Bloomin’ Marvellous! Joyce and Trieste.
As the world and his wife, in Joycean terms, turn their attention to Dublin, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the fictional event of Bloomsday, it seems almost as if a lone Irish voice is reminding us that Joyce wrote most of his work outside of Ireland, and in particular a large part of it in the Italian City of Trieste.
Dr. John McCourt, an Irishman who settled in Trieste, and who has worked on Joyce related material for over ten years, has recently published The Years of Bloom: James Joyce in Trieste 1904-1920. He’s at pains to point out, particularly now, as Dublin is taken over by Bloomsday Breakfast parties, that Joyce took a huge amount of influence from the Italian city on the Adriatic. “The received wisdom of it was that Trieste didn’t influence Joyce at all. That was what his brother Stanislaus said, and that was largely what Richard Ellman, and the critics who followed on from him, said. They depicted the Trieste years as very difficult years, years of poverty, of difficulties getting published, and all of that is true, but at the same time the years in Trieste were his richest creative period. It’s the period when he finished Dubliners, wrote all of Portrait of the Artist as a young man, wrote a good deal of Ulyssesand planned the rest of the novel, wrote Giacomo Joyce, so they’re very, very creative years, despite the personal problems he had here”.
Joyce famously remarked that if Dublin were razed to the groundUlysses could be used as a blueprint for rebuilding it, so the emphasis that McCourt wishes to give Trieste may at first seem strange. “I’ve been described by the Irish Times as a ‘Maverick’. But I’m clear to point out that Ireland was Joyce’s primary source. Nobody could challenge that. What I’m pointing out is that Joyce was a little like a vacuum cleaner who sucked up whatever he needed, to write, wherever he was. Trieste was obviously a place where he felt he could write, where he felt he could gather material for his writing”.
And what in particular were the influences and material that he picked up, and for example how is it manifested? “The influence of Trieste is there on all levels. To take one example, the influence of the Jewish culture of Trieste, which is fundamental. Leopold and Molly Bloom owe more to Trieste possibly even than they do to Dublin. They’re both middle-European characters if you like. Leopold has this Hungarian background which corresponds very much to the background of many of the Triestine Jews that Joyce was meeting, and it doesn’t correspond to the type of Jewish background that was typical in Dublin at that time. Joyce is more faithful to what his Triestine friends were telling him, rather than what was going on in Dublin. Also, Trieste, a Mediterranean port, the only one that Joyce knew, becomes a surrogate for Gibraltar for Molly Bloom and her recollections, which she remembers in her monologue. “The Greeks and the Jews and the Arabs and the devil knows whoelse from all the ends of Europe”[Editor's note Ulysses Molly Bloom's soliloquy]. She’s talking about Gibraltar, but it could well have been Trieste – the Trieste that Joyce lived in. A cosmopolitan city with people from all over Europe living there. Joyce creates a very European Dublin from Trieste, far more European than Dublin probably was at that time. A far more European Dublin than for example, the dirty, provincial, city ofDubliners.”
How did McCourt come to study and work on Joyce? He was educated at Belvedere College (one of Joyce’s schools) and arrived in Trieste, a deliberate following in Joyce’s footsteps? “(Laughs) Well, I had the good fortune to meet my wife, while I was attending the James Joyce Summer School in U.C.D, and it was for her that I moved to Trieste, not for James Joyce, and that’s important to underline! My first approach to Joyce was in school, in religion class in fact. We did a small course on Joyce and Thomas Merton, two men struggling with problems of faith. Joyce in Portrait of the Artist as a young man, Merton inThe Seven Storey Mountain, and that was the first time that I read Joyce at all – it was an important beginning. After moving to Trieste it was a couple of years before I returned to Joyce, and the idea came to me for the book. After living here a couple of years, I began to realise that he couldn’t have lived here for all those years and not have been influenced by the place”.
McCourt has ably detailed the influence of Trieste on Joyce, but as someone resident there, what influence has James Joyce had on Trieste? “I came here 13 years ago, when to be honest there was only one plaque here, which was on the wall of the Department in Via Bramante, since then a lot has been done, by the City. Renzo Crivelli, who is the Director of the Department here, did a mapping of all the Joycean sites in the city, and so 57 plaques were put up around the city, showing where he lived, where he drank, where he shopped etc. So all the places of Joycean interest are clearly signalled. There’s a numbered Joycean itinerary that tourists can follow around the city. In addition to that, on Bloomsday, we will open the Trieste Joyce Museum, which contains some first editions of Joyce’s work, but also a virtual tour of Joyce’s Trieste. The presence of Joyce is clearly much more felt in Trieste now than once before. We even have a James Joyce Hotel and Pub! The city is trying to cash in on the writer certainly, but they’ve always been very supportive of initiatives related to Joyce, and in general the Triestini are proud of the fact that Joyce lived and wrote here”.
And what of the Joyce industry, that seems to be in overdrive in particular this year?“I have major problems with it. I’m not going to the Dublin symposium, not because I don’t agree with the symposium – it in itself is fine – but the more touristic events, arranged around the symposium, arranged primarily by the Irish Department of arts and culture, have very little to do with Joyce. I’ve read about a Bloomsday breakfast for example for 10,000 people on O’Connell Street – and I can think of nothing worse!!(laughs) It’s difficult, because without the industry, and the critics, and Bloomsday etc, there would undoubtedly be a smaller readership for Joyce, because he is a notoriously difficult writer. In some ways the critical attention has been a good thing. The critical interest Joyce has received in Ireland over the last 20 years has been essential, because it’s made us realise exactly how important Ireland was to Joyce, because with critics like Ellman sometimes his ‘Irishness’ has been played down. I do have problems with Bloomsday – I don’t like the idea of Bloomsday being a dressed up alternative to St. Patrick’s day, which seems to be what they are doing. At the same time, two years ago, the Irish Government invested 14 million in recovering Joyce Manuscripts which they brought back to the National Library, so it’s understandable that they might want to cash in on that investment”.
Certainly Joyce is known as a notoriously difficult writer, but at the same time, in a number of sources, including Three Monkeys Online, writers have questioned his reputation as the most important writer of the 20th Century. What does McCourt think of the hullabaloo over Roddy Doyle’s comments for example? “I don’t think much about it, to be honest. I know Roddy Doyle made some comments that were taken out of context to some extent. I think it’s understandable that a contemporary Irish writer would feel slightly slighted by the continuous presence of Joyce in the background. That’s understandable. But the vast majority of Irish writers are hugely indebted to Joyce. He’s the one who
put the Irish novel on the stage, and paved the way for so many who followed. The polemics come and go, and they bring attention to the writer. I remember Dermot Bolger making similar comments about 20 years ago. I think Joyce would find it laughable, people getting hot under the collar about him 100 years on. I don’t think there’s any point in responding to these criticisms, like David Norris did. There’s no point”.
What is it about Joyce that appeals to McCourt?” I’ve been working with Joyce for over 10 years, and I’ve grown to like the man less and less, while I’ve grown to admire the writer more and more, particularly in relation to Ulysses which is just so incredibly rich. First and foremost it’s a tremendously funny book, particularly if read out loud. If you start with theCalypso episode it’s hard not to be taken by Bloom and his humanity.And then there’s the extraordinary use of language, the re-invention of the whole way of telling stories, this re-invention becomes almost obsessional, with each chapter which invents a new style, the whole destruction of the traditional novel as we know it. It’s also a book that, while being extremely funny, has at its sense of tragedy, and Bloom’s situation can be read one way or the other. There’s no doubt that he created an everyman in Bloom whom it’s hard not to warm to. From my point of view, Bloom is Joyce’s single greatest achievement”.
His praise for Joyce is not uncritical though, he continues “I have problems with Finnegan’s Wake in that I couldn’t say that I’ve read and understood it. I don’t think anyone has completely. While I admire much of the prose, and of the humour, again particularly if you read it aloud, there are huge black holes there that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to penetrate”.
And in terms of the man? What is it that has made you dislike the man, as opposed to his work? “He had an amazing sense of his own talent or genius, which on the one hand was extremely positive in so far as he dedicated his life to his writing, but on the other hand there’s no doubt that there was an amazing amount of selfishness in that dedication, and the people around him paid a heavy price for that total absorption in his own writing. For example, his family, particularly in the Triestine years, Stanislaus his brother, who spent 10 years paying the rent for him, looking after him, getting him out of trouble, carrying him home. Joyce tended to take people like Stanislaus, and later on Harriet Shaw Weaver, and Sylvia Beech, totally for granted, the more they gave the more he demanded. There was an extraordinary selfishness in the man, but then again, would he have been able to write what he did had he not been so completely focussed on that. It’s too easy to judge the man on his own shortcomings, but at the end of the day they don’t matter so much. Dante was not a particularly nice character either from what we can see, but what he left behind is of tremendous importance, and so it is with Joyce. So at the end of the day my opinions are largely irrelevant: the writing stands up for itself.”