Of San Marco, Joyce, Svevo and Plenty More

One of the pleasures of being a blogger is, of course, to link up with other bloggers with similar (or sometimes, very different) interests and viewpoints.

It dawned upon me that I have little time now to prepare my ‘lezione’ to Bagni di Lucca’s Unitre on ‘Le Esperienze inglesi di Italo Svevo’ i.e. The English experiences of Italo Svevo, due on January 21st In case you’re wondering what all this is about I’d like to point to two recent posts from bloggers whose quality of writing I regard as very high indeed and who have given me some direction as to what I shall be talking about.

One blogger is Ishita Sood who is particularly enamoured of the city which was the birthplace of Italo Svevo. You can read her blog at https://ishitasood.wordpress.com and I have nothing but praise for her articles especially regarding a city which ‘Lonely Planet’ has described as the most underestimated tourist location in Italy.


Ishita’s post on Trieste as Italy’s caffeine capital, the unforgettable charm and opulence of its historic Caffé San Marco and its association with James Joyce lead me to consider the great friendship which started up between the two men.


Originally Svevo (or to give him his correct name Ettore Schmitz – he changed it to Italo Svevo, not just as a nom de plume but also to reaffirm his dual Austrian-Italian background) had come to Joyce for English lessons Joyce being a teacher at the Berlitz school first in Pola (now Pulek) and then Trieste. But this teacher-pupil relationship blossomed into something much greater – perhaps one of the supreme creative friendships of the last century.

James Joyce had already confirmed his wish to be a writer and had written poems, plays and short stories. He needed, however, to get away from the constricting Dublin life, paradoxically, to be able to reconstruct it in even more detail in his forthcoming ‘Ulysses’ which reads like a giant social map of that remarkable city on the river Liffey.

How many writers seek to get away from their place of origin to write about it elsewhere in even more meticulous detail (and love) I wonder?

I can think of P. G. Wodehouse, an old Alleynian from my school, Dulwich College, who moved to the USA (Long Island to be exact) and, from 1947 until his death in 1975, never set foot in England again. It is believed by many critics that this actually improved ‘Plum’s’ writing since he was free to remember an England that had largely disappeared after World War II and was, all the more, able to give credibility to his own brand of inimitable humour within a legendary land of sensible butlers, great aunts and loveably silly young aristocrats.


Travel writers, it seems, need more than most litterateurs to live abroad. Leigh-Fermor, who a dear friend was privileged to meet and even cook for, was a prime example and there are many others one can think of.

Some writers move to different places not so much because they love their new location but because they couldn’t stand their place of birth. D. H. Lawrence comes to mind but then he still wrote so beautifully and so nostalgically about a country he’d forsaken years before, even until the moment of his death.

Returning to Joyce: it was he who encouraged the disillusioned Svevo to take up writing again after the complete neglect of Italo’s first two novels, Una Vita of 1890 and Senilità of 1897. They would meet at one of Trieste’s great caffés: la Stella Polare, Il Caffé degli Specchi, Caffé Pirona and il caffé San Marco. How I would have loved to be a fly on the wall in one of those venues where Joyce and Svevo would be discussing over their steaming cups.

The Caffé San Marco leads me to another blog I greatly enjoy reading. This is the art nouveau page at https://aboutartnouveau.wordpress.com/2016/01/02/caffe-san-marco-via-battisti-18-trieste/ which talks about the extraordinary history of this most beautiful caffé which had been vandalised during the first world war by Austrian soldiers and was again very recently in danger but happily saved from demolition in 2013.

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Re-reading my own post on Trieste at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/04/29/seaview-trieste-style/ prompts me to catch the first train there as the city is such a magical place. I would definitely take the famous Opicina tramway. again marvellously described by Ishita Sood at https://ishitasood.wordpress.com/2015/11/18/a-historic-ride-on-the-opicina-tram-in-trieste/

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I remain fascinated by people’s views of another country. English language books on Italy abound in almost nauseous profusion but what about Italian writers’ books on England? There is, in fact, a great tradition to in this type of literature. Of more recent Italian writers I would recommend Severgnini and Caprarica for example.

However, there is little to beat Italo Svevo’s own reflections on a country he found so different from his own Trieste.

As some of you, who have read that amazingly seriously comic book, “The conscience of Zeno” may know, Italo Svevo, alias Ettore Schmitz, seemingly gave up his attempt to become a literary figure after writing those two abortive novels and accepted his brother-in-law’s offer to set up a branch of the family marine paint factory in Charlton, South East London. I taught for many years at a college in Charlton which was only a few steps away from the Veneziani paint works and just up the hill, in this modestly distinguished area of London, there’s the house, now adorned with the blue plaque customarily affixed to dwelling of famous people, where Svevo spent, on and off, over twenty years of his life directing the factory.


Svevo’s letters from London to his wife and relatives and his set of essays on what was then the world’s greatest imperial city make fascinating reading. Svevo had taken English lessons from his teacher in that cosmopolitan city, then under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, James Joyce, but somehow found it very difficult at first to understand English as she is spoke in London. Perhaps a shade of Irish brogue didn’t prepare him too well for the sharp machine-gun-fast utterances of inner London cockney.

Anyway, Svevo eventually managed to come to grips with a country he found so “differente” and actually grew to love it very much. He especially appreciated the escape from Triestine snobbery into the matter-of-fact working class camaraderie of a Thameside factory. He enjoyed London’s parks and the great art collections and was able to comment very usefully on the structure of British society at the time. Being also an amateur musician Svevo set up a chamber music group which was especially appreciated in the days before hi-fi and cd. Last but not least, Svevo was a loyal supporter of that great football team, Charlton Athletic, above whose stadium I also taught some of my own students.

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Only connect, as the preface of E. M. Forster’s ‘Howard’s End’ reminds us. Life is full of connections, some inevitable, others surprising.

Now let’s try to get down in writing everything I’d like to say about Italo Svevo’s connections within forty minutes for January 21st  and in impeccable Italian!


9 thoughts on “Of San Marco, Joyce, Svevo and Plenty More

  1. Thank you so much Francis for mentioning my posts and my love for the city. I am stoked 🙂 I thoroughly enjoyed reading through this post and feeling Trieste and literature through your words. Thanks again for taking me back. Namaste!

  2. Pingback: From London to Longoio (and Lucca and Beyond) Part Three

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