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The Years of Bloom:
James Joyce in Trieste 1904-20
Britain, Ireland, and Continental Europe
John McCourt. The Years of Bloom: James Joyce in Trieste 1904-20. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2000. xi + 360 pp
In this absorbing book, John McCourt, an Irish scholar living in Trieste, convincingly demonstrates that James Joyce, in his years spent in that city, was touched by a myriad of influences and attitudes that profoundly influence the character of his work from Dubliners to Finnegans Wake. Over the years there has been considerable if scattered work, mainly by Italian Joyceans, on the social and cultural forces that influenced Joyce in Trieste; here this work is synthesized and greatly extended. A contribution to the renewed biographical interest in Joyce and his family that began with Brenda Maddox's Nora, and all of which exists in the shadow of Ellmann's 1959 biography, this book is, first, a biography spanning the years 1904-20. It extends and nuances Ellmann's information in fascinating [End Page 1050] ways, for example going into much more detail than did Ellmann on the possible identity of the "dark lady" of Giacomo Joyce.
The book's main strength, however, lies in the author's research into the cultural, social, and political forces that operated in the Austrian-Hungarian port city of Trieste in these years, and into Joyce's various contacts--through his language teaching, journalism, and social life--with many of the figures active in the life of the city. Offering deft studies of such varied matters as the cosmopolitan opera and musical life of Trieste in the pre-war years; the forces that made the Triestine Jewish community one of the most varied of any European city; the Italian irredentist movement; Triestine socialist fervor; clashes among Austrian, Slav, and Italian elements in the city; and the importance of Italian Futurism in Trieste, McCourt vividly limns the cultural sophistication and social liveliness of Joyce's Triestine milieu. His emphasis throughout is on Trieste in the pre-war period as a fascinating nexus of cultures and social forces, as the Mediterranean port city which had replaced its now-stagnant neighbor, Venice, as the crossroads between the eastern and western Mediterranean, and as a border city that cast one eye to Italy and one to the fading power of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Furthermore, as the empire's foremost port, Trieste was dominated by a cosmopolitan and cultured merchant class whose members were eager to learn English from Joyce and to discuss with him the best of European literature and opera, the theories of Freud and Otto von Weininger, and the comparisons between Irish and Triestine politics. McCourt convincingly illustrates how these features of the city and Joyce's fascinated interest in them altered the narrower perspectives that he had brought from Ireland and enriched the outlook discernable in Ulysses in particular. Centrally, he considers Joyce's portrayal of Leopold Bloom to be informed by a broadly liberal perspective on the key issues of early-twentieth-century Jewish politics and culture, a perspective that, he shows, Joyce developed during his years in Trieste.
Joyce, it appears, detested Dublin, but wrote about it obsessively; in McCourt's account, he greatly enjoyed Trieste, but it features only in a few autobiographical fragments and poems, and, of course, in letters and recollections. With the admirable zeal of a convert, McCourt, one senses, may exaggerate the extent of Trieste's past cosmopolitanism, yet he makes it clear that the city functioned as a striking flashpoint of cultures [End Page 1051] and political forces rather than as a grand center that could compete with Paris or even Milan. The Years of Bloom provides an excellent explication of how Triestine cosmopolitianism enters Joyce's texts as his counterweight to Dublin's deadening provincialism. At times, however, one wishes that this book were a little less cautious in its claims. For example, McCourt argues that passages that dwell on the power of machinery in Ulysses owe...