As the world and his wife, in Joycean terms, turn their attention to Dublin, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the fictional event of Bloomsday, it seems almost as if a lone Irish voice is reminding us that Joyce wrote most of his work outside of Ireland, and in particular a large part of it in the Italian City of Trieste.
Dr. John McCourt, an Irishman who settled in Trieste, and who has worked on Joyce related material for over ten years, has recently published The Years of Bloom: James Joyce in Trieste 1904-1920. He’s at pains to point out, particularly now, as Dublin is taken over by Bloomsday Breakfast parties, that Joyce took a huge amount of influence from the Italian city on the Adriatic. “The received wisdom of it was that Trieste didn’t influence Joyce at all. That was what his brother Stanislaus said, and that was largely what Richard Ellman, and the critics who followed on from him, said. They depicted the Trieste years as very difficult years, years of poverty, of difficulties getting published, and all of that is true, but at the same time the years in Trieste were his richest creative period. It’s the period when he finished Dubliners, wrote all of Portrait of the Artist as a young man, wrote a good deal of Ulysses and planned the rest of the novel, wrote Giacomo Joyce, so they’re very, very creative years, despite the personal problems he had here”.
Joyce famously remarked that if Dublin were razed to the ground Ulysses could be used as a blueprint for rebuilding it, so the emphasis that McCourt wishes to give Trieste may at first seem strange. “I’ve been described by the Irish Times as a ‘Maverick’. But I’m clear to point out that Ireland was Joyce’s primary source. Nobody could challenge that. What I’m pointing out is that Joyce was a little like a vacuum cleaner who sucked up whatever he needed, to write, wherever he was. Trieste was obviously a place where he felt he could write, where he felt he could gather material for his writing”.
And what in particular were the influences and material that he picked up, and for example how is it manifested? “The influence of Trieste is there on all levels. To take one example, the influence of the Jewish culture of Trieste, which is fundamental. Leopold and Molly Bloom owe more to Trieste possibly even than they do to Dublin. They’re both middle-European characters if you like. Leopold has this Hungarian background which corresponds very much to the background of many of the Triestine Jews that Joyce was meeting, and it doesn’t correspond to the type of Jewish background that was typical in Dublin at that time. Joyce is more faithful to what his Triestine friends were telling him, rather than what was going on in Dublin. Also, Trieste, a Mediterranean port, the only one that Joyce knew, becomes a surrogate for Gibraltar for Molly Bloom and her recollections, which she remembers in her monologue. “The Greeks and the Jews and the Arabs and the devil knows whoelse from all the ends of Europe”[Editor’s note Ulysses Molly Bloom’s soliloquy]. She’s talking about Gibraltar, but it could well have been Trieste – the Trieste that Joyce lived in. A cosmopolitan city with people from all over Europe living there. Joyce creates a very European Dublin from Trieste, far more European than Dublin probably was at that time. A far more European Dublin than for example, the dirty, provincial, city of Dubliners.”
How did McCourt come to study and work on Joyce? He was educated at Belvedere College (one of Joyce’s schools) and arrived in Trieste, a deliberate following in Joyce’s footsteps? “(Laughs) Well, I had the good fortune to meet my wife, while I was attending the James Joyce Summer School in U.C.D, and it was for her that I moved to Trieste, not for James Joyce, and that’s important to underline! My first approach to Joyce was in school, in religion class in fact. We did a small course on Joyce and Thomas Merton, two men struggling with problems of faith. Joyce in Portrait of the Artist as a young man, Merton in The Seven Storey Mountain, and that was the first time that I read Joyce at all – it was an important beginning. After moving to Trieste it was a couple of years before I returned to Joyce, and the idea came to me for the book. After living here a couple of years, I began to realise that he couldn’t have lived here for all those years and not have been influenced by the place”.