Book Review: The Years of Bloom, by John McCourt

Irish novelist James Joyce may have been born in Dublin, but it is clear from John McCourt’s biography, that he came of age on the Adriatic

Joyce at the time of “Ulysses”

A Dubliner in Trieste

Today, walking through the sleepy streets of Trieste, it is hard to imagine the city James Joyce lived in for a dozen years at the turn of the 20th Century. It was then the fourth largest seaport in Europe, the hub of trade from the lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a major connection point between Europe and Asia. According to travel writer Jan Morris, the first commercial vessel to sail through the Suez Canal in the 1860s was the steam ship Primo of Trieste.

It was a kind of Little Vienna on the Adriatic, much of it built by the same Imperial architects, with Imperial statuary and fountains and Imperial street signs. And like Vienna, it was a center of European cosmopolitanism – Austrians, Italians, Slovenes, Croats and many others, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-faith, bound together by Imperial discipline.

“When they sang the Emperor’s Hymn,” wrote Morris, “proud loyalists of Trieste sang it in at least three of the ten languages into which the lyric had been officially translated.”

So it is this Trieste in the waning years of the Habsburg Empire that is brought to life in John McCourt’s The Years of Bloom: James Joyce in Trieste, 1904-1920, a detailed and highly readable biography of Joyce’s early career. Here, we discover he met the many Jews who provided much of the material for the character of Leopold Bloom. He also encountered what was for him a whole new world of continental philosophy and the complex stew of political and artistic forces that shaped his thought. With all the libraries of scholarship, McCourt easily convinces us that an essential formative chapter in Joyce’s literary coming of age had been largely overlooked.

His second volume, James Joyce: a Passionate Exile, is in effect a companion to the first, a richly detailed book of photographs and narrative of Joyce’s world away from his roots. Place was, McCourt argues, hardly incidental for Joyce, and the unnamed and unacknowledged polyglot streets of Trieste, with its Canal Grande, are as much part of the master’s work as Dublin by the Liffey.

Joyce liked walking around Trieste polishing sentences in his head, Morris tells us in her fine literary portrait of the city, Trieste, the Meaning of Nowhere. The café and tavern life amid the genteel jumble of cultures appealed to him, the architecture – especially the churches – inspired him, and he wandered the streets stopping in here and there to talk and drink with surprisingly wide circle of friends in a secure K.-u.-K. (the Kaiserliche und Königliche – Imperial and Royal) world he found “charming and gay”. He may not have been entirely at home there, as he also wrote the play Exiles in Trieste.

Perhaps, Morris suggests, it was because his young Irish wife Nora was bored there; “One can’t live only for the sun and the blue Mediterranean Sea,” she complained.

But on the whole, Trieste worked for Joyce, who wrote all of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and most of the Dubliners there. He also conceived much of Ulysses in Trieste, finding many of the characters and settings he later moved to Dublin. This was a charmed time, for both him and the city, and when he later returned, briefly, after the war, he found the magic gone; he left after a few months and never returned.

Walking these same streets, McCourt, a transplanted Dubliner himself who teaches at the University of Trieste, is able to identify places and incidents of Trieste that have been molded into important sections of Ulysses.

Laboring in relative obscurity, McCourt tells us, Joyce struggled not only with Leopold Bloom, but also with timid publishers who balked when it came to releasing Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist. Examining material that has been previously overlooked or unavailable deepens our appreciation of Trieste both as a crossroads of cultures and as a profound influence on Joyce’s thinking and writing.

Joyce may have been born in Dublin, but from reading McCourt’s fine biography, it is clear that it was in Trieste that he came of age as a writer.

Those interested in Joyce’s Trieste years may also find the film Nora of interest, made in 2000 and starring Ewan McGregor and Susan Lynch.


Books included in this review:

The Years of Bloom: James Joyce in Trieste, 1904-1920
James Joyce: A Passionate Exile
by John McCourt

Trieste, the Meaning of Nowhere
by Jan Morris

For more on James Joyce and the annual Bloomsday celebration, see here.

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