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Trieste James Joyce and Umberto Saba
James Joyce, Umberto
Saba and the beautiful Italian city of Trieste.
‘Located between the sea and the mountains of Carso,
beautiful and fascinating, she does not like to show off, although she conquers
her visitor at first sight.’
Those words about the Italian city of Trieste were penned by the poet Umberto
Saba (1883 – 1957). His statue is situated in the Via San Nicolo near to his famed bookshop where he collected and
sold antique books.
Nestling in the top north eastern corner of Italy, facing
the Adriatic Sea and bordering with Slovenia the city of Trieste has a rich and
sometimes turbulent history. Above all, it has enticing beauty and charm. Well
… how can you not be entranced by a
city where you can emerge from a small supermarket and find directly opposite
you a perfectly-preserved Roman Amphitheatre? Or climb the terraced slopes that
lead you up from the Citta Vecchia (Old City)
to find the Romanesque Cathedral of San Giusto. From there you can enjoy glorious
views of the inky-blue sea and a port that once was the busy, prosperous and
sole maritime conduit for the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Dear reader, if I can persuade you of the charm of the Italian
city of Trieste then I can persuade you too, I hope, of its proud literary
heritage. Umberto Saba may be renowned only – or principally - as an Italian /
European author, but his life-story is bitter-sweet and I shall relate it to
you shortly. First however let me speak of the famous Irish author James Joyce
(1882 – 1941). As a young man he lived and worked in Trieste. He too is marked
by a statue – erected in 2004.
James Joyce in Trieste
Biographers have tracked Joyce’s time in Trieste and have
concluded that the city exerted influence on his formative years as a writer.
He left Dublin for Europe in 1904 and based himself mostly in Trieste for the
next ten years, employed by Berlitz as an English teacher. As a cosmopolitan
port Trieste was welcoming of foreigners; perhaps too welcoming, for the Joyce
‘tourist trail’ of the city encompasses not only his various lodging houses but
also numerous bars where, in company with artisans and sailors, he drank
heavily and overspent.
But he wrote, too: while in Trieste he rewrote the work that would
eventually be published in 1916 as Portrait
of the Artist as a Young Man. Publication of his short stories collected
together as The Dubliners was a long,
bitter and frustrating saga for him, necessitating journeys home to Dublin
before it finally saw light in 1914.
While in Trieste and starting a family with Nora Barnacle from
Galway whom he later married, Joyce often was impecunious. He took menial jobs
to supplement his meagre teaching income. He moved to Zurich in 1915 to avoid
conscription. He never returned to Ireland, living in Paris and Zurich where he
died and is buried. His best-known novel Ulysses,
published in 1922, was started while he lived in Trieste. The critic Anthony
Burgess has discerned that Joyce likely conceived the fictional character of
Leopold Bloom from the large Jewish community that dwelled in Trieste. Joyce
based the story and indeed all of his major works in Dublin, but Burgess holds
that Ulysses is culturally a product
of the diverse artistic empire of the Austro Habsburgs centred in Vienna. There
is a small museum of James Joyce in Trieste today, and the street Viale Joyce bears his name.
Umberto Saba – his life and poetry
Umberto Saba’s life was much defined by Trieste’s role as a
frontier city and political football as warring nations wrestled to possess
her. As a boy he wrote verse to express his love of the city:
hill-top I saw in sudden glory
its churches on the edge of the sea …
Bouts of depression overcame him. He lived in modest means with
his mother. His early poems gained him no income or recognition. After 1919 when
Italy had annexed Trieste from the expired Austro-Hapsburg empire at the close
of World War One he began to blossom in the city. Buying and selling rare books
brought him financial security. But in the Fascist era he was persecuted for
his mother’s Jewish origin. Mussolini began his ‘purging’ campaigns whereupon
educated and intellectual Italians, suspected of being liberals and socialists,
were driven underground. Political expedience forced Saba to suppress poems
such as this:
There was a
time when my life was easy.
The soil yielded flowers and fruit
work a dry and hard ground.
The spade hacks at stones and
I must dig deep, like one that is
He was unable to publish after 1921. He moved to Florence.
His mother had died and his wife and children were in Trieste. Liberation would
come after World War Two when Italy was released from German and Fascist rule.
Trieste was a last outpost to be freed. Saba unveiled his masterpiece: a tragic
poem (written in 1944) that celebrated his special delights: his mother, his
family, and Trieste his home city. Throughout
the long poem he repeated the refrain: Tutto
mi porto via il fascista inetto ed il tedsco lurco: [All this, the abject
Fascist and the glutton German took from me.]
Saba became a national treasure in 1946 when his Canzoniere or Song-Book was reprinted in
a 600-page volume. Sylvia Sprigge, the Rome-based correspondent of the
Manchester Guardian, wrote in 1958: ‘He had kept his serenity through his
country’s and Europe’s grim experiences – all of them as alien as could be to
his particular muse. He had never stopped writing poetry, and the delight for
the non-Italian reader is the ease with which almost all his poems can be
understood. I think he was one of the truest poets Italy has had.’
Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:
Helene Hanff & Annie Lyons
The Bookshop that Floated Away
Muriel Spark Centenary 1918-2018 Part Two
Muriel Spark Centenary 1918-2018 Part One
Rumpole December 2017
Roger Moore as Ivanhoe
Future Rock: Music and Politics in the 1970s
The New Love Poetry and London's 1967 Unforgettable Summer of Love
The author E.M. Forster (1879 – 1970) in books and films.
The novelist R.F.
Delderfield and his heroes who roam from home.
How The Wild West Was Written
Emmeline Pankhurst and Florence Foster Jenkins
Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train
H G Wells
In praise of the British Seaside!Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in 1963: Christine Keeler & Nell Dunn
Politicians, Pop Stars and Preachers - John Mortimer's Characters of 1986
Shakespeare's 400th Centenary
Gregory's Girl: Remembering the Hit Film
The Impact and Legacy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
A Tribute to Margaret Forster
Remembering Saeed Jaffrey
Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie
Remembering Ruth Rendell
Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)
The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar
Erle Stanley Gardner
Antony Sher: The History Man
Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author
Computer Chess: The Imitation Game
P G Wodehouse
John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green
Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution
Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam
The Story of Edith Nesbit
Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert
Rebels With A Cause
Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective
The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas
The Bergerac Police Adventure Series
It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene
Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers
The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym
D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...
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