The Friendship That Inspired Ulysses

As a child, I spent several summers in a seaside house that my grandparents rented in the shadow of the Joyce Tower at Sandycove, County Dublin. Aged about eight, I asked my father why the tower was named after a girl. Joyce was no girl, he told me, but a great Irish writer who had stayed there briefly in 1904. I was told that the hero of his book Ulysses was Leopold Bloom, a Dublin Jew. Because my family were Dublin Jews, and Bloom was basically a good man and famous, they were very proud of him.  There was much speculation in that small Jewish community as to whose father or grandfather was the model for Bloom. When I finally came to read the novel, I suspected that few, if any, of that generation of Irish Jews had actually read the entire book, even if they had managed to get hold of a copy. If they really knew what Bloom had got up to, they would not have been so proud. He had married out of the faith—to a Catholic, he adored pork kidneys, lusted after other women and had been to a brothel in Nighttown, though he didn’t actually avail himself of the facilities. Perhaps, worst of all, he was, by his own admission, not circumcised.

I discovered the genuine model for Bloom only many years later when I read Italo Svevo’s The Confessions of Zeno, one of the 20th century’s great comic novels.  Like Ulysses, it was a book well ahead of its time, and was only published after many setbacks. I learned more about Svevo and discovered that Leopold Bloom was modelled—inspired is probably a better word—not by a Dublin Jew, but by a Triestine one.

In the first half of the 20th century, Kafka, Proust, Joyce and Svevo were regarded as the first great modernist writers. Of the four, two and a half were Jewish. Marcel Proust had a Jewish mother, and only Joyce was pure Aryan, or rather Celtic. And by a strange chance, two of the four lived in Trieste. In 1904, Joyce had exiled himself from Ireland, to escape what he considered the twin shackles of the Irish Catholic Church and British Imperial rule. Above all, Joyce left to become a writer but, by answering a newspaper advertisement, he had found himself a day job as an English teacher in the Berlitz Language School in Trieste. He took with him on the journey Nora Barnacle, a girl he had picked up on a Dublin Street and with whom he was to spend the rest of his life. They didn’t marry until 1932, and then only to legitimise their two children, now in their twenties, to simplify their wills.

Trieste was a bustling, cosmopolitan city and the only port in the vast Habsburg Empire. At the time of Joyce’s arrival, its population was 150,000, two-thirds Italian-speaking, and just under a third Slav. Of the minority groups, the Jewish community numbered 5,500—3 percent of the whole. There had been a thriving Jewish community there since medieval times. In the 1890s, Lady Isabel Burton, the wife of the explorer and writer, Sir Richard Burton, who was the British Consul there, wrote in her biography of her husband, “the enlightened and hospitable Hebrews of Trieste are our best friends… It is the Jews who lead society here, the charities and the fashion. They are the life of the town.” It was to remain that way until the upheavals of the Great War.

Joyce had been teaching for two years at the Berlitz when Ettore Schmitz went there to improve his English. He was given Joyce as his teacher. It was an arrangement that was to last for eight years, and Schmitz soon became his private pupil and friend. Schmitz was a successful Jewish businessman in a company that produced a marine paint, based on a secret family formula that “kept ship’s bottoms clean and free from rust and barnacles.” He was also a part-time writer. Under the name Italo Svevo, he had had two novels published at his own expense and with little success. He took the name, he explained “out of pity for the one vowel surrounded by six consonants in the name Schmitz.”  In Trieste he was more admired for his witze than his novels, but the pseudonym summarised his identity—an Italian-speaking, Austrian citizen with forebears from the German province of Swabia.

In their backgrounds, Joyce and Svevo could not have been more different—Joyce, a lapsed Catholic from Dublin, Svevo, an unobservant Jew in Trieste. There was a twenty-year age gap between them. The contrast in their appearance was striking—Joyce, tall, gangly and bespectacled; Svevo, shorter, with the comfortable look of a bourgeois family man. Even their vices were different, but equally damaging in the long run. Joyce was a heavy drinker, Svevo, a heavy smoker. Joyce was a celebrated schnorrer and, fortunately for him, Svevo, a generous lender. It is an extraordinary serendipity that a man, who made his living from selling a paint that repelled barnacles, was lending money to someone who lived with a woman called Barnacle.

They were only gradually to discover how much they had in common. Despite their different religious and family backgrounds, both men were polymaths, hugely well-read, and speaking several languages. Svevo was fluent in German, Italian and French, and his English, with Joyce’s help, improved dramatically. Joyce could match Svevo in languages and had mastered the local Triestine dialect of Italian within months of his arrival in the city. Later, he taught himself Dano-Norwegian so he could read his hero, Ibsen, in the original. Both men had wit: Joyce’s sharp Irish, Svevo’s ironic Jewish. Their most important similarity, however, was that both were dedicated writers, dealing with the pitfalls of the literary life in their own particular ways. Each had irksome day jobs. Literary success came to both of them late in life, a reward for perseverance, as much as genius.

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