia quarter, including a brothel at 7 via della Pescheria. Another helpful suggestion was the guide book James Joyce: Triestine Itineraries by Renzo Crivelli. A bridge over the canal has a distinctive bronze statue of the ex-pat Irishman, sunning himself in this old Austro-Hungarian-Italian city.

World War One must have been a difficult time. Although Joyce was too old to be a soldier himself, it must have been galling for him when his students were called up to fight in a war between Italy (and the Allied Powers) versus Austria-Hungary (and the Central Powers). So in 1915 the Joyces moved to Zurich, a neutral city that became home to exiles and artists from across Europe. They didn't return to Trieste till 1918.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire did not dissolve until the end of the war and many of its border areas were disputed among its successor states. In November 1918, a treaty was signed to end hostilities between Italy and Austria-Hungary. Trieste was occupied by the Italian Army and the city was formally absorbed into Italy.

James Joyce died in Zurich in 1941 and was buried there. Nora died in 1951 and was buried alongside her husband. Stanislaus died in Trieste in 1955, and was buried in the Trieste cemetery. None of the bodies was repatriated back to Ireland.

Despite our perhaps preconceived ideas, Literary Traveller said it was Trieste that claimed James Joyce. Trieste was more significant than Dublin, which Joyce immortalised in Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses; more than Zurich where he was buried; more than Paris where he wrote Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake. I have not read John McCourt’s book The Years of Bloom: James Joyce in Trieste 1904-1920, but it may be very helpful.

James Joyce Hotel, Trieste


Leon and Sue Sims said...

How uncanny that you should post on James Joyce as I'm in the middle of Sylvia Beach's book on her shop, Shakespeare and company where she talks of Joyce and publishing his manuscript "Ulysses" when no other publisher would in 1922. Especially interesting is her account of meeting Joyce and his subsequent visits to Shakespeare and Company. It's Xmas Eve and I now have to pop of to bed to read more of Sylvia Beach and James Joyce.
Nice post. And BTW Merry Christmas.

Hermes said...

I love the books he wrote there.
Louis Gillet wrote:

"He (Joyce) liked to remember his happy days and spoke preferably of Trieste. His thoughts lingered on this topic with delight. There for a few short years he had enjoyed some moments of respite; fate had spared him some time."

Have a good Christmas Helen.

Hels said...

Leon and Sue

don't you love blogging? Somewhere around the world there is someone writing about a topic that you have just discovered or a topic you have loved for decades.

Earlier this year I had been looking at George Bernard Shaw and Sylvia Beach. She was preparing to publish Ulysses at Shakespeare and Co in rue de l’Odéon and sought subscriptions from would-be readers. Shaw gave her a clear refusal, and some gratuitous advice he he. Ezra Pound on the other hand, supported his friend Joyce and attacked Shaw.

That "Lost Generation" must have been a fun bunch of lads :)

Hels said...


thanks :) you too.. a great holiday.

It is easy to see why Joyce wanted to leave Ireland and to move to Trieste at the turn of the century - it would have been very bohemian and cosmopolitan.

But did Gillet say how Joyce felt about Trieste during WW1 and after? Hostilities between Italy and Austria-Hungary were a nightmare, a situation which did not really end when Trieste was occupied by the Italian Army and absorbed into Italy.

Hermes said...

Thanks Helen, nothing about WW1 but I did find a bit longer quote from Gillet about Joyce's views on Trieste.

"This pretty, good-natured Austrian city, half-slavic and half-Italian , with the gaiety of the Midi, the medley of languages, the animation of a harbour, and an already exotic, oriental flavour (as Veronese's Venice), had given him an extreme pleasure: there were no classical monuments, no Roman mementos (sic) as in Split or Ancona. But there was the rock of Ithaca and on the sea, the sail of Ulysses."

Perhaps interesting that he never returned though and stayed in Paris. As I recall 1914 was a good year for Joyce with several books published. I got Ulysses as a school prize - my choice) much to my headmasters utter disgust!

Hels said...


you must have been a precocious lad :)

Returning permanently to Ireland would have seemed a very unlikely step for Joyce ... ever.

I suppose by 1920 Paris had remained or become the centre of the literary and artistic world. Joyce and his avant-garde friends seemed very happy living there for ever. Or until WW2 intervened.

But it was Zurich that gave him a safe haven during WW1 and during the first years of WW2. And there is a very interesting James Joyce Literary Trail in Zurich, just like there is in Trieste.

Joseph said...

I feel sorry for Stanislaus Joyce, like Theo van Gogh. One brother is the dedicated genius and the other brother does the grunt work, keeping the family together.

Hels said...


nod. I wonder if Stanislaus was annoyed by his brother's carefree attitude to paying debts. After all, Stanislaus had his own wife and family to support.

The name of Stanislaus' book, My Brother’s Keeper (published in 1957 after James, Nora and Stanislaus had all died), might be a clue.

P. M. Doolan said...

Trieste is a city that I have never visited but the fact that this once great port city has now become eclipsed by other, greater centres, does give it a sort of nostalgic attraction. I think this is captured well in Jan Morris' last book, "Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere". More recently, the annual Trieste Joyce School has gained great distinction in Joyce scholarly studies.

Hels said...


Look at Trieste's unique location! I wonder if most non-Italian readers could locate Trieste on a world map.

We would never have even visited, had spouse and I not been driving en route into Italy. Yet clearly Joyce chose, of all the cities in Europe, to live there.

Joe said...

I always see Great Railway Journeys of Europe. One episode examined the Semmering Railway which was completed between 1848-54, linking Vienna to Trieste and its port. Trieste must have become a exciting city, already by the later 19th century.

Hels said...


no wonder James Joyce and like minded people wanted to be in Trieste. As a prosperous seaport on the Mediterranean Sea, Trieste was becoming one of the largest cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Undoubtedly the stunning railway line from Vienna was key in this growth.