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

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide