Birth of ‘Ulysses’

Exploring the Darker Side of James Joyce’s Trieste

Before Joyce, who died 73 years ago today, found fame and fortune and moved to Paris, he spent over a decade of sin-filled years in Trieste. I explored the town in his footsteps.

Lebrecht Authors/Corbis

It’s the morning after. I’m leaning against the antique pastry showcase in Pasticceria Caffè Pirona. I’m still a little shaky from last night’s drinking. There’s a framed picture of James Joyce on the wall, hung proudly. He was a regular here. In the mornings, on his way to work, he would stop in for a couple glasses of red wine and some presnitz, an eye-wateringly sweet Triestine pastry.

Rumor has it Joyce even wrote some of, or conceived the idea for, or sketched out parts of his masterpiece, Ulysses, in this very cafe. Of course, no one really knows. But like Joyce and many a literary-tourist before me, I am here, eating presnitz and drinking red wine for breakfast.

Over my shoulder there is a bookshelf. I notice a copy of, James Joyce: Triestine Itineraries, a cultural-tourism book written in 1997 by Renzo S. Crivelli. I flip through the pages and read about Joyce’s former flats that are peppered around town, the school where he taught English (now a Zara store), and the churches of varying denominations where he attended mass.

Of course, anything resembling a real Joycean itinerary is long gone. Gone are the working-man dive bars where Joyce would binge drink and ponder his literary hardship. Gone are the pharmacies that would dole out cocaine and heroine like Tylenol. Gone are the dank bordellos and painted whores of the old Jewish ghetto where Joyce would roam. Gone is the ghetto itself. In fact, gone, almost in its entirety, is the tangled, old Città Vecchia where Joyce did some of his best sinning. The trail of the Trieste that Joyce grew to love has gone cold. One could not sniff it out, even if he tried his damnedest.

Trust me. I know. Last night, I tried my damnedest…


7:00 p.m. The hour of the Italian aperitivo. A frigid Bora wind blows off the Adriatic Sea and across Trieste’s main square, the grandiose Piazza Unità d’Italia. I am here waiting for Erik Schneider, an American expat, cofounder of the James Joyce Museum in Trieste, and author of Zois in Nighttown, a veritable tome on prostitution and syphilis in Trieste during the years of Joyce. Together, we will attempt to travel back in time to the early twentieth-century when the Austro-Hungarian city was very different, filled with raucous sailors, tormented poets, terminal alcoholics, stabbings, and cankerous whores. That is the Trieste of James Joyce.

As soon as Erik arrives, we head west toward the area of the Cavana, in the Città Vecchia. On via Armando Diaz (which in Joyce’s time was called Via della Sanità), Erik points out Joyce’s last Triestine address from 1919: a third floor flat where he lived with his wife Nora, their two children, and his brother Stanislaus. “The interesting thing here,” Erik says, “is this street was basically the entryway to the red-light district, to one of the bordello districts in the Cavana.” Erik then turns my attention to a building right across the barely-six-foot-wide alley.

“This was a big bordello, very well-documented. By law, the ground and the first floor had to be shuttered,” Erik says, “so children or perverts couldn’t look in. But the upper floor windows would have been open. If you think about it, Joyce would have been able to look directly into what was happening in the bordello from the window in his flat.”

Joyce was no stranger to seedy red-light slums. He spent much of his formative teenage years in the brothels of the infamous Monto district in Dublin, seemingly developing his carnal sensibilities. Many Joycean academics agree that even after he met Nora and moved to Trieste, the red-light romps continued. And living within spitting distance from a brothel? Talk about a dangling carrot.

“This is a very typical street of the times,” Erik says, as we look at the bones of a few other past-bordellos in the alleyway. “On Friday and Saturday nights, this place would’ve been just wild. This is where Joyce began writing Circe, the night town episode of Ulysses. All he had to do was put his ear out the window for inspiration.”

This environment not only influenced Joyce’s future published writings, but likely his personal correspondence as well. Anyone who has glanced even briefly at the dirty letters Joyce wrote to Nora in 1909, while he was away from Trieste on business, would know that the man’s mind was a bona fide breeding ground for imaginings that are, even by today’s standards, shockingly obscene and perverse.

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Erik then shows me the area where the old Jewish ghetto once festered, just northeast of the main square. “Of the approximately 40 to 45 bordellos [in Trieste],” Eric says, “14 were located in the Jewish ghetto.” In Joyce’s time, these tightly packed alleyways would have been lined with working prostitutes—most of the city’s 250 to 300 prostitutes were in this area. And if you are imagining Satine from Moulin Rouge floating around on a diamond swing, think again. Most of these girls were down and out, unable to find employment elsewhere. They drank and smoked heavily. Archival records make mention of whores during Joyce’s time who drank seven liters of beer and one liter of wine per day and were “voiceless due to smoking.” Not to mention the sexually transmitted diseases that ran rampant despite the city’s two venereal-disease-dedicated hospital wards. Since the widespread use of antibiotics was still almost two decades away, there was simply no definitive cure for any sexually transmitted diseases.

In fact, some Joyce historians, Erik included, suspect that Joyce’s 1907 bout with rheumatic fever was actually something much more ominous. Based on archival medical records, they believe Joyce was long-suffering from a case of syphilis (that was perhaps contracted even before arriving in Trieste). This theory met fierce resistance from Joyce’s living relatives. Twelve years after his hospitalization in 1907, Joyce was referred to Dr. Grünbaum, who had set up a new medical studio on Piazza Unità d’Italia not far from Joyce’s flat on Via della Sanità. Dr. Grünbaum said later, “I knew him [Joyce] and had to treat him for a venereal disease. Infected both front and back. Disgusting… but he was a genius and revolutionized literature.”

By 10:00 p.m., Erik and I are in Da Libero in the San Giusto neighborhood not far from Joyce’s most famous Triestine address on Via Bramante. Da Libero is one of the very few early twentieth-century osterie left in Trieste. I see Joyce’s picture in some Italian newspaper clippings that are framed on the wall, so I must be in the right place.

I order a swing-top bottle of German beer, and then Erik and I plough through a couple liters of red wine. The place certainly feels old. Old wooden tables and old wooden walls. A chandelier that looks like a Game of Thrones set piece. Taut red fabric on the ceiling above the chandelier gives the room a cool, circus-tent vibe. Wine casks, with seemingly random dates soldered into the faces, are cut in half and hung on the walls as is a cuckoo clock that appears to be older than Joyce himself. Soon, young people with tight pants and phenomenal hair begin filtering in for late-night steak dinners. It becomes clear: this place has changed. Before leaving, I visit the single washroom stall and find a gnarly porcelain hole in the ground and a sink with a rusted foot pump. It’s the closest I’ve felt to Joyce all night.

On our way back into Città Vecchia we poke our heads into some random, hole-in-the-wall joints looking for signs of Joyce. We find nothing. Not even heavy drinking, which is surprising. During Joyce’s time, Triestines were impressive drinkers. In 1910, the per capita consumption was calculated as 120 liters of wine, 70 liters of beer, and three liters of spirits. And Joyce certainly did his share of drinking. He put most of the wages he earned teaching English towards constant boozing. Interestingly, many believe that is why he invited his brother Stanislaus to Trieste and secured him a teaching post: to supplement the household income in order to allow Joyce the freedom to spend more on his many vices.

We wander through a few more tangled passages where prostitution once reigned supreme. Now, the slender laneways are all but deserted—the buildings cleaned up and sold off as funky flats for the upper-middle class.

Around 12:00 a.m., we are in Osteria Da Marino in the former Jewish ghetto district. It’s a small, semi-subterranean two-room bar, and it’s absolutely packed with patchy beards and horn-rimmed glasses. It’s hard to imagine the place as a dive bar where Joyce may or may not have visited. For decor, there are rugby jerseys, sailing photos, old rusted farm tools, and warped, dusty wine bottles that are surely a century old. A leg of prosciutto crudo is being sliced on the bar. We order some more red wine and then ask the old bartender if they stock absinthe. He nods. We order two. Why not? James Joyce allegedly drank absinthe, and he may or may not have drank it in Da Marino. I’m getting desperate to make a connection.

When the absinthe arrives at our table, I finally accept just how cold the real James Joyce trail in Trieste really is. The absinthe is served without a fountain of ice-water, no perforated spoon, no sugar cube. There is a shot glass filled with green liquor. Not “absinthe green,” but rather “biohazard green.” I take a sip and realize it’s just cheap sambuca with a couple dashes of Green No. 3.

The fact is, all that is left in Trieste of James Augustine Aloysius Joyce are the warm and fuzzy bits: a museum, some commemorative plaques embedded into various buildings, a couple of shiny, overpriced cafes (like the San Marco), and a bronze statue by the grand canal. All that has been immortalized here is the literary genius, not the perversion. Erik mentioned something interesting the night I met him. He said that Trieste was the last place that Joyce lived as a real person; that once he moved on to Paris, and became famous, he became a myth. If one could find remnants of the real, human James Joyce anywhere, it would be here, I thought, in Trieste. But I was mistaken.

Yes, I’ve learned my lesson: you want to get to know Joyce? You want to walk in his footsteps? You want to explore his dark, depraved mind and past? Read Ulysses.