Thursday 25 October 2018

Morris's Double Elegy

Towards the end of Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, Jan Morris writes of the Nazis' brief annexation of Trieste:
'Their local newspaper, Deutsche Adria Zeitung, forecast that it would know splendid times again, revived by the "European idea", but in the event almost the only use the Germans found for the port was the transport of coal and bauxite up the coast from Istria...'
Always good to be reminded of the murky origins of that 'idea', still so precious to the grands fromages of the EU.

  But that's by the by. Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere is a lovely book, one that I enjoyed so much I was reading it more and more slowly towards the end to make it last that bit longer. Morris has written other brilliant books about cities before, but this one is special. Consciously written as her last book (in 2001), it is also a farewell, a poignant double elegy, a wistful look back over her own life as it has intersected with the life of Trieste, a city to which she kept returning, endlessly fascinated by its particular qualities.   
 Trieste for her evokes a feeling 'like our Welsh hiraeth, expressing itself in bitter-sweetness and a yearning for we know not what'. It is a melancholy city – indeed 'melancholy is Trieste's chief rapture'. There is nothing obvious or iconic about it, it's not one of the world's great cities, it has seen better days (the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire), it has a confused history, a mixed ethnicity and no obvious nationality – and yet its elusive identity is potent and distinctive, and it can haunt the memory like no other city. As well as hiraeth, Morris detects in Trieste 'the flavour of true civility, evolved through long trial and error' – and heaven knows that is good to find.
 I have only been in Trieste a couple of times, in the late Sixties / early Seventies, both times in transit. But I still remember something of the haunting quality of the place, and my specific memories are unusually sharp for that blurry time of my life – sitting a very long time over a single espresso in a grand imperial cafe; sleeping rough on the edge of the city having been turfed off the railway station steps; then another time on those same steps sitting down and memorising Yeats's Among Schoolchildren. I think I had the feeling, even then, that I would not forget Trieste.


  1. Trieste Will bem always a joycean place, isn't It?

  2. Yes indeed – Joyce and Svevo. Joyce's behaviour there was predictably deplorable – poor Nora...

  3. I visited in 2016 from Venice. Crossing a bridge over a canal in the centre I found myself face to face with a bronze life-size statue of James Joyce, his feet set in the pavement. I blush to admit I gave in to the impulse to take a selfie with the Irishman.

  4. Entirely forgivable, Guy! I gather Trieste now has a Joyce Trail and a Svevo Trail, among other attractions...

  5. Similarly 'passing through' in the far-from-swinging 60's, I came away from this understated city with a feeling of faded melancholy - but let us not forget that if you just drop the middle 'e' you have 'sad' in both Spanish and Italian.

  6. Indeed, and even French... It fits the place perfectly.