books monthly   june 2018 - the jerry dowlen column

Home Page | Adult Fiction | Crime & Thrillers | SF & Fantasy | Children's books | Nonfiction | Nostalgia | The Jerry Dowlen Column




You are here: Books Monthly » The Jerry Dowlen Column »


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:


                From the hill-top I saw in sudden glory

                Trieste and 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 abundantly.

                Now I work a dry and hard ground.

The spade hacks at stones and rocks.

I must dig deep, like one that is seeking treasure.


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.’


Jerry Dowlen

May 2018


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

   Charles Raw

   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

   Stan Barstow

   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

John Updike

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

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield


Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

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...


The small print: Books Monthly, now well into its sixteenth year on the web, is published on or slightly before the first day of each month by Paul Norman. You can contact me here. If you wish to submit something for publication in the magazine, let me remind you there is no payment as I don't make any money from this publication. If you want to send me something to review, contact me via email and I'll let you know where to send it.