ON THE AVENUES: Trieste, New Albany and the meaning of nowhere.


“Melancholy is Trieste’s chief rapture. In almost everything I read about this city, by writers down the centuries, melancholy is evoked. It is not a stabbing sort of disconsolation, the sort that makes you pine for death (Although Trieste’s suicide rate, as a matter of fact, is notoriously high.) In my own experience it is more like our Welsh hiraeth, expressing itself in bitter-sweetness and a yearning for we know not what.”
— Jan Morris

Somewhere around 17 or 18 years ago I read Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, “a meditation on the crossroads city of Trieste” by the Welsh journalist and writer Jan Morris (born in 1926 and still very much with us).

Trieste is an Italian city bordering Croatia and Slovenia, on a finger of land on the northern shores of the Adriatic Sea. Once, it rivaled Hong Kong as a great commercial port, a crucial outpost of the Hapsburg Empire where Italians, Slavs, and Austrians met to do business. Trieste’s cosmopolitan character kept it from being dominated by any one religion. The city is pleasant visually, but was too commercial ever to become a center for art or architecture. Morris argues, in essence, that Trieste is a good place but not a great one: the food is excellent but not ethnically distinct, and the people themselves are gravely courteous, but undistinguished. Trieste is almost nationless, thus its appeal to exiles like Morris, who has traveled the world in search of an identity.

The key words for me are cosmopolitan, nationless, exiles and identity.

Actually I’d been in Trieste once, very briefly, passing through the city from points west in route to Slovenia, then a constituent element of communist Yugoslavia. I allowed nowhere near enough time in Trieste to indulge my quirky Hapsburg fetish, evidently so eager to cross the border to Ljubljana that I didn’t take a single photograph.

Perhaps I purchased Morris’ book fifteen years later as a form of exculpatory penance, or some type of rearview mirror perspective. I can’t really comment because quite little from the book lodged in my memory, perhaps because I drank quite a lot back then.

Consequently I’ve just finished rereading it, which is something I seldom do. Self-interest is my primary rationale, seeing as we’ll be visiting Trieste in November, but at the same time a determined Europhile’s work is never done. Happily, significant portions of the narrative came back to me during the second reading.

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere pleases and instructs both as meditation and memoir. Morris first came to Trieste in the Queen’s service at the end of WWII and became enamored of the area. She wrote the book while in her eighth decade, taking stock of the city’s changing fortunes; what Trieste had meant to her, and how both writer and city had aged, changed and in some cases stayed the same.

The book is history, travelogue and social commentary all at once, canvassing Illyrians, Austrians, Italians, Slovenes and Jews; long-term expatriate resident James Joyce’s fondness for whorehouses and ill-fated Emperor Maximilian’s unfortunate career choice in Mexico; Karst limestone topography, native Bora winds, the Glagolitic (old Slavic) alphabet and young Sigmund Freud’s failure to determine how eels copulate; mediocre opera, excellent coffee and various movable landmarks; and not to exclude robust viewpoints about racism and nationalism (unsurprisingly she’s decidedly against them).

Morris herself offers a summary.

“There are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, or a diaspora of their own. They are the lordly ones. They come in all colours. They can be Christians or Hindus or Muslims or Jews or pagans or atheists. They can be young or old, men or women, soldiers or pacifists, rich or poor. They may be patriots, but are never chauvinists. They share with each other, across all the nations, common values of humour and understanding. When you are among them you will not be mocked or resented, because they will not care about your race, your faith, your sex or your nationality, and they suffer fools if not gladly, at least sympathetically. They laugh easily. They are easily grateful. They are never mean. They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion or political correctness. They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if they only knew it. It is the nation of nowhere, and I have come to believe that its natural capital is Trieste.”

That’s incredible. Morris has not ever visited New Albany, and yet she knows exactly what it feels like to exist here amid the reign of the mediocre charlatans.

The city of Trieste and its many faces through the years obviously move the aging author deeply, as informed by her personal experiences, and this is why a 25-year-old simply cannot write a book like this. Youth is capable of combustion, stamina and other great feats, but it cannot conjure elegiac prose like this, finely book-ended with melancholy on one side and and as-yet undiminished joy for living on the other.

Threading this expository needle can be done only with age and accumulated wisdom, and in like fashion I read Morris’ book the first time when I was in my early forties, still far too green to grasp it. Now at (almost) 59 years of age the tone cuts deeper. As an example, Morris as veteran travel writer confides that she has undertaken to look at Trieste in the same way she’d look into a mirror, which is what travel is all about in the first place.

Morris quotes Wallace Stevens.

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw

Or heard or felt came not but from myself

So it has been, with her and with me. She then returns to the concept of exile, applying it to our journey into old age.

For years I felt myself an exile from normality, and now I feel myself one of those exiles from time. The past is a foreign country, but so is old age, and as you enter it you feel you are treading unknown territory, leaving your own land behind. You’ve never been here before. The clothes people wear, the idioms they use, their pronunciation, their assumptions, tastes, humours, loyalties all become the more alien the older you get. The countryside changes. The policeman are children. Even hypochondria, the Trieste disease, is not what it was, for that interesting pain in the ear-lobe may not now be imaginary at all, but some obscure senile reality.

Chronologically a mere fifteen years separate me from Morris’s age at the time she wrote Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, and yet at no point in my life have I felt emotions like these as keenly, whether pertaining to mirrors, exile, melancholy, uncertainty or plain bewilderment about why I’m here and what it’s all supposed to mean.

It’s actually not a debilitating frame of mine, just introspective. My head is clear, and there has been no temptation to climb back into multiple bottles. Yet the Welsh concept of hiraeth, this bittersweet yearning for an indefinable something referenced by Morris, nips constantly these days at my conscious existence.

Round and round we go, and where it stops — well, we already know.

Only as a postscript, here’s a bit more about Jan Morris. Perhaps she knows better than most of us what the search for self-identity really means.

Jan Morris, CBE, FRSL (born 2 October 1926) is a Welsh historian, author and travel writer. She is known particularly for the Pax Britannica trilogy (1968–1978), a history of the British Empire, and for portraits of cities, notably Oxford, Venice, Trieste, Hong Kong, and New York City. A trans woman, she was published under her birth name, James, until 1972, when she had sex reassignment after transitioning from living as male to living as female.

Morris has joked that in spite of a successful career in journalism and dozens of books, her obituaries will be headlined “Sex-change author dies.” Wikipedia continues:

In 1949, Morris married Elizabeth Tuckniss, the daughter of a tea planter; they had five children together, including the poet and musician Twm Morys. One of their children died in infancy. Morris began a sex change in 1964. In 1972, Morris travelled to Morocco to undergo sex reassignment surgery, performed by surgeon Georges Burou, because doctors in Britain refused to allow the procedure unless Morris and Tuckniss divorced, something Morris was not prepared to do at the time. They divorced later, but remained together and on 14 May 2008 were legally reunited when they formally entered into a civil partnership. Morris detailed her transition in Conundrum (1974), her first book under her new name, and one of the first autobiographies to discuss a personal gender reassignment.

Tuckniss,now suffering from dementia, has said that she always knew about Jan, even when Jan was James; it was merely something to be gotten through together. The raw power of a 70-year-long love story like this has even am inveterate Grinch like me reaching for the hankies when he reads the last line.

At the same time that Jan was transitioning from male to female, she was also moving from being thoroughly English (Oxford, the army, the Times) to thoroughly Welsh. Jan and Elizabeth bought a big house in the far north-west of Wales, where they still live, and Jan began to embrace a Welsh republicanism that has become one of the great passions of her life. When Jan and Elizabeth die, they will be buried together on an island in a stream near their home, beneath a stone bearing an inscription in both English and Welsh that says: “Here lie two friends, at the end of one life.”

“Here lie two friends, at the end of one life.”

We should all be as fortunate.

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