James Joyce and Italo Svevo: The Story of a friendship
By Stanly Price
Somerville Press 276 pp £14
A review by Jan Morris in today's Literary Review
This fascinating work of scholarship concerns the association between two great 20th-century writers and the city that brought them together. The writers were the Italian Italo Svevo (1861–1928) and the Irishman James Joyce (1882–1941). The city was Trieste (45˚38’N 13˚46’E).
All three – the two men and the city – were almost equally complex in status, origin, style, condition and intention. To my dilettante mind the governing presence of the triad, binding it together in a kind of posthumous trinity, was the city, standing as it did upon an ethnic and historical fault line, and notorious for its genius loci, a gale-force wind called the bora.
The three of them are properly matched, and for me perhaps the most telling passage in the book (which is essentially a work of advanced cultural reportage) describes the two writers walking together in the city when the bora blew in one day. An eyewitness reported that they clung like mountain climbers to the safety ropes fixed in the downtown streets, but never stopped talking as the genius howled around them.
They met in Trieste in 1907: Joyce was scraping a living teaching English to Italian residents and Svevo came to him for lessons. Nothing in the tale, though, is as simple as that. Svevo, who was born Ettore Schmitz, was twenty years older that his teacher. He was a prominent local businessman whose family had enriched itself by making a unique kind of underwater paint, and he was not yet a writer at all. His only vice, it seems, was chain-smoking. Joyce, on the other hand, was already writing books of startling originality, was nearly always in debt and was a notorious drunkard. Yet the two, it seems, recognised the genius in each other, however latent, and were to remain friends and colleagues for life.
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