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The Piazza dell'Unita d'Italia in Trieste, Italy, where James Joyce moved in 1905, when he was 23.
The Piazza dell'Unita d'Italia in Trieste, Italy, where James Joyce moved in 1905, when he was 23. (Italian Tourist Board)
 If you go: Trieste, Italy

Where Leopold Bloom was born

Joyce's private Ireland lived lustily in Trieste

Email|Print| Text size + By William A. Davis
Globe Correspondent / March 12, 2006

TRIESTE, Italy -- As most people probably do, I associate James Joyce with his native Dublin, described and peopled so vividly in his books ''Ulysses" and ''Dubliners." So, I was surprised to run into him crossing a bridge over the Grand Canal here.

It was a statue, of course, but life-size and very natural looking. Joyce is depicted walking home from work, a slouch hat on his head, a thoughtful look on his face, and a book under his arm, appearing very much the local resident he once was.

In his imagination, Joyce never really left Dublin, but almost all his adult life was spent away from Ireland in various places on the Continent. The 11 years he lived in Trieste up until 1915 were one of the most difficult -- and creative -- periods of his life (1882-1941).

Joyce tried to support himself and Nora Barnacle, his common law wife, and eventually their two children by teaching English at the local Berlitz language school. In his off-hours, he drank heavily but also wrote prodigiously. ''Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" was written in Trieste, as was most of ''Dubliners," and his masterpiece, ''Ulysses," was begun here.

Trieste then belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and although most residents spoke an Italian dialect, German was the official language. It was a bustling Mediterranean port, the empire's maritime gateway through which goods flowed into and out of Central Europe. A gifted linguist, Joyce delighted in the city's polyglot and cosmopolitan character -- Austrians, Italians, Slavs, Hungarians, Greeks, and Jews from many countries mingled in its streets and cafes -- and dubbed it ''Europiccola" or ''Little Europe."

No longer the chief harbor of a great empire, although an increasingly busy port since the end of the Cold War, Trieste is tucked in the northeast corner of Italy at the extreme edge of the Latin, Slavic, and Germanic worlds. Slovenia is only 5 miles from the city center, Croatia 10 miles, and Austria about a half day's drive.

Trieste is a place you have to seek out, for it's not on main travel routes. Many seekers are literary travelers looking for traces of Joyce, a struggling, unknown writer when he lived here, but honored now as one of the city's literary lions.

Besides the statue on the canal bridge, there is a bust in a park and a public flight of stairs is named for him. The Joyce Museum, which occupies a room in the public library, has a collection of rare first editions of his books and shows a video about his life in the city.

The Trieste Tourist Office also hands out a ''James Joyce Itinerary" in English and Italian, listing more than 45 sites in the city associated with the author, including cafes, bookstores, restaurants, the public library, the Berlitz School (now the James Joyce School of Languages), and even the oddly named ''Metro Cubo" (Cubic Meter) brothel on Via della Pescheria, which he patronized.

Barnacle, a young woman from County Galway who was a chambermaid at a Dublin hotel when Joyce met her in 1904, put up with a lot. Because of Joyce's wastrel ways, the couple was usually broke and often had trouble paying the rent, moving frequently from one cramped flat to another. The itinerary lists nine places where they lived, most of them on the top floors of ramshackle old buildings on Via San Nicolo, within walking distance of the language school.

John McCourt, an Irish Joyce scholar who teaches at the University of Trieste, believes Joyce's experiences there profoundly influenced his writing, particularly of ''Ulysses." McCourt is the founder and program director of the Trieste Joyce School, a weeklong series of lectures and seminars held at the university each June that attracts participants from around the world.

''The influence of Trieste is there on all levels," according to McCourt, ''to take one example, the influence of the Jewish culture of Trieste, which is fundamental." All events in ''Ulysses" occur on June 16, 1904, a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, a Dublin Jew of Hungarian origin. Joyce was unlikely to have met anyone like Bloom in Dublin, McCourt notes, but people with similar backgrounds were common in Trieste's large Jewish community, where Joyce had many friends.

One possible model for Bloom, a much put-upon everyman, was the novelist known as Italo Svevo, a Jewish businessman (his real name was Ettore Schmitz), who took English lessons from Joyce and also encouraged his writing. Svevo's ''Confessions of Zeno," the story of a man's life as told to his psychoanalyst is, like ''Ulysses," considered a seminal work of 20th-century fiction. (The tourist office also has a Svevo itinerary.)

Trieste's glory days may be past, but there are many reminders of its imperial grandeur and long history. The city still looks much as it did when Joyce was in residence and this time-warp quality is part of its charm.

Cittavecchia, the atmospheric Old Quarter, a neighborhood of narrow, climbing streets with many bookstores and antiques shops, is topped by a Renaissance fortress, a medieval cathedral, and the remains of a Roman forum.

The contrasting Lower Town, laid out in the 18th century by Austrian empress Maria Theresa, is a precisely planned checkerboard dotted with imposing churches and public buildings. The opera house is a scaled-down version of Milan's La Scala, for instance. A fine singer who won a national competition in Ireland and considered becoming a professional, Joyce frequently attended the opera.

The focal point of what Triestini still call Borgo Teresiano, or Theresa's Town, is the magnificent central square, Piazza dell'Unità d'Italia (Square of Italian Unity). A vast space open to the sea on one side, it is one of the largest squares in Italy and, as in Joyce's day, is the city's al fresco living room.

The Austrian influence extends to more than the street plan. Coffee has been a leading import in Trieste since the 18th century and there are so many coffeehouses that the city has been called ''Vienna by the Sea." Its cafes are said to serve the best coffee in Italy, which is really saying something. Joyce's favorites, both still in business, were Caffè San Marco, where walls are lined with books and literary conversations are common; and Caffè Stella Polare, near where he lived and worked.

As I strolled around this very walkable city, tourist office itinerary in hand, it wasn't hard to conjure Joyce's image: a slim young man in a shabby tweed suit walking by the harbor, his mind miles away; a solitary drinker slouched over a cafe table; or the scholarly looking fellow with glasses browsing the shelves of the bookstore owned by his friend the poet Umberto Saba, still a magnet for bibliophiles.

Years after he moved away, Joyce declared: ''I left my soul in Trieste." It seems to still be here.

Contact William A. Davis, a Cambridge freelance writer, at billadavis@earthlink.net.

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