And there the Muse spoke, in three tongues: Like James Joyce, Italo Svevo and Rainer Maria Rilke before him, Godfrey Hodgson was inspired by the ancient city of Trieste

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The Independent Travel
IN OCTOBER 1904, James Joyce and Norah Barnacle, whom he already considered his wife and 27 years later married, ran away from Dublin together and, after brief stays in London, Paris and Zurich, ended up in Trieste, where Joyce had been told there was work for him teaching English in the Berlitz School.

As it happened, he first had to go a few miles further south, to what was then the Austro-Hungarian naval base of Pola, to find work. But before long he was back in Trieste; Norah and he stayed there for more than 10 years - until he was obliged to move to Zurich by Italy's entry into the First World War. While he was there he wrote the second half, roughly speaking, of Dubliners and the first half of Ulysses.

One of Joyce's private pupils was Ettore Schmitz, a Triestino businessman of Hungarian Jewish ancestry who took English lessons because his marine paint firm had a factory in Deptford, south London. Schmitz shyly showed his teacher two novels he had had published, but which had enjoyed little success. Joyce encouraged him to persevere and he went on to write, under the pseudonym Italo Svevo, which means 'the Italian German', The Confessions of Zeno. It is a comic masterpiece that might have been written by a provincial Proust who liked girls, and at the same time a novel of profound psychological insights.

But Schmitz, for readers of English at least, has an even greater claim to fame, for Joyce admitted he was the prototype for Leopold Bloom, hero of Ulysses.

Seven years after the Joyces arrived in Trieste, the Prague-born German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, then 36, accepted an invitation to stay with his wealthy and intellectual friend, the Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe, at her romantic castle on the cliffs at Duino on the outskirts of Trieste. One day he received a troubling business letter, and to settle his thoughts went out on to the clifftop garden, which slopes steeply down towards the sea. A storm was raging. As he watched the sea breaking 200ft below, a phrase formed in his mind and he scribbled it into his notebook: Wer, wenn ich schrie, horte mich aus den Engel Ordnungen? - 'Who, if I screamed, would hear me among the angelic orders?'

He knew, he said later, that 'the god had spoken'.

Poetic inspiration, which had eluded him for a long time, had returned. It took Rilke almost as many years to finish his great cycle, the Duino Elegies, as it took Joyce to finish Ulysses. On its completion, he sent the work to the princess, and there, in the very first line, was that same haunting question.

I had long been intrigued by the idea that three such writers as Joyce, Svevo and Rilke should have been inspired to conceive their utterly different masterpieces, in three different languages - English, Italian and German - at almost exactly the same time in the same rather humdrum provincial seaport.

Trieste, it seemed to me, must be worth a visit and I was right - although, as I discovered, not only because of its literary past.

The city lies curved along the coast in the extreme north-east corner of Italy. Its modern core, the Piazza dell'Unita d'Italia, opens on to the seafront, and the docks, cranes and warehouses stretch for 10 miles almost to the frontier with what is now the Republic of Slovenia, in the former Yugoslavia. There is still a smell of the sea about the place. Little wooden fishing boats bob up and down in a basin across from the magnificent Slovenian orthodox cathedral, and big freighters loom up in silhouette at the end of city streets, next to the Adriatic ferries for Ancona, Dubrovnik, Igoumenitsa and Patras.

The smart shopping streets were built on land filled in from the sea 100 years ago, in the heyday of the Austrian Lloyd Steam shipping company, whose palazzo stares proudly across the evening strollers and the brass band at the town hall. Trieste grew rich in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as almost the only seaport for the Habsburg empire; it passed to Italy after fierce fighting in November 1918.

The original heart of the city is on a knob that rises steeply behind the modern shopping streets. The site is ancient even by Italian standards. It was a Celtic settlement before Julius Caesar turned it into a fort to guard Rome's eastern approaches. If you pant up a steep path through a cemetery that commemorates the dead of the Triestine resistance of the Second World War - both those lucky enough to be shot as hostages and those deported to the camps - you come to a quiet square in front of the sober cathedral. It was built only seven centuries ago, but it stands on the site of a Christian church that was itself built on the site of a temple to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.

The view challenges any comparison, not only for what you see, but for the sense that you are inspecting a dangerous geography. This has always been a frontier town, since long before Theodoric's Goths poured down into Italy. This is where the three great tribes of Europe meet: the Latins, the Germans and the Slavs.

To the west, if you could see them, beyond the Duino cliffs and the shipyard that almost hides them, lie Venice and Ravenna and the great northern Italian plain. Almost in the foreground, three miles across the bay, is the white Victorian Gothic folly of Miramare, built by Archduke Maximilian, the Habsburg romantic. He was sent by the French to make himself emperor of Mexico behind Lincoln's back and ended up being shot, while the band played La Paloma, by the Mexican firing squad, as immortalised in Manet's huge painting.

The most interesting geography, though, lies inland.

The city rises in tiers to the pretty landscapes and unspoilt villages of the Carso, the limestone plateau that links the Julian Alps to the north, where the Italians defeated the Austrians with appalling casualties in the campaign that inspired Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, to the Istrian peninsular in the south, where Italy joins Slovenia, and Slovenia joins Croatia at the northern tip of the Dalmatian coast.

In 1945, Tito and his partisans tried to grab Trieste. The Allies resisted, and the city lived under a series of divided rules with US, British, Russian and Yugoslav military presences. It was not until 1954 that it became part of Italy again. There are still elderly people in the city, therefore, who have lived through three tribes: Austrians, Yugoslavs and Italians.

Today it is unambiguously an Italian city; even in Joyce's day, two-thirds of the population spoke Italian. But both the Slav and Austrian connections have left their traces. The white Lippizaner stallions of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna come from Lipica on the Carso, just over the frontier with Slovenia. Slovenes and Croats come to Trieste to shop and, if they can, to find work.

What is exhilarating about Trieste today, even if the exhilaration carries a distant whiff of danger, is that a city which, only a dozen years ago, was at the end of Europe is now - for better and for worse - back in the middle of it.

FACT FILE

TRIESTE is not a big city; it has about 250,000 inhabitants, which is about the size of Southampton, and it is a pleasure to walk around, even if the slopes to the cathedral are steepish.

There is an excellent university bookshop, Borsatti, with books in English as well as Italian. Try the seafood restaurants along the waterfront. Bandierette has a delightful Central European feel, as do many of the cafes frequented by Joyce and Svevo, such as the degli Specchi, called after its Art Deco mirrors, in the main square, and the Cafe Wien, in a back street not far away. The seafood from the Adriatic is excellent, with octopus, cuttlefish and shrimps to the fore; the local speciality is coda di rospo, the delicious monkfish tail. The Pizzeria Vulcania, next door, is cheap and cheerful, a hang-out for local intellectuals. There is plenty of excellent white wine from Friuli and the Veneto, notably the Tocai and the Pinot Grigio. We had a delicious meal under the trees, watched by a huge green cricket on his branch, at Bassovizza, one of the villages on the Carso above the city, and there are plenty of unpretentious, but attractive, beach restaurants along the coast road and down on the water between Miramare and Duino.

There is a sentiero Rilke - a Rilke clifftop path - about a mile long, starting at the car park by the tourist office in Sistiana, 10 miles west of Trieste, and ending up at the castle, which is now let by the Thurn und Taxis family to something called the United World College of the Adriatic, which is no doubt less spooky than it sounds. Anyway, you can see ravens and falcons, as well as wonderful views of the old (10th-century) and new (14th-century) castles.

Miramare is not beautiful, but it does have pleasant shady walks and an interesting collection of Victorian furniture and paintings associated with the tragic Archduke Maximilian and his beautiful, mad widow, Carlotta. Further afield, Udine is a prosperous modern town with a pleasant medieval centre. Lipica, with its stud, founded by the Habsburgs in 1580, is well worth a visit, and the countryside just across the border in Slovenia and in Croatian Istra, is unspoilt and pretty, with Opatija, at the head of a great gulf landlocked by islands, a nave, but delightful, seaside town with a pre-1939 flavour.

How to Get There

Italy Sky-Shuttle (081-748 1333) has charter flights to Treviso, about an hour's drive from Trieste. Return fares from Gatwick on its twice-weekly service cost from pounds 122 to pounds 170. The company offers car hire from pounds 35 per day, including unlimited mileage. Booked through Italy-Sky Shuttle, a two-night package at the Jolly Hotel in Trieste costs pounds 85 per person, including breakfast and one dinner.

Further information: Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes Street, London W1R 8AY (071- 408 1254).

(Photograph omitted)

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