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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