Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Two Jews wandering through European cities, to the delight of us all

Trieste is a movable city. Apparently.

In the early nineteenth century it was in the Austrian Empire. Not many people think of landlocked Austria as a naval power, but back then it was a significant maritime nation and Trieste was one of its great ports.

The great Austrian seaport of Trieste
In 1867, a Hungarian element was added to Trieste’s nature, when it became a major port of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.

But then at the end of the First World War, it was finally shifted again, into Italy where it remains today.

And all those changes of citizenship, which affected the citizens as much as the city, happened without anyone having to move anywhere.

Most of the people of Trieste were in some sense Italian. They didn’t speak Italian, but then in the late nineteenth century the notion of an ‘Italian’ language was so fluid as to be practically non-existent.

My Italian professor at college liked to tell the story of the new King of Italy, previously King only of Savoy in the far North West, sending two officers to represent him at the court of his new territory, the erstwhile independent Kingdom of Naples. Before heading abroad to this posting, the officers spent some time learning the foreign language, Italian. It was only after they had been in Naples for six months that they realised the Neapolitans had taken them for English: they wore strange uniforms and spoke a language nobody knew, and the locals found no other way of accounting for them.

The Italians of Trieste spoke Triestino. And they thought of themselves as Triestini.

It was a hugely cosmopolitan city: though they were in a minority, there were more Slovenes in Trieste, on the border of Slovenia (then also Austrian and now a separate state), than in the Slovene capital of Ljubljana. There were of course many ethnic Germans too, since Trieste belonged to a German-speaking state, and naturally many Jews, as in most of the major cities of Europe of that time.

Now picture one of those Triestini, Aron Ettore Schmitz. His name tells you so much about him, doesn’t it? That Aron, together with the Schmitz, says German-Jewish, which came from his father. Ettore is pure Italian, as was his mother. He grew to manhood at the time Freud was publicising his new methods of psychoanalysis and became fascinated by the problems of consciousness and the sub-conscious. He would wander his great city of Trieste and think great thoughts, passing many of them through the filter of Freudian analysis.

Gradually those thoughts turned into books. At the cost of terrible effort, he mastered Italian and wrote them in that strange language. No one was interested in the rambling meditations of a Triestine Jew so he published the book himself, and it lay on a small number of bookshelves gathering dust. It was called La Coscenza di Zeno; later, when it gained the fame it richly deserved, it was translated into English, most commonly as The Confessions of Zeno or as Zeno’s Conscience. It’s a stream of consciousness narrative as this Jewish man wanders around Trieste struggling to understand life and his place in it; the strongest memory it left in me, especially at a time when I was still smoking to excess, was the theme of the “last cigarette” – whenever anything happens in his life, Zeno smokes his “last cigarette” which sadly turns out only to be the last only until the next one.

Italo Svevo
Schmitz didn’t publish the book under his own name. He adopted a pseudonym that reflected his ancestry: he chose the word for Swabian (from South West Germany) as his surname, and a word for Ialian as his forename – Italo Svevo.

By great good fortune, Svevo chose to learn English from a young Irishman in voluntary exile working at the Berlitz school in Trieste at the time. He found the notion of a Jew wandering around a city and commenting on it far more interesting than most Italian literary critics did. He must also have been an exceptional teacher of English – I wish I could have been taught by him, as I know no one who handled the language better than he did. His name was James Joyce.

He took up the cudgels for Zeno’s Conscience and made it his objective to ensure it received a proper publication in its French translation. The French being the French latched on at once to a great literary phenomenon and received the novel with extraordinary enthusiasm. The Italians being the Italians only needed the French to admire one of their own novels to realise that it must deserve a great deal more than the obscurity in which they had left it.

Svevo’s literary career took off. As did that of Zeno and the wonderful, sparkling, magical, comical story he inhabits.

And what about Joyce? Inspired by Zeno, who was in turn modelled on Schmitz, he too wrote a book about a Jew wandering around a city and commenting, in a stream of consciousness, on all the strange things happening in it. But as befits Joyce, the city’s not Trieste but Dublin, the Jew’s not Zeno Cosini but Leopold Bloom, and the book’s not Zeno’s Conscience but Ulysses – another wonderful, rambunctious, brilliant, hilarious epic.

I don’t really know why I told that story. Except that I find it charming. And it was brought to my mind yesterday by a fine Reith lecture on the BBC, given by Kwame Anthony Appiah.

To whom, many thanks.

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