Trieste of the mind: Saba, Svevo & Joyce


It’s a strange hemmed-in corner of the world, north of the Istrian peninsula and east of Venice. For any well-read Irishman, Trieste is associated with James Joyce, who spent the years 1905-1914 there, writing Dubliners (1914), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Exiles (1918) and the early drafts of Ulysses (1922). I’d read about Trieste in countless books before I got around to visiting the place in October last year. Italo Svevo is its homegrown novelist and Umberto Saba one of the top three Italian poets of the twentieth century. Both writers celebrate Trieste’s cultural and sexual landscape as a port city at the edge of other peoples’ empires: Roman, Austro-Hungarian, Slavic, with a Jewish admixture. This was perhaps what the Dubliner Joyce saw in it too. All three writers found Trieste a lustful place.

The port of Trieste in 1885

The port of Trieste in 1885

Umberto Saba in Ernesto (1975), an unfinished novel about growing up in Trieste, describes the city at the turn into the twentieth century:

The city was spreading in all directions: old, shabby houses which Ernesto remembered from his childhood walks and had always assumed would stand forever, were being knocked down for new building. A factory chimney poured out thick smoke, blackening the surrounding air, and workers were already streaming out of the factories, their food boxes under their arms. All comrades, all socialists, thought Ernesto, wanting to be one of them.

Umberto Saba climbing the steps of the via Ciamician in Trieste, 1953 (Montadori)

Umberto Saba climbing the steps of the via Ciamician in Trieste, 1953 (Montadori)

Saba’s Ernesto is an account of a sixteen-year-old’s sexual awakening, at first with a labourer, then with a port prostitute. Ernesto has good Italian and handles the business correspondence, working in a depot as a clerk. He supervises the unloading of flour sacks by the stevedore who awakens him. Saba’s description of their sexual relationship is tender but realistic, a recollection of an encounter in his own youth. It is a meeting of classes, of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, as much as an account of lust. “He heard the man softly asking him to shift position, and did so as if it was an order. All at once he thought I’m lost, but there was no regret, no wish to turn back.”

Salvatore Samperi's 1980 production of Ernesto with Martin Halm in the title role

Salvatore Samperi’s 1980 production of Ernesto

What Saba captures so well is Mediterranean lust. The coupling takes place during the long southern lunch hour. Drays are tethered, the sound of cutlery tinkles from open windows. Saba’s sex in the afternoon occurs on flour bags piled high, one of which gets stained over and over. The author understands the peculiar boredom of old-style office drudgery: scrivening before computers jazzed it up. The nameless stevedore has a kind of Oliver Reed earthiness, reminding me of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and The Go Between. A modern sensibility would see Ernesto as a story about power and exploitation, but that would be to miss the point. The lover is a rapidly ageing labourer on daily hire, rough-hewn but with the gentleness of the old inverts, the sexual outsiders: a working class queer.


When Saba wasn’t writing, he ran an antiquarian bookshop in Trieste, which can be visited on Via S. Nicolò. He was a poet from a part-Jewish background. Songbook: The Selected Poems of Umberto Saba (2008) sprinkles poems about boys among those about women and place. Together with Ungaretti and Montale, Saba is counted among the twentieth century’s greatest Italian poets.

Before the First World War Trieste had a complicated ethnic, linguistic and national mix. Italian was the language of the intelligentsia. Slavs (Slovenes) had their own newspaper, cafés and theatres. The German of Vienna was associated with officialdom and the upper echelons. There was a sizeable Jewish community. Saba describes the Caffè del Tergesteo, still doing business, frequented by Joyce and Svevo:

It was a rather genteel cafe, popular with rich businessmen, nearly all of them old men and some from faraway Turkey, wearing red fez hats like the people in The Arabian Nights.


Italo Svevo (Aron Ettore Schmitz, 1861-1928), like Saba, issued from Trieste’s Jewish community. His name literally means “Italian Swabian”, testifying to the cosmopolitan Triestine culture he brought to life in his novels. It was Joyce who championed him and who re-discovered his talents as a writer. In As a Man Grows Older (1898) we are in the doldrums of middle age, among boulevardiers chasing infidelities in a seaside town. Svevo describes the port of Trieste in all its turn-of-the-century glory:


Afternoon light at Poreč on the Istrian peninsula. © Padraig Rooney

He looked at his watch and stood for a while on the sea-front. The weather seemed worse here than it did in the town. The tremendous clamour of the sea, joined to the howling of the wind, made one vast uproar composed of many voices small and great. The night was dark; nothing could be seen of the sea but the white crest of a wave here and there, which had burst asunder before it could hurl itself against the shore. They were keeping watch on the boats anchored along the quay, and here and there he could see the figure of a sailor working in darkness and danger up aloft on the masts which were keeping up their ritual dance towards all the four winds in turn.


Putti on a Roman frieze, Trieste. © Padraig Rooney

A few days in Trieste brings us face to face with the remnants of the city’s various masters: Roman, Austrian and Slav. Mussolini’s Fascist-era torsos, dating from 1934 (Anno XII), decorate the old Maritime Air Station building in the docks. In the following year Italy would invade Ethiopia and its pretensions to imperial power would take a battering thereafter. Restaurants in Trieste have more of a Hungarian flavour than Italian – no panna cotta but serving up wonderful apfelstrudel.


Fascist-era torso on the Maritime Air Station building, Trieste. © Padraig Rooney

At Buffet di Pepi I sampled their signature dish of pork cooked four ways: tongue, fillet, sausage and bacon, served with mustard, sauerkraut and bread. It’s a choucroute in all but name. While I ate outside on the terrace, I was accosted by beggars and panhandlers. I looked at the architecture: imperial, jumped-up, full of its own importance, the buildings of insurance companies and shipping magnates.


Holding it all up on the Maritime Air Station building, Trieste. © Padraig Rooney

The Istrian Peninsula is proud of its Joycean connection. The Irish writer has a museum in Trieste. A statue has been erected on the Via Roma where it crosses the Canal Grande, and there is a city tour of Joyce’s stations of the cross: where he taught, the many temporary lodgings, the locations of his nighttime roistering. In Largo Barriera Vecchio you can find the old Pasticceria Pirona where the writer apparently had his coffee and pastry and whatever else you’re having.

Proud of its Joyce connection: the Caffe Pirona in Trieste. Photo Maurizio Valdemarin

Proud of its Joyce connection: the Caffe Pirona in Trieste. Photo Maurizio Valdemarin

At the time of Joyce’s stay, Trieste had a lively red-light district, as befits a port city, and Joyce was no stranger to the charms of the dark bordellos of the Jewish district and the Città Vecchia. There were between forty and forty-five whorehouses in the city. The aptly named Via della Sanità (now via Armando Diaz), where the Joyce family lived for a time, was the entrance to the red-light district in the area known as Cavana. Jan Morris in Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere has further details:

James Joyce is said to have been an assiduous drunken frequenter of the Trieste whore-houses, allegedly preferring La Chiave d’Oro, the Golden Key, or the poky Il Metro Cubo, the Cubic Metre … How strange it is, nevertheless, that the man who wrote “Watching the Needleboats at San Sabba” in the daytime could stagger sozzled from pub to prostitute at night! Joyce adored his children and loved his wife after his fashion, yet apparently he still felt the need to wander, night after night, down the via del Solitaire to the House of the Golden Key.

Case Chiuse Trieste Chiave D'Oro

Case Chiuse Trieste Metro Cubo

Tickets for the bordellos in Trieste.


Cavana district in Trieste

Further down the Istrian coast at Pola (in present-day Croatia,) where Joyce taught for a time, there is a smoke-filled Joyce pub. Joyce’s connection with Istria seems to me to come to the fore in a number of poems published in Pomes Penyeach (1927), especially in “On the Beach at Fontana”, written in Trieste in 1914 on the eve of war, about his son Giorgio:

From whining wind and colder / Grey sea I wrap him warm / And touch his trembling fineboned shoulder / And boyish arm.


Statue of James Joyce in Trieste. © Padraig Rooney

Joyce and his wife Nora had mixed views about Trieste and he tended to see it as a backwater:

Trieste is the rudest place I have ever been in. It is hardly possible to exaggerate the incivility of the people. The girls and women are so rude to Nora that she is afraid to go out in the street. Nora can speak about thirty words of Triestine dialect…The Trieste people are great ‘stylists’ in dress, often starving themselves in order to be able to flaunt good dresses on the pier.



Plaque in Pola (Pulja), where Joyce and Nora first decamped after an abortive stay in Zurich.

The Church of the Holy Trinity Thaumaturge in Trieste is where Joyce used sometimes to follow the Greek Orthodox service. It sits four-square in the form of a Greek cross, crowned with a large dome, where the Canal Grande has been filled in to form the Piazza Sant’Antonio Nuovo. Joyce writes in his letters:

The Greek mass is strange. The altar is not visible but at times the priest opens the gates and shows himself. He opens and shuts them about six times. For the Gospel he comes out of a side gate and comes down into the chapel and reads out of a book. For the elevation he does the same. At the end when he has blessed the people he shuts the gates: a boy comes running down the side of the chapel with a large tray full of little lumps of bread.

The church is now the place of worship for the Serbian Orthodox congregation in Trieste. There was a notice at the entrance about switching off phones. Inside, an old, stooped lady, a bit unsteady on her pins, approached the lit candles in front of the iconostasis with her slim yellow taper. Then her phone rang in her handbag, echoing under the dome, and she had to return to her place, all the time hoking in her bag for her phone. She held it in one hand and the lit taper in the other, dripping wax all over the carpet. Her interrupted piety was comical. It could have been a scene from a Samuel Beckett play.


Church of the Holy Trinity Thaumaturge in Trieste.

Jan Morris describes “the sweet tristesse that is onomatopoeic to the place” in her excellent travel account, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. She recalls coming ashore as a young soldier at the end of the Second World War. In the chapter entitled Love and Lust she writes: “Certainly I sometimes think that transient love, the sort that is embodied in a one-night passion, or even a passing glance, is no less real than the lifelong sort. Even imagined love is true!” Our three Triestine writers would certainly concur with her there.









Elizabeth Bishop’s Great Village

Home was a vexed question for the American-born poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), as it is for anyone who travels as much as she did. Her father was from Worcester, Massachusetts, but he died eight months after she was born. Her mother was a Bulmer from Great Village, thirty-five kilometres west of Truro in Nova Scotia, but she was confined definitively to a mental hospital when Elizabeth was six. Her grandparents loomed large, aunts and uncles, then boarding school, then Vassar in the early Thirties. She felt she could never go home again. As her poem “The Prodigal” puts it: “And then he thought he almost might endure / his exile yet another year or more.”


Elizabeth Bishop in her teens

Elizabeth all her life retained connections with her mother’s family and the landscape and seascape of Nova Scotia. Her poems and prose pieces show an affinity for the sea along a line of longitude from Nova Scotia to Brazil. She lived on and off for ten years in Key West, Florida and for fifteen years in Brazil. She returned to Boston in the 1970s.


Great Village is just inland from the north shore of Minas Basin on the Bay of Fundy. The indigenous Mi’kmaq First Nation people were supplanted by the Acadians – French settlers – in the seventeenth century. Scots Ulster people in turn settled there, as is testified by the names – Londonderry, McCallum Settlement, Wilson’s Garage, Mahon Cemetery. The Great Village River runs to red-marl and silt, wharfs where a thriving shipbuilding industry kept the local economy afloat in the nineteenth century. In Bishop’s day and in ours, the village is a shadow of its former self: houses thinned out, stores become antique shops, church and coffee shop conjoined.

A shelfie in the Elizabeth Bishop House, Great Village, Nova Scotia

A shelfie in the Elizabeth Bishop House, Great Village, Nova Scotia

Colm Tóibín describes the landscape well in his little book On Elizabeth Bishop (Princeton University Press, 2015):

…a strange coastal flatness, with deep inlets all around. It is as though the whole place could be inundated by tides at any time. If the village is built on dry land, there is a suggestion that it was not always dry, or its dryness comes as a sort of accident, a quirk of nature. The place is filled with watery northern light…


Former Esso Station on the right, St. James Presbyterian Church left

The Bulmers on her mother’s side were fairly well-to-do country people. Her grandfather was a tanner. His house, where Elizabeth Bishop spent the years 1914-1916 and summer holidays thereafter, is still standing at the junction of three roads, opposite Wilson’s Garage which was formerly an Esso Station, brought to vivid life in the poem “Filling Station”.

Somebody embroidered the doily.

Somebody waters the plant,

or oils it, maybe. Somebody

arranges the rows of cans

so that they softly say:


to high-strung automobiles.

Somebody loves us all.

The house is now known as Elizabeth Bishop’s House and operates as a writers’ retreat and a venue for commemorative events. Its status is precarious, though, and as I write it is up for sale to someone who will preserve its unique literary heritage.


Front door of the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, Nova Scotia

We were fortunate to meet photographer Laurie Gunn, who showed us around. She was busy preparing for the one-day Elizabeth Bishop Festival on the following Saturday. Laurie is President of the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia and explained the dilemma regarding the house and the difficulty of keeping heritage alive in such an out of the way place as Great Village, with only a summer season for visitors.


Some of the fittings and decorative objects in the house date from the beginning of the last century. Elizabeth’s tiny bedroom looks out on the road and the gas station. The kitchen and pantry used to face a blacksmith’s on one side and still face the Presbyterian church on the other. Bishop’s poems are full of objects which become talismans, signifying time and event. In “Sestina” she recalls her grandmother in the kitchen “beside the Little Marvel Stove, / reading the jokes from the almanac,”. The child watches the “teakettle’s small hard tears / dance like mad on the hot black stove.”

The Little Marvel Stove in the kitchen of Elizabeth Bishop House

The Little Marvel Stove in the kitchen of Elizabeth Bishop House

A steep narrow staircase leads to the bedrooms under the eaves, with their patchwork quilts and heirloom furniture. Nova Scotia seems to have an antique shop in every village, filled with household bric à brac from farms and homesteads that have moved up in the world, or moved on to the next one. From the back windows of the Elizabeth Bishop House there is a view of the tidal basin, the land flat, the silt red, the tide out: “rich mud / in burning rivulets; / on red, gravelly roads, / down rows of sugar maples, / past clapboard farmhouses / and neat, clapboard churches, / bleached, ridged as clamshells,”.


Elizabeth Bishop’s bedroom, Great Village, Nova Scotia

These rooms and views, the detail of a homeplace, as it might be termed in Ulster, were to enter her poems and prose. (My spellcheck doesn’t like the word ‘homeplace’ and keeps changing it to ‘someplace’.) In an unpublished poem called “A Short, Slow Life”, Elizabeth describes an almost crofter-like existence:

It was close, it was warm.

Along the dark seam of the river

the houses, the barns, the two churches,

hid like white crumbs

in a fluff of gray willows and elms,


Bishop’s prose memoir “In the Village” recalls her childhood, leading a cow to pasture, all the details of parish pump and local characters. In the poems it is the sea that steps forward, proffering “wave after wave”. “The Moose” describes the Nova Scotia maritime landscape perfectly, its long dull distances determined by the inroads of the sea, its map dotted with “Wilderness Areas”, a cartographer’s nod to how recently this part of the world has been settled by Europeans:

From narrow provinces

of fish and bread and tea,

home of the long tides

where the bay leaves the sea

twice a day and takes

the herrings long rides,


One of her great uncles was a painter of local renown (“Your Uncle George … You know, he was quite famous, an R. A….) and in “Poem” she considers the virtues of ordinariness as a wellspring of art:

Useless and free, it has spent seventy years

as a minor family relic

handed along collaterally to owners

who looked at it sometimes, or didn’t bother to.

One of Uncle George’s paintings, a self-portrait, still hangs in the parlour. Bishop’s “Poem” memorialises “this literal small backwater” and how insignificant the homeplace can be, viewed from a distance, and yet suffused with personal significance, the progenitor of art. She understood the delicate balance in poetry between being true to life and the hallucinatory, the vision, a balance Colm Tóibín compares to Vermeer or to the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi.

… how touching in detail

– the little that we get for free,

the little of our earthly trust. Not much.

About the size of our abidance

along with theirs: the munching cows,

the iris, crisp and shivering, the water

still standing from spring freshets,

the yet-to-be dismantled elms, the geese.


Great Uncle George’s (R. A.) self-portrait



Schwarzenbach’s America

Annemarie Schwarzenbach (1908-1942) was a Swiss writer who visited the United States on two occasions before her untimely death at age 36. Her first visit was in 1936-1937 in company with the American photographer Barbara Wright, with whom she was having an affair. Schwarzenbach’s second visit was shorter, from late May 1940 into 1941, at the beginning of the war, when Paris had already fallen to the Germans.

On Nantucket, 1940

Annemarie Schwarzenbach on Nantucket, 1940.

During that first photo-journalistic trip she observed American labour relations, the effect of Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the conditions of the rural and mining poor in the South and in Pittsburg. Schwarzenbach was reporting on assignment for Swiss papers, among them the National-Zeitung and the Luzerner Tagblatt. Some of Schwarzenbach’s photos are stunning. The pair must have turned heads in the rural and industrial south.


Barbara Wright photographed by Annemarie Schwarzenbach, November-December 1937

But the Swiss reporter’s analysis of American society and economics seems a mirror image of our own troubled times for the poor and the dispossessed. Schwarzenbach was a committed Left-winger, at a time when Europe had swung to the right. Her comments on the labour union politics of John L. Lewis, on sharecropping, on the dearth of social safety nets are particularly interesting eighty years later.

But the pioneering time is over: the West has been won. Social upheaval has taken place and henceforth workers remain workers or join the army of eight million unemployed – the landless farmer, in debt, whose holding has been ravaged by dust storm, erosion and flood, who has lost all hope of owning the land. The middle class remains where it is while a small number of investors form the new aristocracy.


Tuskegee, Alabama, 1937


Negro boys at the port, Charleston, South Carolina, 1937

Negro boys at the port, Charleston, South Carolina, 1937



The Swiss community of Gruetli in Tennessee, photo by Annemarie Schwarzenbach, 1937

During her second American stay in 1940, she met up with her old friends Erica and Klaus Mann in New York. She met the writer Carson McCullers, who fell in love with her. McCuller’s follow-up novel to her Book of the Month The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was Reflections in a Golden Eye, which she dedicated to the striking-looking Schwarzenbach. They met at the Bedford Hotel in New York City.

We agreed to meet the following day for lunch, and fixed a time an hour before I was to leave New York. I had a coffee and she had a glass of milk and a slice of buttered bread, which she left untouched. While she wrote down her address, I noticed her hands trembling and that her handwriting was barely legible. While I spoke, she leaned in with her pale child’s face and fixed her big grey eyes on my lips, as though she was hard of hearing.

carsonattypewriter 3

Carson McCullers, about the time she met Annemarie Schwarzenbach

Schwarzenbach spent the summer on Nantucket and wrote two of her best pieces on the island, where she rented a cabin in Siasconset. The first is a fine description of Nantucket life at the beginning of the war:

And the gardens: unforgettable. They bear no relation to the enormous green expanses of the English lawn, to the geometrical arrangements of Mogul-style gardens in India, or the hanging gardens of Semiramis. They recall most of all the gardens of farmers in the Emmental. But in Emmental there aren’t as many roses as there are on Nantucket. Wild briar roses grow in profusion over picket fences, climbing on the roofs of sea captains’ houses, on barns, farmhouses.


Following this second round of reporting from the United States, she returned to Switzerland and headed off again to Portugal, the Congo and Morocco. But it was in Switzerland, in the Engadin, that she fell off her bicycle and died as a result of injuries, at age thirty-four, in 1942.