Trieste was a place I wanted to visit three decades ago. Accordingly I passed through the city in 1987, after a delightful two weeks in Italy. My dim memory of this very brief visit was that the preferred budget lodging in Trieste was booked; given that I was eager to cross into Yugoslavia, my decision was to keep moving.
In 1987 I’d have known about the Irish expatriate writer James Joyce, but not Ettore Schmitz, a native Triestine who used the pen name Italo Svevo. The story of how these two men met and became friends is the subject of a book I was reading as we were staying in Trieste in 2019.
James Joyce and Italo Svevo: The Story of a Friendship review, by Terence Killeen (Irish Times)
Stanley Price’s book describes how Svevo – real name Ettore Schmitz – gave Joyce Leopold Bloom, and how Joyce gave Svevo fame
The very name of Ettore Schmitz is a testimony to the multicultural nature of the Trieste in which he lived. The Christian name is Italian, the surname is German and the family was Jewish.
His parents had arrived in Trieste in the 1840s, and Ettore (born in 1861) went to a Jewish school there, so his Jewishness adds to the mix of Italian (linguistically), Austrian (by citizenship) and German (by origin) from which he came. In religion he was a nonbelieving Jew who became a nonbelieving Catholic in order to accommodate the anxieties of his wife, Livia Veneziani.
I’d submit that Trieste’s multiculturalism is what makes the city fascinating even today.
Joyce came to Trieste in 1904 to take a job as an English teacher. Svevo was older, known not as a writer, but a businessman who ran his wife’s family manufacturing firm.
This company had developed a secret formula for maritime paint that kept the hulls of ships free from fouling barnacles and rust — at precisely the period prior to WWI when an international naval arms race was under way. In short, Svevo’s company was making money hand over fist, and soon would land its biggest contract yet with the British navy.
Svevo knew he needed to speak better English, engaged Joyce, and so their friendship began as pupil and teacher.
Fairly early in their encounters Schmitz disclosed to Joyce, who he quickly realised was essentially a writer, that he himself was the author of two novels published under a pseudonym, which had sunk without trace. Joyce was most surprised and asked to see them. He told Schmitz how impressed he was with their dark power, thereby encouraging a delighted Schmitz to write again.
Joyce was too obscure at this time to be able to do much to aid his pupil: his efforts to promote him in Triestine literary circles fell on deaf ears. Later, though, when Schmitz produced his masterpiece, La Coscienza di Zeno, Joyce was much better placed to help him, the upshot being that Schmitz, under the name Italo Svevo, is now recognised as a major modern Italian novelist. Both he and Joyce are honoured in Trieste with statues and foundations devoted to them.
Those statues weren’t there in 1987, and I’d have known no better, anyway. In 2019 the writers’ memorials were easy to find, and this time I was mentally prepared for them.
Joyce (and above):
I reread Zeno’s Conscience earlier this year, then Price’s biography of the friendship between Svevo and Joyce. Presently I’m reading Joyce’s first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which he wrote while living in Trieste and during the time the two men became friends.
Taking all these factors together, I’m invigorated.