Ghost town. Trieste abounds with echoes of a vibrant and diverse past. Henry Sheen is charmed by the last city in western Europe and by the multilingualism of its most famous visitor

The Years of Bloom: James Joyce in Trieste 1904-1920

John McCourt <em>The Lilliput Press, 320pp, £

The past has given Trieste a certain singularity. In architecture and grandeur, it is an imperial possession of the Austro- Hungarian empire; in religion, it hangs on the ancient precipice between Rome and Byzantium, both Catholic and Orthodox - and Jewish; in language, Triestino, a dialect of Italian; in population, Italian, German, Hungarian, Greek, Slovene, Croat, Serb. Prior to 1914, it was the great seaport of the Hapsburg empire; a bustling, cosmopolitan city and gateway to the Mediterranean. It is now an Italian city with a phantasmagoric past - and a moribund present. James Joyce arrived in Trieste to teach English in 1904, a 22-year-old Dubliner, in exile with Nora Barnacle, his sensuous partner from Galway. They left definitively in 1920, by which time Joyce had developed into a polyglot virtuoso.

The thesis of John McCourt's excellent account of Joyce's years in Trieste is that it was the city's vibrant diversity of languages and cultures that facilitated this development into the writer capable of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, the most diverse and eclectic books of any literature - books that, like the past on Trieste, have loomed as mountains on writing ever since.

That the city was so shifting, so infinite in its variety, must have appealed to the writer, who was later to call himself a Tergestis exul. His two great heroes, Leopold Bloom and Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, are types of the migrant population that characterised cosmopolitan Trieste: the one a Jew of Hungarian descent, the other a Protestant Scandinavian. Molly Bloom herself is a Mediterranean Jew. The choice of immigrant heroes reflects their creator's anti-nationalist bent, as pertinent to Trieste as it was to Ireland, with Italian irredentism an apparent mirror to Irish nationalism. As McCourt points out, Joyce was no enthusiast of nationalist causes, loathing the violence and intolerance that characterised them. His vision for Ireland was that, freed from the dominion of both Anglo- Saxony and Rome, it should be reborn within a European context. It is unsurprising, then, that he should have spent so long in Trieste, referred to in Finnegans Wake as "tarry easty", the meeting place of "all the ends of Europe", the "Italian warehouse" with its "cummulium of scents" (McCourt's knowledge of the Joycean opus is extensive and impressive). Here is the germination of Finnegans Wake, the preposterous Gesamtkunstwerk, which sought to embrace the whole of human history in the pan-European dream language of a Dublin pub landlord - just as one great city seemed to embrace the whole of European language and culture.

The means by which Joyce does this are twofold: first, musical techniques; second, multilingualism. McCourt's research reveals how both skills were developed in Trieste. Joyce took singing lessons at the Conservatorio Musicale di Trieste (his brother dismissed him as the "budding tenorino" - unfairly, given that Joyce's voice was promising enough for him to contemplate a career in singing), bought a piano beyond his means, and attended the opera as often as possible, which familiarised him first-hand with some of the great voices of the age. Trieste was, at the time, a major venue on the operatic circuit.

Love of sound and song is integral to Joyce's writing, from the dramatic significance of "The Lass of Aughrim" in "The Dead" to Bloom's surprising wind in Ulysses and the great thunder of Finnegans Wake. No one has written sound better. It may be, as Anthony Burgess has suggested, that his poor eyesight heightened his sense of hearing and appreciation of music. Much of Ulysses is, after all, shaped by different rhythmic and melodic lines answering one another in a genuine counterpoint of action, notably in the narrative fugue of Sirens. But to escape sequential constraints, to capture in writing both musical harmony and simultaneity of action involved another crucial element: multilingualism.

Few cities could rival Trieste's mosaic of language groups: Romance, Germanic, Slavonic, Greek, Hungarian, Yiddish. Joyce also took Irish Gaelic lessons, which he abandoned due to his teacher's repeated and ludicrous jibes against the English language. This must have depressed Joyce: regardless of any anti-English sentiment, as a tongue, it enjoys a unique hybridity among the major literary languages, a curious meeting of the Germanic and the Latinate. In Ulysses, these two different registers are consistently played off against each other; the description of Stephen, "on his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins", is ironically followed by the grandiose "ineluctable modality of the visible". The one is vigorous and earthy, the other ponderous and abstracted. But one language, despite its contrasting origins and a looseness that makes it tend, as T S Eliot wrote, "to variety rather than perfection", was insufficient to fulfil Joyce's vision. What was needed was several languages playing in harmony.

Which they did in Trieste. It was here that Joyce, a master of the Triestino dialect of Italian, became familiar with the individual languages of the many ethnic groups that inhabited the city. More importantly, however, when they interacted and conversed with each other in the street - for example, when Slovene members of the Austrian police tried to keep drunken Italians in order - the result would be the sort of wonderful hybridities that characterise his later writing. There could have been no better preparation for the composite language and multilingual punning of Finnegans Wake, in which a single word has a plurality of meaning and a resonant suggestiveness akin to compelling musical harmonies. Words are truncated or extended to contain and suggest other words of any language - Slovene, Gaelic, Triestino, Finno-ugrian, any! - so that one or more narrative lines can be sustained at the same time.

On his return to Trieste after the First World War, Joyce found that the vibrant, cosmopolitan city had disappeared - in its stead, a ghostly reincarnation that persists today. The Years of Bloom is a fine account of how a city of such disparate character might engage the polyglot disposition of a young writer and prompt his imagination with enough raw matter for a lifetime of writing.

His legacy, despite the lapse of time, is still unclear. Eliot, who described the novel as obsolescent following the technical perfections of Flaubert and Henry James, saw Ulysses as a "book to which we are all indebted and from which none of us can escape". But some surely do escape, as so many novels are still written in blithe ignorance of the past.

Burgess, another writer of musical talent, provides a possible explanation: "So long as we ignore his [Joyce's] challenge, we can go on being content with what the world calls good writing - mock-Augustanism, good manners and weak tea, the heightened journalistic, the no-nonsense penny-plain, the asthmatic spasms of the open-air invalid, the phallic jerks of the really impotent." Is this not a matter of cultural decadence?

This article first appeared in the 04 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Cheated of their vodka and cake