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A Week in Trieste

Constellations, Issue 4

Alysia Lim Zhiyan

Jul 25, 2019 | News

Over the summer break, I was offered a scholarship to attend the Trieste Joyce School (TJS) in Trieste, Italy. Held almost every year, the School attracts Joyceans from all over the world to participate in an immersive week of lectures and seminars, project launches, and networking events. Trieste occupies a special, yet often under-publicised, place in the Joycean legacy for one reason: the self-exiled Irish writer had made Trieste his home between 1904-1920. These years marked a period of great personal significance and prolific creativity in the author’s life: Joyce’s two children were born in Trieste, and it was there that Joyce completed much of Dubliners and Ulysses.

I had first encountered Joyce as a young undergraduate in the Ulysses course run by the English department, and he has held my fascination ever since. After hearing about the School from my supervisor, applying to Trieste was a decision that needed no second thought. On 23 June, I finally landed in Venice after a long flight and set out for the coastal town by coach, arriving just in time for the School’s opening ceremony.

As T.S. Eliot once said, Joyce’s Ulysses is “a book to which we are all indebted and from which none of us can escape.” Although Eliot was attempting to articulate the monstrous shadow that Ulysses had cast over its literary contemporaries, his words also aptly express a prescience of the international following which Joyce would garner in the twenty-first century. This became evident when, as per tradition, the School officially opened with each participant reading a passage by Joyce in their mother tongue. We heard at least twenty different languages that night. When we were called to recite our translations simultaneously, I joined in the chorus of Croatian, Russian, Turkish, Hindi, Bengali, Italian, Triestino, Finnish, Irish-Gaelic, German and many more, with my own Chinese translation of Giacomo Joyce. The result was not a cacophony of mindless noise, but a rousing anthem that bore testament to Joyce’s international appeal.

It was a tremendous inspiration to learn from so many leading academics in the field, many of whom I had encountered only in print. One of them was Mr. Fritz Senn, the earliest Joycean even before the ‘Joyce industry’ existed!

It would not be an overstatement to say that the rest of our time in Trieste was Joyce-saturated. Over the next few days, we attended a series of lectures and seminars that captured a mere fraction of the inexhaustible trove of Joyce studies. These sessions offered a nurturing, vibrant environment for students to share their ideas and learn from one another. In between lessons and planned activities, we would gather in small groups to discuss ideas for papers we were writing, to read passages of Ulysses aloud, or to simply catch up on seminar readings. On walking tours we retraced the steps of Joyce, paid homage to his statue by the Grand Canal, and caught a concert at the Giuseppe Verdi Opera House, which is what Joyce was known to do. We would then conclude the day with dinner and drinks, often talking late into the night.

Among all the attractions the School had to offer, its spirit of warm conviviality made a lasting impression. The School, and in fact the city itself, oozed a spirit of infectious geniality which, even today, remains unforgettable. One fond memory I have is of a Russian couple who, despite scarcely knowing us, offered to take us on a walking tour of Joyce’s Trieste by night. Furthermore, Joyce offered a common ground for participants to bond regardless of profession or academic progression: whether you were a translator, historian, nutritionist, physicist, political commentator, literature student, professor, psychologist, or simply an avid reader, the School was a ‘funferal’[1] that held its appeal for everyone. Through the School, I was able to forge lasting friendships with Joyceans across disciplines and from all around the world, and that was what made the experience so much more enjoyable.

Our Russian friends, Alexei and Zinaida, brought us on a walking tour to see Joyce’s Trieste by night. We concluded the tour by reading from the ‘Sirens’ episode of Ulysses in Café St. Marco, the pub said to have inspired the episode’s choice of setting.

As the School drew to a close on 29 July and we left the small coastal city, I understood why Joyce once wrote in a letter to his wife Nora, “la mia anima è a Trieste.”[2] In a way, that might explain why the School draws so many returning visitors. I, for one, have left a part of myself in Trieste, and will return to retrieve it!

[1] Simultaneously ‘funeral’ and ‘fun-for-all’, this word is one of the many linguistic jokes in Joyce’s final major work, Finnegans Wake (1939).

[2] Translated into English: “My soul is in Trieste.”