Jan Morris is often described as a travel writer, which she isn’t. For one thing she has written biographies and histories, or maybe that should be portraits and epic chronicles; plus memoirs. Also, her ‘travel’ books are not primarily about travelling – not about early morning departures or haggling with guides, or enduring broken-down trains, or enjoying the late afternoon light aboard river steamers. They are about places, and mostly about cities, and the effects that those cities have on us. Morris is an art critic, whose subject matter is the biggest art on the planet. And a social and cultural critic, with the perception of an anthropologist but more sense of fun.
Morris has an eye and a nose for a good city: Venice, Florence, New York and Hong Kong, of course; but also tiny Trieste. It’s a city nestled unpromisingly in the armpit at the top of the Adriatic. Today it is Italian, although encircled by Slovenia, but once it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. When the emperors decided they needed a navy, to reflect their great importance, they selected Trieste as the base for their warships. Equally they made it the port through which their largely land-locked empire could ship its goods. Trieste prospered, and for a while it basked in belle époque grandeur: a small but elegant if rather windy resort for Vienna’s elite. The Austrians encouraged Jews to settle there, to use their merchant skills to make the place rich. The Jews moved in amongst the tightly-packed Slavs and Italians, as did anybody else who happened to come along. Some artists arrived, and novelists too.
In 1904 James Joyce stepped-down from the train in Trieste along with his mistress, Nora Barnacle. He was almost penniless, but intended to earn a living teaching at the Berlitz School. He did so, but alas he spent that living, and more, on entertainments and alcohol and prostitutes, and more alcohol. His brother Stanislaus moved to Trieste to help support him. When war came James and Nora moved to Zurich. Stanislaus remained, and was interned.
While in Zurich Joyce published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and started work on Ulysses. When the war ended, he and Nora returned to Trieste. It is likely that the city drew Joyce back in part because it reminded him of Dublin. Some people think that Leopold Bloom was an inhabitant of Trieste rather than of Dublin. (For one thing, there were not so many Jews in the Irish capital.) Both Trieste and Dublin were port cities on the edge of empire, subject to strong nationalist feelings, and with communities that coexisted, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. Joyce doubtless found Trieste more tolerant, more indulgent, and certainly more cosmopolitan than Dublin. More than that, it sat on the edge of the classical world, the great epic of which, The Odyssey, he was condensing into a single day located back in his home city. Trieste was important to Joyce.
And also important to Morris. She first visited Trieste as a nineteen year-old liberating soldier at the end of the Second World War. Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere was published more than half a century later, in 2001. By then, Morris was a changed person. On the surface the book recounts, in Morris’s characteristically elegant prose (every sentence feels like silk pyjamas against the skin) the unchanging aspects of Trieste (such as the fondness of its people for cats) and also the changes that the city has experienced as its rulers and its fortunes have come and gone. She describes how the hotels became quiet when the Viennese bourgeoisie ceased to visit, and how the Piazza Caserma became the Piazza Oberdan in honour of a local fascist hero. She recounts how the trains that brought the freight to the port for loading onto ships gave way to trains that took away the Jews.
Towards the end of the book Morris writes ‘A city seldom thinks about its own demise’. And gradually we realise that she is writing not only about Trieste but also about her demise, or at any rate her exile from the person she was but more so the world as it used to be. ‘My Trieste has been a place of transients, but dear God we are all transients, and sooner or later we all become out of date’. Not that she is in the least maudlin. Rather is she defiant. ‘Citizens of nowhere unite! Join me in Trieste, your capital, and together we will watch the sun go down… along with Casanova…Joyce and Svevo… a couple of cats… Mahler and Freud and Lord Lucan…’ She writes of those who are exiles from their origins, and says that their natural capital is Trieste, ‘as near to a decent city as you can find’ and the capital of nowhere. Jan Morris is a travel writer after all.
Jan Morris, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, (London, 2001)