James Joyce and Italo Svevo: The Story of a Friendship, by Stanley Price (Somerville Press, 276 pp. $19.50)
That the sense of place animates good writing is a truism of which our reading continually reminds us: no Warwickshire, no Shakespeare; no London, no Dickens; no Staffordshire, no Arnold Bennett. In a 1956 essay entitled “Place in Fiction,” American short story writer Eudora Welty nicely captured how family engenders this ineradicable dynamic: “There may come to be new places in our lives that are second spiritual homes—closer to us in some ways, perhaps, than our original homes. But the home tie is the blood tie. And had it meant nothing to us, any other place thereafter would have meant less, and we would carry no compass inside ourselves to find home ever, anywhere at all.”
No writer better exemplifies this than James Joyce, whose experience as a young man in Edwardian Dublin colored nearly everything he wrote. Joyce would never forget his improvident, hard-drinking father’s faith in his untested abilities, and yet, as the eldest of ten in a family wracked with disarray, Joyce was also desperate to prove those abilities. In Dubliners (1914), his collection of short stories about the city and people that would be so vital to his art, Joyce gave voice to this desperation with a specificity that only family-infused place could confer:
There was no doubt about it: if you wanted to succeed you had to go away. You could do nothing in Dublin. As he crossed Grattan Bridge he looked down the river towards the lower quays and pitied the poor stunted houses. They seemed to him a band of tramps, huddled together along the river-banks, their old coats covered with dust and soot, stupefied by the panorama of sunset and waiting for the first chill of night to bid them arise, shake themselves and begone.
In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Joyce’s alter-ego Stephen Dedalus declares, “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” He also commits to his diary an entry that is often taken to be something of his young creator’s artistic manifesto: “I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.” While Joyce did become one of literature’s most celebrated exiles, it’s questionable whether his flight was entirely motivated by artistic integrity. He fled to the Continent as much to escape his father’s drunken notoriety as to find his artistic voice. Or, perhaps, one should say, he could only find his artistic voice by first fleeing and then reimagining his father’s failures.
Stanley Price’s brilliant study of the friendship between Joyce and the Triestine novelist Italo Svevo shows how Joyce could only finish the story of his family in exile. In Ulysses (1922), Leopold Bloom, the Jewish Everyman whom Svevo was instrumental in helping Joyce create, charts the true trajectory of Joyce’s art: “Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.”
One of Joyce’s Parisian friends, the surrealist poet Philippe Soupault, might have foreseen the premise of Price’s book when he noted how Trieste “provided Joyce with a necessary detachment; he felt himself far removed from Ireland, still distinguishing images and echoes of Dublin, but seeing, feeling, and hearing better from afar that city where he had loved and suffered.” Yet, what most helped the young Irishman turn his Triestine exile to artistic account was his friendship with a man who in many ways was as extraordinary as Joyce himself. As the Parisian journalist Nino Frank put it, “Perfectly Adriatic, Svevo had the Venetian Jew’s mischievous good nature and sharp subtlety, which are among civilization’s finest virtues.”
Ettore Schmitz took the name Italo Svevo (Italus the Swabian) to signify his mixed heritage: Triestine by language, Austrian by citizenship, and German-Jewish by ancestry. Like Joyce, he came from a big family, of 16 children—only eight of whom survived—and had a father who suffered considerable financial reversals, though Svevo’s father lost his money through bad investments, not through habitual overindulgence in Irish whiskey. For 18 years, Svevo toiled as a bank clerk before marrying into a family that owned a successful marine paint business.
Like Joyce, who brought the first cinema to Dublin with Triestine backers, Svevo had a flair for the entrepreneurial. When the Great War broke out, he persuaded all the war’s combatants to buy his anti-corrosive paint for their warships. In 1907, two years after Joyce had settled in Trieste, Svevo became Joyce’s pupil at the Berlitz School to improve his English. He also became something of a father figure to the young Irish exile, playing Bloom to Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus. In return, Joyce memorialized Svevo’s wife, Livia, by drawing on her and her golden-red hair for Anna Livia Plurabelle in Finnegans Wake (1939), a statue of whom is now affectionately known in Dublin as “the floozy in the Jacuzzi.” If academics around the world still hold the author of that riddling book in some awe, the plain people of Dublin have never followed suit.
When Joyce set him the task of critiquing A Portrait of the Artist, Svevo, Joyce’s senior by 21 years, summoned the courage to admit that he was a novelist himself, though neither of his novels had been noticed by the critics. (“There is no unanimity,” Svevo quipped, “like the unanimity of silence.”) The friendship of the two frustrated writers was sealed when Joyce, never lavish of praise, read A Life (1892) and As a Man Grows Older (1898) and declared Svevo the successor to Anatole France. Later, Joyce would encourage Svevo to persevere with what would become his masterpiece, The Confessions of Zeno (1923), a fictional send-up of psychoanalysis, whose hero continuously tries and fails to give up cigarettes. In addition to artistic encouragement, Joyce also generously acted as Svevo’s unpaid publicist, recommending the book to influential literary friends, whose glowing reviews turned it into an international success d’estime. In return, Svevo helped refine Joyce’s detailed understanding of all things Jewish.
Joyce and Svevo, though far apart in age, had much in common. They were both genuine artists, willing to suffer any setback rather than displease their importunate muses. They were both masterly at making the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune serve their fiction. They were both fond of the ridiculous, even in the most tragic of circumstances. When Joyce fled Paris in 1940 ahead of the invading Nazis, the Swiss border authorities mistook him for a Jew, doubtless confusing him with his hero, Bloom, which caused Joyce to respond: “Je ne suis pas juif de Judée mais aryen d’Erin (I am not Jewish from Judea but Aryan from Erin).” As Price remarks, “Even in this surreal predicament, Joyce was still able to pun bilingually.”
Both men were connoisseurs of cities. Joyce was deeply fond of Dublin, Trieste, and Paris, though dismissive of Rome, which he likened to “a man who lives by exhibiting his grandmother’s corpse.” Svevo was fond not only of Trieste, which before the Great War was the fourth-largest city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and one of Europe’s busiest ports, but also the cities where he conducted the family paint business, including Florence, Venice, and London. Indeed, after residing in London, Svevo became an Anglophile, convinced, as he wrote, that “English kindness and good manners . . . constitute almost an unwritten law that complements [England’s] civil and criminal law.”
Though critical of colonialism, both were at home in the polyglot urbanity of the old imperial order. After the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell in 1918, Joyce was never comfortable in Trieste, which, under Italian rule, was forced to play second fiddle to Venice. Certainly, neither Joyce nor Svevo would have agreed with the caricature of the Empire put about by the framers of the Versailles Treaty: for them, prewar Trieste might have had its tensions, but it was never a part of any “prison of the peoples.” In this regard, they might have sympathized with Empress Zita, who was incredulous when told by her husband Karl that the empire was kaput. “A sovereign can never abdicate,” she declared. “He can be deposed and his sovereign rights be declared forfeit. All right. That is force. But abdicate—never, never, never.”
Joyce, in particular, was partial to the Austro-Hungarian Empire for the same reason that he favored the British Empire—it offered more civilized freedom than the nation-states concocted by the nationalists. He was particularly contemptuous of the Irish nationalists for betraying his beloved Charles Parnell, the Member of Parliament and advocate of home rule brought low by a divorce scandal. “They did not throw him to the English wolves,” Joyce noted in his best satirical vein: “they tore him apart themselves.” Moreover, since the British prime minister H.H. Asquith had awarded him an annual pension of £100 from the Civil List (or £3,500 in today’s money) in August 1916, Joyce was never keen on surrendering his British passport.
Both Joyce and Svevo were contented family men, largely because they had the good fortune to marry forbearing, intelligent women. The art critic, Carola Giedion-Welcker, one of Joyce’s closest female friends on the Continent, recalled how the learned novelist “always admired the natural behavior of his wife and listened in fascination when she intuitively and spontaneously decided matters that he had scrutinized carefully from every angle, sine ira et studio (without anger or fondness).” After Joyce’s death, when Nora Joyce (née Barnacle) was asked about the many writers surrounding her husband, including Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, and Samuel Beckett, her reply was typically mocking: “Sure, if you’ve been married to the greatest writer of them all, you don’t remember the little fellows.” Svevo was fond of Nora because she reminded him that his livelihood depended on keeping the hulls of ships free of barnacles—a standing joke between the two families.
Svevo and Joyce were also bound together by the sorrows of family. The most moving chapter in The Confessions of Zeno involves the death of Zeno’s father, which Svevo based on his painful relationship with his own father. At one point, Zeno sees in the life of the deathbed a mysteriousness that transcends both sorrow and resentment, leading him to conclude with his accustomed seriocomic acuity: “When you are actually dying you have other things to do than to think about death.”
Joyce’s last years were saddened by his daughter Lucia’s accelerating schizophrenia. Lucia and her father, Carl Jung observed, “were like two people going to the bottom of a river, one falling and the other diving.” Unlike Svevo, Joyce was unpersuaded by the promises of psychoanalysis, telling his friend, “Psychoanalysis? Well, if we need it, let’s keep to confession.” The literary critic James Wood points out that this dismissive attitude toward the new science may not have disconcerted Svevo; after all, The Confessions of Zeno, in its whimsical way, constitutes a slyly critical pastiche, not an uncritical endorsement of psychoanalysis.
Finally, both men were lapsed members of their respective religions—Joyce, Catholicism, and Svevo, Judaism—though Svevo was later baptized and married in the Catholic Church to please his Catholic wife. One aspect of Svevo that must have appealed to Joyce was his friend’s respect for religion, even if he found himself incapable of belief. In The Confessions, Zeno is shown studying the Christianity of his wife Augusta with some diligence before rejecting it. And yet the grounds on which he rejects it are striking:
Augusta’s religion did not take time to acquire or put into practice. You bowed your knee and returned to daily life again immediately! That was all. Religion for me was a very different thing. If I had only believed, nothing else in the world would have mattered to me.
When Price says that Svevo was “hostile to all organized religion,” he exaggerates what was, in fact, an attentive, even wistful skepticism. After all, when Joyce gave him the sermon passages in A Portrait to read, Svevo responded: “I have read them with a very strong feeling and I know in my little town a lot of people who would certainly be struck by the same feeling.” As for Joyce, plundering the doctrines and rituals of the Catholic Church for his own aesthetic purposes may not have brought him any closer to practicing the faith that he had abandoned as a youth in Dublin, but it did make him leery of apostasy’s pitfalls. When Stephen Dedalus’s friend Cranly asks him why, given his impatience with Rome, he does not become a Protestant, Stephen replies: “I said that I had lost the faith . . . but not that I had lost self-respect. What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?”
Though Price draws freely on previous books—particularly the revised edition of Richard Ellmann’s unsurpassed 1982 biography of Joyce, P.N. Furbank’s 1966 biography of Svevo, and John McCourt’s groundbreaking 2000 book, The Years of Bloom: James Joyce in Trieste 1904-1920—he presents his subjects with such wit, insight, balance, and élan that one sees them as though for the first time. He also grounds his sympathy—especially for Joyce—in an admirable refusal to be bamboozled. Regarding Finnegans Wake, for example, which Joyce’s brother Stanislaus called a “a driveling rigmarole,” Price quotes one of the novelist’s more devoted acolytes, the translator Paul Léon, who admitted to a friend: “Lately I have been spending a lot of time with literature. I have been working with James Joyce . . . . I’ve found it wonderfully amusing to translate simple ideas into incomprehensible formulas and to feel it is a masterpiece.”
There are only a small number of truly first-rate books on Joyce, but Price’s is one of them. If exile helped Joyce sort out his early family life in Dublin—an inventorying integral to the springs and elaboration of his reminiscential art— it was also what made him susceptible to sycophancy, which blinded him to the flaws of his later work. Yet, on this score, Price, in his generous, moving, commendable book, is right to give Elizabeth Bowen the final word: “Let us strip from Joyce the exaggeration of foolish intellectual worship he got abroad, and the notoriety he got at home, and take him back to ourselves as a writer out of the Irish people, who received much from our tradition and was to hand on more.”
Photo of James Joyce by Hulton Archives/Getty Images