Trieste, Italy, is on the uneasy border where northern Italy flares out to touch Yugoslavia, with Austria hanging just above it like a storm cloud. It was James Joyce’s favorite city. I went there in 1983 to see what 500 years of Hapsburg rule (until 1918) on top of Italian rule had produced. Unexpectedly, it proved to be more interesting as Joyce’s city.
More than Dublin, which Joyce immortalized in Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, more than Zurich, where he is buried, more than Paris where he wrote Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, Trieste claims James Joyce.
“Where did Joyce live?” I idly asked a clerk in the tourist office, and suddenly she came to life.
“He lived all over,” the clerk said, laughing. “Joyce moved constantly, whenever the rent was due.” She spoke as though he were a current city character and handed me a slip of paper with a phone number. “Ask this man about him.”
Stello Crise, a librarian, writer and leader of the city’s intellectual circle, was not well and politely handed me off to Letitia Schmitz Fonda-Savio, one of Joyce’s pupils, and urged me to get a copy of the Feb. 2, daily Il Piccolo because it had four pages devoted to Joyce’s centenary celebration. Joyce, I discovered, wrote for the paper, and had cards printed describing himself as a journalist and used these business cards to work free passage on trains and channel steamers.
Sra Fonda-Savio, now a vital 60 or 70-year-old had studied English with Joyce both in Trieste and, later in Zurich. She lived in an old, high-ceilinged apartment in the fashionable west side of town, one of those urbane European women forever ageless with an aura of politesse and intellect that is true beauty.
Her father, Ettore Schmitz, had hired James Joyce as an English teacher because he had worked at the Berlitz language school and was then tutoring many wealthy Triestine families (and borrowing money from all of them). Schmitz owned a thriving paint business and felt he needed English to expand it. The school room was in the paint factory on the outskirts of Trieste, and the lessons were given three times a week.
Almost at once the whole Schmitz family, Ettore, his wife, Livia and Lettitia, became involved in the lessons and it changed their lives. “At the very first lesson, Joyce told us he was a writer.” Sra Fonda-Savio said.
“And not long after that he brought along a story (“The Dead”) from Dubliners and showed it to my parents. My mother was so moved by it she went into our garden, nearby and gathered a bunch of roses for Joyce.” Schmitz, who had quietly written two books under the pseudonym Italo Svevo and been ignored by Italian critics, now summoned the courage to show them to his teacher.
Joyce read them rapidly and told Schmitz he was a neglected writer, suggesting English and French critics to whom the books should be sent.
Svevo’s (Schmitz’s) work was almost immediately recognized internationally and Schmitz happily started to write again. As before his new book received no recognition from Italian critics and once more Joyce took it up as a cause, telling Schmitz this was his best work and writing two French critics and telling them that the only modern Italian author who interests me is Italo Svevo.
It occurred to me later that by helping Schmitz sell his books, Joyce made an eternally grateful friend from whom he could borrow money at will, but I have no proof of that.
“When Joyce was able to direct attention to my father’s last book, Senilita which became As a Man Grows Older, in the English translation, Father said his English teacher had made the miracle of Lazarus for him,” Sra Fonda-Savio told me. “Joyce sang in our house,” the Signora said, “old Italian songs. Italian is the best language for music, he told us.”
Joyce maintained his friendship with the family until Schmitz was killed in a car accident in 1928. Sra Fonda-Savio has the correspondence wrapped in blue tissue paper in huge manila folders which she let me look through.
As his eyesight began to fail from increasing bouts of irritus, Joyce’s handwriting became smaller and more difficult to read. He always wrote to the Schmitz in the Triestine dialect. According to Sra Fonda-Savio, the Joyces also spoke this dialect at home wherever they lived. But when his eyesight got so bad he couldn’t write, Joyce had his daughter, Lucia, write for him, and these letters are in English.
Lucia, who developed schizophrenia and died in an English nursing home, had a remarkable drawing talent. She illustrated a number of books, one of which was a gift to the Schmitz. The book, with other personal belongings, was destroyed when their home was bombed and burned during the war.
The two families became more to each other than students and teacher. Sra Fonda-Savio said she visited the Joyces in Trieste and, during the war, in Zurich, sometimes for lessons and sometimes just socially. She remembers Nora Barnacle, Joyce’s wife, as beautiful despite bad teeth (photos always show her with her mouth shut).
“She never understood his work, either,” Fonda-Savio said with some distaste.
During one visit the Signora found Nora Barnacle in a rage. Joyce had ordered eight new chairs without discussing finances. A man came to the door, delivered them and then Nora asked: “How are we to pay for these?” Sra Fonda-Savio said that Joyce didn’t reply, but sat in one, leaned an arm on two others and put his feet up on a fourth.
Nora was as responsible for their constant financial plight as Joyce, according to Sra Fonda-Savio. She wasn’t a good manager. As he began to put together Ulysses in his mind, Joyce often consulted Schmitz for the character of Leopold Bloom.
“‘If I ask you this and that, he would say to my father, what would you answer?’ Schmitz realized he was supplying material for a novel, but found it irritating, all the same. ‘Tell me some secrets about Irishmen,’ he once asked Stanislaus Joyce. ‘You know your brother has been asking me so many questions about Jews that I want to get even with him.'”
If bringing Schmitz’s work recognition was a Lazarus miracle, what Joyce created for Livia Venezia Schmitz was a kind of immortality. Her hair became the symbol for the River Liffey and her name, Livia, became the Anna Livia Plurabelle of Finnegan’s Wake.
In a letter to Schmitz on February, 1924, Joyce explains. “Ask her, however, not to take up arms, either of steel or fire, since the person involved in the Pyrrha of Ireland (or rather of Dublin) whose hair is the river beside which (her name is Anna Liffey) the seventh city of Christianity springs up . . .”
In a letter to an Italian journalist Joyce wrote, “They say I have immortalized Svevo, but I’ve also immortalized the tresses of Signora Svevo. These are long and reddish-blond. My sister who used to see them let down told me about them. There is a river near Dublin which passes dye-houses and its waters are reddish, so I’ve enjoyed comparing these two things in the book I’m writing. A lady in it will have the tresses which are really Signora Svevo’s.”
Sra Schmitz changed her name legally to Svevo after her husband was killed by a car and in 1930, Joyce wrote her saying, “Dear Signora, I have at least finished finishing my book. For three lustra I have been combing and recombing the locks of Anna Livia. It is now time that she tread the boards. I hope that Bernice will intercede for her little sister so that she may find in this vast world, thanks to the gods . . . ”
During the war, Joyce found sanctuary in Zurich and Letitia Fonda-Savio spent some time there taking more English lessons. Frequently he used literature as a lesson, but occasionally they discussed Swiss politics and always ended up quarreling because Joyce hated the English and she was sympathetic to Italy.
Sra Fonda-Savio was the active president of a new political party in Trieste called Lista Patriasa, when I interviewed her. She said the name meant wishes only good for Trieste. She spoke excellent English without a trace of an Irish accent, read Ulysses in English and when asked to sum up her important teacher she replied, “Joyce was finding a new language. Because he was a musician, when he spoke it was musical.”
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