25
Apr 05

James Joyce and the Adriatic

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 310 views

Our first encounter was in Trieste. Back in the days of empire this city port belonged to the Habsburgs and later became the southern pin of the iron curtain. Most of the surrounding coastal towns are Venetian in character, with tall campanile towers and arched loggias. Trieste has greater subtlety, atypical of Italian cities; a kind of Vienna-on-Sea. It’s graceful rather than attractive, the squares floored with Carrera marble and behind the imposing civic buildings sits a crumbling medieval quarter built across Roman foundations.

One hundred years ago, in strode the young James Joyce. He was newly married with a degree in Latin and keen to take what we now call a gap-year, teaching English abroad. The year away eventually stretched to an on-off decade in this pretty corner of Europe. It was here, among the cafes and piazzas that he wrote Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and large chunks of The Dubliners.

A bronze statue of Joyce stands by the Grand Canal in Trieste. He looks in a hurry, with a book tucked tightly under his arm. The sculpture is lifesize and in the bustle of a passegiate, he merges with the crowd, head down, thoughts of literary genius on his mind no doubt. After that he seemed to follow us everywhere. At the Hotel James Joyce with its traces of the 18th century and Italian copies of Finnegan’s Wake in reception, we drank cheap fiery grappa and awoke with headaches. In Pula, around the coast in Croatia, we bumped into him again. This time he sat outside a caf’ (“Caf’ Ulysses” inevitably) legs crossed, enjoying the April sun. Joyce taught English here, but showed little affection for the town. Pula has beautifully preserved Roman temples and a colossal amphitheatre and now celebrates a writer immune to its charms.

He returned to Trieste with the germ of a Homeric idea and tapped out early chapters of Ulysses. This most Dublin of novels evolved so many miles away from its backdrop. He wrote to his wife calling Trieste “the city which has sheltered us” and a century on, with its statues and plaques and literary trails, it shelters him still.

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