A Portrait of The Artist in Trieste
by Kit Snedaker
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
"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
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 [pen name Italo Svevo], 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
"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
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
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 Finnegans 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
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."
- Literary Traveler -