Thursday, 23 June 2016

The Novel-Machine - Anthony Trollope

In July 1883, eight months after Anthony Trollope’s death, Henry James wrote a long, appreciative, although not uncritical, essay about him. Recalling their meeting on a trans-Atlantic voyage in 1875, when Trollope shut himself up in his cabin every morning to write, James went on to evaluate the work of one of England’s pre-eminent and most prolific novelists. Trollope, he judged, was not on a level with Dickens, Thackeray or George Eliot, but he was “in the same family.” “If he was in any degree a man of genius (and I hold that he was), it was in virtue of this happy, instinctive perception of human varieties.” His great merit was his appreciation of reality and of the behavior of men and women. James concluded (with his typical qualifying note): “Trollope will remain one of the most trustworthy, though not one of the most eloquent, of the writers who have helped the heart of man to know itself.”

Three months later, Trollope’s “Autobiography” (which he had been writing on that memorable voyage) was published, eliciting quite a different response from James. It was, he told a friend, “one of the most curious and amazing books in all literature, for its density, blockishness and general thickness and soddenness.” James was echoing a charge that other critics were beginning to make, that Trollope wrote too much, too quickly, about too many subjects—and for money—to be taken seriously as a novelist.

The “Autobiography” has just been republished in a compact edition by Oxford University Press that includes a small selection of Trollope’s other writings about novelists. It is indeed a curious book, although not in James’s derogatory sense. Many autobiographers make a show of modesty, but Trollope did so more than most, shying away from even dignifying his book as an autobiography. “In writing these pages, which, for want of a better name, I shall be fain to call the autobiography of so insignificant a person as myself, it will not be so much my intention to speak of the little details of my private life, as of what I, and perhaps others round me, have done in literature.”

His opening chapter is replete with the agonizing events of his childhood—a Dickensian saga of the thrashings, cruelties and indignities he suffered at two of England’s famed “public” (which is to say, private) schools, Harrow and Winchester. He was taught nothing and learned nothing, he said, except Latin and Greek. Nor was life at home much better. His mother had left for America when he was 12, with one of his brothers and his two sisters, leaving him alone with his ill-tempered father, a failed barrister. Her return three years later made for somewhat happier days, partly because the earnings from her books (most notably “The Domestic Manners of the Americans” in 1832) contributed much needed funds to the family income. That respite was brief, however. After a little more than two years, financial disaster obliged first the father and then the whole family to flee England and take refuge in Brussels.

It was there, at the age of 19, that Trollope received the offer of a clerkship in the General Post Office, which was the beginning of a long career. After seven unhappy years in London, where he was insubordinate and unpunctual in his work and got into debt, he was sent to Ireland as a surveyor’s clerk, traveling throughout the country, especially the rural areas, to examine the postal system. This, he reported, was “the first good fortune of my life.” He loved the Irish and fox-hunting, which became his favorite pastime. It was also there that he met his wife, dating “the commencement of my better life” to their marriage in 1844. “My marriage,” he wrote, “was like the marriage of other people, and of no special interest to anyone except my wife and me.” What he did find interesting enough to communicate in the “Autobiography” was that she—and only she—read almost everything he wrote before sending it to the publisher.

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Wednesday, 22 June 2016

‘The Transylvanian Trilogy,’ by Miklós Bánffy

Neglected masterpieces aren’t all that unusual (no reading public is perfect), but one that runs to almost 1,500 pages would seem hard to lose sight of. Starting in 1934, Count Miklós Bánffy strapping “Transylvanian Trilogy” was published one book at a time in Hungary, with “great success,” according to Hugh Thomas in his introduction to this handsome two-volume edition. But by the time the third and last book came out in 1940, World War II had broken out, and it couldn’t have been easy to generate interest in fiction set during the run-up to the earlier world war.

A few years later, with Hungary under communist rule, few writers were likelier to be ignored than a nobleman from a family of soldier-diplomats whose income had derived from vast forests in Transylvania, a region that had been something of a poor relation within Hungary (not unlike Hungary itself in the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and now found itself subsumed into Romania. But thanks to the labors of two translators, one of whom is Bánffy’s daughter, “The Transylvania Trilogy” has overleaped barriers of class, language and geopolitical complexity to take its belated place among the great works of 20th-century literature.

In some ways, it’s an old-fashioned novel, with an omniscient narrator and few traces of the modernism spreading through America and Europe — and especially Vienna, the Austro-Hungarian imperial capital — while it was being written. On the other hand, Bánffy took advantage of the new freedom allowed in the treatment of sex and seems to have been well-versed in contemporary psychology. His chief asset, though, is a range that lets him depict nature in luscious detail (early in the Transylvanian spring, “the snows had recently melted on the hillsides and now all the south-facing meadows and slopes looked as if they had just been washed”); evoke a grand party; do justice to parliamentary maneuvering; and maintain control of multiple plots and dozens of characters, including a minor one who makes only a few appearances before performing a great service without taking the reader by surprise. This is a novel written with a 19th-century confidence in layer-cake storytelling, and a 20th-century recognition of sex as a pivotal human motive.

Bánffy’s hero is Count Balint Abady, a wealthy bachelor but not a playboy. Indeed, he embraces the doctrine of noblesse oblige. When a profligate cousin scoffs at the family’s “pride of race,” Balint gives him a thoughtful reply: “Nobody is unselfish. Nobody ever was. But [the Hungarian nobility has] learnt to recognize what is for the public good and to fit it to their own advantage, too. This instinct has been bred into us. . . . It’s not by chance that until now almost every great national leader has sprung from this rank of society, for leaders must know how to lead. Leadership is our responsibility and we should not lightly avoid it until such time as all our people develop some sense of social responsibility themselves.”

Balint doesn’t just mouth these precepts; he lives by them. With some reluctance (he believes he has no gift for politics), he runs for and wins a seat in parliament. But most of his civic energy goes into setting up cooperative forests on which peasants can work to overcome their atomistic poverty. His altruism infuriates vested interests, including regional foresters who exploited the old arrangements, and above all the odious, unctuous Azbej, manager of the Abady estate, who has skimmed off a small fortune over the years and wants to keep at it.

The trilogy’s most enthralling plot line, however, centers on a love affair. Balint is deeply in love with Adrienne Miloth, who unfortunately is already married. She loves him in return, but formidable obstacles lie ahead. Divorce and remarriage are theoretically possible, but Balint’s widowed mother, Countess Roza, won’t hear of this — although Protestants, the Abadys don’t stoop to that sort of thing. Adrienne’s husband comes from a family riddled with insanity. Although he turns a blind eye to his wife’s comings and goings (and may even take kinky pleasure in the thought of her committing adultery), his brutal approach to sex has effectively ruined it for her. As Adrienne and Balint spend more time together, she longs for his touch only to suffer a panic attack whenever he tries to apply it. Candidly but not pruriently, Bánffy shows the couple’s protracted efforts to negotiate these straits.

The third book of the trilogy, “They Were Divided,” proves something of a letdown, as Balint gets more and more enmeshed in Hungary’s baroque politics. The publisher has provided a chronology of relevant historical events, but only the most patient readers will take the trouble to flip back to this. At the same time, the trilogy almost loses sight of its most mesmerizing character, the scheming hypocrite Azbej, who has found a seemingly foolproof way to drive a wedge between Balint and his mother: He keeps on retainer the two maiden ladies who serve as companions to Countess Roza in the remote family castle; they spy for him, pass on gossip about Balint, play upon the countess’s imperious nature — and Balint himself can’t figure out why he and his mother are increasingly at odds.

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Sunday, 19 June 2016

Siddhartha Mukherjee: The Gene: An Intimate History

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History is an extraordinarily riveting book. It is easy to forget you are reading a densely packed account of the gene. There is a phenomenal amount of technical information packed in, with many anecdotes, some personal, inserted judiciously into the narrative.

Across 600-plus pages, Pulitzer Prize winner Mukherjee (The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer) narrates the story of the discovery of genes, the evolution of genetics as a scientific discipline, and the rapid strides this science has made in about a century. Consider this. The term “gene”, coined by the monk Gregor Mendel in the nineteenth century was all but lost for more than six decades, only to be revived in early twentieth century, after which it became a common term.

A few decades later it led to the coining of “genocide” in Nazi Germany.

Half a century later, the helical structure of DNA & RNA was discovered. Two decades later, questions were being raised about the ethics of genetics and tinkering with genes. Yet, recombinant genes were put to use in commercial production for insulin, achieving resounding success. And by 2000, about a century from the time the word “gene” was revived, the Human Genome project was announced.

Pythagoras, Aeschylus and Plato, were convinced that the “likeness” of a human being passed on via the “mobile library” preserved in semen. Aristotle rejected this notion by astutely observing that children can inherit features from their mothers and grandmothers too. The Genedetails the manner in which, over the centuries, people theorised how information was carried across generations without really understanding the mechanism or even having a name for it till Mendel’s experiments with peas and Darwin’s theories.

Mukherjee argues that the resurrection of the term was a watershed moment in the history of genetics, as suddenly there was a concatenation of events that led to furious progress in understanding the gene mechanism – coining the word, understanding the structure, exploring the mechanism, and estimating the potential.

Soon afterwards, the Nazis used this branch of “applied biology” to enable Rassenhygiene or “racial hygiene”, citing genetic theory to justify their policy of Lebensunwertes Leben or “lives unworthy of living” and the establishment of extermination centres such as Hadamar and the Brandenburg State Welfare Institute. Their notion was based on the premise that identity was fixed by genetic make-up.

Curiously enough, another ideological position in existence at the same time in Soviet Russia viewed the principle of heredity as having its basis in complete pliability. In both cases, science was deliberately distorted to support state-sponsored mechanisms of “cleansing”. These twisted applications were overshadowed by rapid advancement in genetics, leading to, inter alia, the discovery of recombinant DNA, which helped create crucial medicines such as insulin, the ability to clone creatures as with Dolly the Sheep.

Not surprisingly, questions began to be asked about the ethical aspects of genetics. These questions feature prominently in Mukherjee’s examination, as he weighs the implications of using genome engineering to “enhance” humans, asking if it’s a good idea.

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Seamus Heaney: Bogland

We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening--
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Encrouching horizon,

Is wooed into the cyclops' eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun.

They've taken the skeleton
Of the Great Irish Elk
Out of the peat, set it up
An astounding crate full of air.

Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
The ground itself is kind, black butter

Melting and opening underfoot,
Missing its last definition
By millions of years.
They'll never dig coal here,

Only the waterlogged trunks
Of great firs, soft as pulp.
Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,

Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomless. 

Saturday, 18 June 2016

The Way We Live Now - Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope’s “great, inestimable merit,” Henry James once wrote, “was a complete appreciation of the usual.” He was right: You won’t find a single uncanny moment in that Victorian author’s 47 novels. Yet reading Trollope in the 21st century can nevertheless be a bit spooky. That’s because seemingly everything that happens today has already been covered in one of his books, albeit in a less technologized form.

An example: Recently, in advance of watching a new adaptation of Trollope’s 1858 novel, Doctor Thorne, I revisited the book. Within a few chapters I came upon an account of a local parliamentary election in the fictional county of Barsetshire, where Trollope’s greatest novels are set. One of the candidates, Sir Roger Scatcherd, is a stonemason turned developer whose fortune has won him a baronetcy despite his coarse, boastful manner and well-earned reputation for drunkenness. During the campaign, someone paints a caricature of him on “sundry walls” about the town of Greshamsbury, pictures in which a laborer “with a pimply, bloated face, was to be seen standing on a railway bank, leaning on a spade holding a bottle in one hand, while he invited a comrade to drink. ‘Come, Jack, shall us have a drop of some’at short?’ ” The working-class voters of the district, “somewhat given to have an opinion of their own,” relish Sir Roger’s rough, plainspoken ways. Still, he has his detractors: As the baronet stands up to make a speech, someone throws a dead cat at him.

I could go on, but the resemblance between particular current events and Trollope’s fiction is like the weather: However much it changes from day to day, in one form or another, it’s always there. His novels amount to a compendium of every recurring pattern of human behavior as observed by a wise, amused, and tenderly exacting deity. He sees all our little self-delusions and vanities, but he loves us just the same. In fact, sometime they make him love us more.

Perhaps it’s the difficulty of filming from such a perspective that makes top-notch movie and TV adaptations of Trollope’s work hard to come by. The new Amazon Prime miniseries based on Doctor Thorne, adapted and hosted by the oleaginous Julian Fellowes, is one of the worst. As Slate’s Willa Paskin has noted, Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, professes to love Trollope and to value the “moral complexity” of his characters, then proceeds to strip all such complexity out of their portrayal. Fellowes’ characters are forever yammering on about how “things are changing” in the class system they inhabit, but the shows themselves cling fetishistically to the past they pretend to critique, sighing over the chandeliers and ogling the ormolu.

This was all very well when, with Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, Fellowes stuck to his own material, but Trollope adaptations are so rare that for him to coat one of the divine Barsetshire novels in his distinctive brand of syrup seems especially unjust. Apart from some well-acted but languidly paced BBC adaptations from the 1970s, in recent years there have been respectable adaptations of The Way We Live Now and He Knew He Was Right, but these are two of Trollope’s more sour works. The Way We Live Now, in both its example and in the ambition suggested by its title, seems to have partially inspired the fat “social novels” of the 1990s, and it got mentioned a lot for its depiction of a Bernie Madoff–style financial scheme when that scandal was in the news. But, as Adam Gopnik noted last year in the New Yorker, The Way We Live Now is not typical: Rather, it’s “the Trollope novel for people who don’t like Trollope novels.”

There have been a lot of them. Trollope was popular in his lifetime, but for much of the 20th century, his fiction suffered critical and scholarly disdain. To the modernists intent on shaking off the conventions of Victorianism, he represented the epitome of that era, his serenely omniscient and ironic third-person narrator the essence of bogus authority. An autobiography published shortly after his death in 1882 revealed that Trollope thought of novel writing as more craft than art, and in James’ words, he “never troubled his head nor clogged his pen with theories about the nature of his business.” He is most famous among writers today for the regimen he described in that book: Rising before dawn and working for three full hours every day, even if that meant finishing one novel and starting the next because the allotted time hadn’t expired. Trollope had a day job with the postal service to get to, after all.

That prosaic approach didn’t jibe with the literary world’s efforts to transform the image of the novel in the 20th century. What had once been seen as a lucrative form of entertainment, produced for mostly middle-class and mostly female readers was recast as the highest pinnacle of the literary arts, the work of inspired geniuses answering the call of the muse rather than the landlord. So in the mid-20th century, the imperious critic F.R. Leavis, a loyal soldier in this project of solemnification, pronounced Trollope’s works as “beneath the realm of significant creative achievement” in terms of “the human awareness they promote, awareness of the possibilities of life.” (It’s no coincidence that the promulgation of this heroic notion of the novelist coincided with the rise of the idea that the greatest of novelists must be men, and even a male novelist like Trollope, with, as James put it, a “feminine” interest in the familiar and ordinary, was dismissed.) By the latter half of the century you could get through an entire undergraduate English program with a heavy emphasis on British literature, as I did, and never once be assigned a Trollope novel.

But a funny thing happened to Trollope on his way to the dustbin of history: His novels acquired an avid, amateur readership. It’s impossible to measure such things, of course, but he seems rivaled only by Jane Austen and Arthur Conan Doyle among 19th-century authors with an active contemporary fan base. The Trollope Society of the U.K. maintains an extensive database of books, quotes, and characters—very useful given that quite a few characters appear in more than one novel. The U.S. branch of the society has paid membership, annual meetings, lectures, and regional reading groups.

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Friday, 17 June 2016

How Borges made ends meet

Nothing is less material than money. . . . Money is abstract, I repeated, money is future time. It can be an evening in the suburbs, it can be the music of Brahms, it can be maps, it can be chess, it can be coffee, it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold. Money is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the island of Pharos.
—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Zahir”

I fell in love with Jorge Luis Borges when I was a freshman in college. That year, full of hope and confusion, I left my hometown for the manicured quads of Brown University, desperately seeking culture—art, beauty, and meaning beyond the empty narrative of wealth building that consumes our world. It is easy to look back and see why Borges spoke to me. The Argentine fabulist’s short stories were like beautiful mind-altering crystals, each one an Escheresque maze that toyed with our realities—time, space, honor, death—as mere constructs, nothing more. With the beautiful prose of a poet-translator-scholar, he could even make money seem like mere fantasy. It was precisely the narrative someone like me might want.

Yet, money is real. We live and die by the coin. Money tells us how many children we can raise and what kind of future they can afford, how many of our 78.7 years must be sold off in servitude, and what politics we will have the luxury of voicing. As a college freshman, I still knew none of this, and I had the luxury of not thinking about money. These days, it seems all but inescapable.

I am still full of hope and confusion, but at 35, practically nothing concerns me more than the coin, a metonymic symbol representing my helplessness. The coin represents this desperate need to support myself and my writing when, in the very near future, I start a family. My mind has changed; all my journal entries turn into to-do lists and career strategizing. Money, planning, and money. I think of little else.

It was money that originally led me to Borges—the leisure bought by college tuition. Ironically, it is money that now brings me back to him. At the doorstep to middle age, I find myself wondering: How did this literary master finance his writing? “I take no interest whatsoever . . . in money making,” he once said, “[it is] alien to me.” In truth, Borges is one of my artistic heroes because he was so benevolently and self-effacingly un-capitalist; naturally gentle and almost monastic in his devotion to literature, he was the quintessential model of the purely literary mind.

Recently, I discovered a new story of Borges. Buried deep in an early paperback edition of The Aleph and Other Stories, Borges authored an “Autobiographical Essay” of his (then) 71 years—originally appearing as a 1970 New Yorker profile. This translation of the book is now out of print, but in its yellowed pages, the revealing 50-page essay touches on money often. As any life does.

At first glance, Borges’ financial life does not seem at all imitable. Stacking all the financial events of Borges’ timeline together presents an overwhelming picture of privilege: a supportive family, superior education, no children to support, and no wife until his late sixties. Yet, in Borges’ charmed financial life, there also exists an unexpected paradox.

This was to be expected, if you’re familiar with Borges. The writer’s cryptic detective tales have charmed and perplexed everyone from Susan Sontag to Karl Rove, and in the end, very little about Borges is straightforward. The creation of one of his first short stories, “Pierre Menard,” was the result of a very O. Henry-esque near-fatal accident one Christmas Eve. Likewise, the coin for Borges was both curse and catalyst to his fiction.

The role of money plays a two-sided role in Borges’ artistic life. On one side of the coin’s face, Borges was blessed with the most privileged, ideal life for a burgeoning literary genius. Educated in Europe, raised by his father to become a serious writer, Borges devoted his entire life to literature. He did not take a full-time job for nearly 40 years. But on the coin’s reverse side, we see that young Georgie Borges did not actually write his great fictions until after his family lost their money. For anyone who has struggled to make writing pay, Borges’ financial story is a perplexing—yet utterly hopeful—case to consider. The Patron Years 1899–1937

Borges was born in 1899 in Buenos Aires, to what he called a middle class family. Yet, this seems disingenuous; to be born into a family like this would be any artist’s dream. The Borges family tree was teeming with intellectuals and respected leaders. Though he said his family lived amongst “shabby, genteel” people, they were certainly upwardly mobile. One relative “presided” over Congress, others had published books and earned PhDs, and still others were famous military heroes—a Colonel, a Commander-in-Chief. His paternal grandmother, a Brit, had made the long voyage from England and had married one of these powerful men.

Young Georgie Borges grew up, he said, in a rough part of town, but these slums he barely saw, living mainly indoors. Frail, nearsighted, and bookish, Georgie had no childhood friends to speak of. Instead, he and his sister invented imaginary friends called Quilos and the Windmill. He filled his days with the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Quixote, and the stories told by his family. “If I were asked to name the chief event in my life, I should say my father’s library,” he wrote. “I can still picture it.”

Growing up in this insular home, it is easy to see how Borges became the beatific elder pictured on his book jackets. He may have been born that way. His grandmother, a great reader of H.G. Wells, apologized to her family on her deathbed for taking so long to die. His father was so modest—he told Georgie that he would have liked to be Wells’ invisible man. Betraying his own naïveté and trust, Borges wrote of his father, he was “very intelligent and, like all intelligent men, very kind.” That there are intelligent men on this earth who are not at all kind, Borges was too noble-minded to admit.

Several financial conditions were met that allowed Borges to love literature. First, his father was a lawyer and teacher with the extra money to furnish a large library. Georgie’s father’s reading interests included Shelley, Keats, metaphysics, psychology, the East, and the paradoxes of Zeno. Borges’ mother was also well-educated, and Borges admits it was she, in fact, who would go on to produce translations of Melville, Woolf, and Faulkner that bore his name. Often, it seems that writers need a certain degree of bullheadishness to pursue writing, but although Borges may have been spoiled, he was such a meek young man that he himself did not even choose the path of a writer.

Though he had his children home-schooled, Senior Borges said that it was children who educate their parents. An anarchist, he once told his son to look long and hard at soldiers, flags, and churches, because one day, they would all disappear. Like his father, Borges would become blind after the age of 40, and would destroy some of his own books. One book Senior Borges burned was a drama about a man’s disappointment in his son, and one wonders if this is autobiographical, and if so, whether it pertains to his own father or young Georgie.

Borges’ mother was a good Catholic woman who always thought the best of people, and Borges would live with her—and be tended to by her—for the rest of his life. Though Borges does not mention Leonor often, it is easy to feel her in every paragraph of his autobiography, tending to his needs, typing his essays, traveling to Texas with him for a visiting professorship, reading to him when he is delirious from illness, handling all the worldly concerns he will be free to ignore. “It was she,” he wrote, “though I never gave a thought to it at the time, who quietly and effectively fostered my literary career.”

The family summered south of the city on a grand property, a villa where he spent lazy holidays—with several houses, a windmill, and iron fences. He was amazed when the gauchos took him out on horseback to the pampas, as though he had entered the thrilling adventures of Martín Fierro. One summer there, Borges’ mother gave a doll to a farmhand’s daughter where they were staying. A year later, when she called on him, she found the girl’s father nailed to the wall. To him, it was as precious as a religious icon, clearly too fine a thing for the little girl to ever hold. He thanked Senora Borges profusely, “What a delight the doll has been to her!” In contrast, Borges began writing Quixotesque stories when he was six. When he was eight or nine, he published a translation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” in El País newspaper. He started school around that time, where he was mercilessly bullied for his round glasses, stiff collar, and tie. When he was 15, Borges’ family moved to Geneva so his father could get treatment from a famous eye doctor. Their Argentine currency stretched longer in Europe, he said, and so they stayed, traveling to Verona and Venice on vacation. They sent young Georgie to study Latin, French, and algebra at the College of Geneva, a day school founded in the 16th century by John Calvin, for whom Calvinism was named. He had to take all his subjects in French, and luckily, his teachers and fellow students took pity on him for his struggles with the language. Here, he made his first friends, two boys of Polish-Jewish descent, with whom he enjoyed losing at trucocards. Often, it seems that writers need a certain degree of bullheadishness to pursue writing, but although Borges may have been spoiled, he was such a meek young man that he himself did not even choose the path of a writer. Instead, Borges’ vocation was picked out for him by his parents. By now, the elder Borges could barely read the contracts he was preparing, and his work on his novel slowed. “It was tacitly understood,” Borges said, “that I had to fulfill the literary destiny that circumstances had denied my father. . . . I was expected to be a writer.” While the First World War raged in France, Borges dutifully studied German and read Expressionist poetry, Walt Whitman, and Dante. In his spare time, he learned German in order to readSartor Resartus in the original. Fulfilling his destiny, young Georgie began to write poetry.

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Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Thinking God Knows What: James Joyce and Trieste

January 15, 1941 dawned as a bleak, cold, snow day in Zurich, Switzerland. A scantily attended funeral procession made its way from the Fluntern Cemetery chapel to the burial plot. In the chapel, the few attending dignitaries had made their funeral speeches: Lord Derwent, the British Minister at the Legation in Zurich, University of Zurich English professor Heinrich Straumann, poet Max Geilinger, and Swiss tenor Max Meili, who sang the aria Addio terra, addio ciel (Goodbye earth, goodbye sky) from Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. As the deceased had not liked flowers, there were none – only a green plant and a wreath with a lyre, the symbol of Ireland woven into it. When the coffin holding the earthly remains of Irish novelist James Joyce was being lowered into the grave, his wife Nora stretched out her arms to say goodbye; an old man going by asked the undertaker who was being buried and was told “Herr Joyce.” The man was a little deaf and asked again. The undertaker shouted: “Herr Joyce!
Ireland, where James was born, was not represented at the funeral. Irish president Eamon de Valera, after inquiring whether Joyce had died a Catholic and being informed to the contrary, had ordered that no Irish diplomatic official be present.
Ironically, in May 2002 the granddaughter of the late President de Valera, Irish Minister of Arts and Heritage Síle de Valera stepped off the government jet in Dublin carrying a suitcase containing about 500 pages of Joyce’s original early drafts of parts of Ulysses and some of the corrected proofs of Finnegans Wake. The Irish Government had purchased the papers in Paris from Alexis Leon, whose father Paul had rescued them from the Joyce apartment in Paris, where they were in danger of being auctioned off by the landlord who had not been paid before the Joyces left Paris for Zurich, or in peril of being looted by the occupying Nazis. The papers for which the government had paid €12.6 million (about $15.5 million), were destined to the Irish National Library and the proud minister, on stepping on Irish soil, declared that the return of the papers home was a “monumental event in Ireland’s literary and cultural history.”
Joyce had abandoned his beloved Dublin for Paris first, then for Zurich, where he had been promised a language instructor position. When this mirage evaporated, he went to Trieste, and from there to Pola (now Pula, Croatia), where he taught English at the local branch of the Berlitz Language School. Joyce, who was accompanied by his lover Nora Barnacle, did not stay long in Pola, but returned to Trieste, a larger more cosmopolitan city and the major port for the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. He lived there from 1904 to 1915, returning briefly in 1919-20, after the end of World War I.
Joyce’s affinity with Italy and Italian went back to 1894, when he was twelve and required proficiency in a third foreign language for admission to Dublin’s Belvedere College. He already knew French and Latin, and as he later wrote to a friend, “ My father wanted me to take Greek, my mother German, and my friends Irish. Result I took Italian.” At University College, he continued his study of Italian and of Dante and D’Annunzio with Father Carlo Ghezzi and became known to his friends as “Dublin’s Dante.” Although at one point he was in danger of flunking his Italian exams, his intimate knowledge of the works of Gabriele D’Annunzio impressed his examiners and he passed with high grades.
Even before graduating from University College, Joyce decided he wanted to be a doctor and in April 1902 registered to attend medical school in Dublin. In October 1902, he began medical studies and met poet and dramatist Yeats, who recognized the younger man’s literary talent and recommended his writing to several literary reivews. Irish Dramatist Isabella Augusta Persse, known as Lady Gregory also helped him both with money, encouragement, and advice.
Medical school in Dublin did not appeal to Joyce. He decided to go to school in Paris and, with money provided by friends and acquaintances, he left Ireland in December 1902. Although he had applied for admission to medical school in Paris, he had left Dublin before he knew whether he had been admitted and spent a month there before returning to Dublin for the holidays. On January 13, 1903 he took off again for Paris, where he had been provisionally admitted to medical school. However, he had again changed his mind and spent time in literary pursuits, attending the opera, and engaging in discussions in the many cafés. While in Paris, he also became acquainted with fellow Irish protégés of Yeats, poet and playwright John Millington Singe and critic and poet Arthur W. Symons.
In April 1903, he received a telegram from his father that his mother was seriously sick with cancer, and he left Paris and hastened back to Dublin. His mother got progressively worse and died on August 13,1903.
In 1904, with the assistance of poet and editor George W. Russell, Joyce placed three stories, later to appear in Dubliners, in the Irish Homestead; he was, however getting discouraged with what he considered the small-town atmosphere of Dublin and started thinking about going abroad. Through a Mrs. Gilford, whom he had paid to start a job search on his behalf, he was told that the Berlitz School of Languages had vacancies both in London and in Amsterdam, but he was not interested in jobs in those cities. He really wanted to return to Paris, and started pestering his various supporters for money for the fare. Mrs. Gilford then informed him that she had located another language teacher opening in Zurich and on October 6, he and Nora started on their adventure. They did not embark on the boat going to England together, and only a few friends but no one in their respective families knew they were eloping.
From London, they proceeded to Paris and again Joyce called on acquaintances for money to get to Zurich, where they arrived on October 11. Alas, the Berlitz School had no openings, but its director thought an opening was available in Trieste, then part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.
Joyce and Nora were thus again on the move and, after getting off the train in Ljubljana (Slovenia) by mistake, reboarded it and arrived in Trieste on the night of October 20, 1904. Leaving Nora on a bench in the square facing the train station, Joyce went to seek temporary lodgings but did not return until morning. While scouting for a pensione, he met three drunken English sailors who were getting arrested for disorderly conduct, tried to intercede and translate on their behalf and ended up in jail with them until the British consul, highly suspicious of Joyce’s story, got him released. Joyce biographer John McCourt writes:
… as soon as he was released Joyce hurried back to a worried Nora, whom he had left alone and penniless with their paltry luggage in a strange park in a foreign city where few people would have understood a word she said. The only thing that might have cheered her was the pleasant weather: the temperature was a balmy twenty degrees by lunchtime. Together they set off and found accommodation in the Hotel Central where they spent a few nights before moving to a room on the Piazza Ponterosso…
When Joyce checked at the Berlitz School, the deputy director Giuseppe Bertelli informed him that they had no openings, but that the owner of the school Almidano Artifoni (Joyce later gave Artifoni’s name to Stephen’s voice teacher in Ulysses) was opening a new Berlitz school in the city of Pola and might have a position for him there. Pola, a city 58 miles to the east of Trieste on the Istrian peninsula was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s main naval base. When Artifoni returned from Pola, he interviewed Joyce and offered him a position in the new school he was opening. He then set off again for Pola, and put an advertisement in Il Giornaletto di Pola, announcing the arrival of the new college graduate, native speaker, teacher of English.
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