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Serendipity in Kentish Town

Features | August 2016

Insperation for Leopold Bloom: Italo Svevo, who was taught English by Joyce in Trieste

Stanley Price was struggling with his book about the friendship between James Joyce and Italo Svevo, when encounters on the Northern line (High Barnet branch) came to his rescue

I’ve always liked the sound of the word ‘serendipity’. The Compact Oxford defines it as ‘the occurrence of events by chance in a beneficial or lucky way’. That makes it different from its cousin, coincidence, which has chance events occurring but no beneficial effects. It is the outcome that decides which is which. Which of them was it that that brought me, James Joyce and the Northern line (High Barnet branch) together? It was about four years ago. I was coming back from town on the Tube, and was fascinated by the elegant-looking man sitting opposite me. He was sixtyish, tall, silver-haired, with a well trimmed beard and moustache, very rare in these days of deep five o’clock shadow. But the most distinctive thing about him was his colour-coordination. The theme was red, nothing Santa Claus-garish, but different shades for his socks, tweed trousers, shirt, jumper and jacket. Not to be over the top, his shoes were sensibly brown. He certainly didn’t seem a City type, but he was reading the Financial Times. When not distracted by my fellow-traveller’s shades of red, I was reading Joyce’s Dubliners.

Just after Euston, the man lowered his paper, leaned forward, and gestured at my book. ‘Great stories, aren’t they?’ I was taken aback that somebody, clearly not deranged, would talk to me on a London Tube. Maybe he was Irish. There was a pause before I said ‘Yes.’

‘Have you read much Joyce?’ He didn’t sound Irish – in fact, he had no noticeable accent.

‘Yes, quite a bit.’
Ulysses?’
‘Oh, yes.’
‘Great novel.’
‘Absolutely.’

‘More fun than this,’ he waved his Financial Times at me. ‘How about Finnegans Wake?’

‘Started but couldn’t finish.’

‘Try again,’ he said, ‘Think of it as music.’ And with that he stood up. The train was stopping. It was Kentish Town, and the man in red got off. I didn’t have the presence of mind to run after him, to ask him how he had come to Joyce, what he did for a living, let alone where he bought his clothes. Now I would never know. And he would never know that I was, in fact, reading Dubliners for at least the second time, and currently having a Joyce crisis.

My own connection with Joyce went back a long way. I had spent part of my childhood in Dublin. In the summer I would be taken to Sandycove, and swam in the shadow of the Joyce Tower. I remember asking my grandfather why the Martello tower was named after a girl. He explained that Joyce was no girl, but a great Irish writer who had stayed there briefly in 1904. The opening scene of his great book Ulysses started there. What’s more, he said with some pride, the hero of the book was Leopold Bloom, a Dublin Jew. Because my family were Dublin Jews, there had been much speculation in that small community about who had been the model for Bloom. There were several suspects. I only discovered the genuine model for Bloom many years later when I read Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno, rightly considered one of the 20th century’s great comic novels. It was published in 1926 but, like Ulysses, only after many setbacks. The book is set in Trieste, where Svevo was born and bred. I read more about Svevo and found out that he had known Joyce there.

In 1904, intent on becoming a writer, Joyce had exiled himself from Ireland. He had answered a newspaper advertisement and found himself a job teaching English in the Berlitz language school in Trieste. Three years later, a 42-year-old businessman, Ettore Schmitz, came to Berlitz for English lessons. He was given Joyce as his teacher – definitely serendipity. Schmitz was Jewish and worked for a family firm which made a marine paint that protected ships’ hulls, and he needed better English in order to do business with the British Admiralty. He had also written two unsuccessful novels under the name Italo Svevo. He took the name, he explained, ‘out of pity for the one vowel surrounded by six consonants in the name Schmitz’. Schmitz/Svevo and Joyce soon discovered they were both writers. They read and admired each other’s unsuccessful work, became lifelong friends and were an enormous help to each other. And I discovered that Bloom was modelled, inspired would be a more accurate word, not on a Dublin Jew – Joyce didn’t know any – but a Triestine one. Joyce was to pick Svevo’s brains about all things Jewish.

'I started at the poster. Was somebody trying to tell me something?'

With a twenty-year age gap between them, they made an odd couple. One tall and thin, the other smaller and rounder, both multilingual polymaths. Each had a family, Svevo a wife and daughter, Joyce a partner, Nora Barnacle, a son and a daughter. Joyce was a heavy drinker, Svevo a heavy smoker, Joyce a constant borrower and, fortunately for him, Svevo was a generous lender.

I always intended to try to write about this fruitful friendship. The idea stayed in the back of my mind, but other writing kept intervening. Then, finally, I ran out of excuses. I had to make a start. I started reading – and reading. The only thing I didn’t do was write. I became daunted by the material, a not uncommon condition among writers: if you keep on researching, you might even avoid writing altogether. That was the state I was in when I met the man in red. About a week after that, I took the Northern line into town. I was reading Edna O’Brien’s slim but excellent biography of Joyce and came across a marvellous quote in a letter from him. He was writing to his benefactress, Harriet Weaver, a millionaire with a puritanical streak. He was worried that she might hear about his recent carousing in Zurich. It was all wild gossip, he wrote. ‘A batch of people here tried to induce me to enter a sanatorium where a certain Doctor Jung (the Swiss Tweedledum who is not to be confused with the Viennese Tweedledee) amuses himself at the expense of ladies and gentlemen with bees in their bonnet.’

I got off the train at Leicester Square with Edna O’Brien in my pocket, and was confronted by a film poster for A Dangerous Method. The strapline over the title read ‘Two great minds in conflict’. There were pictures of two faintly familiar faces, and under them were critics’ quotes: ‘Michael Fassbinder is magnificent as Carl Jung’ and ‘Freud is brought wonderfully to life by Viggo Mortensen’. There was also a picture of Keira Knightley, obviously the woman ‘the two great minds’ were in conflict over. I stared at the poster. Maybe my hair stood on end. Was someone trying to tell me something? Joyce believed in epiphanies, those moments that bring a sudden understanding. Had I just had two, in the space of a week, on the Northern line? Should I dismiss them as meaningless chance or did they mean more? It was up to me to decide. Next day I started writing. I like to think it was Jung, Freud and the Man in Red who helped turn mere coincidence into serendipity.

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James Joyce and Italo Svevo: The Story of a Friendship by Stanley Price is published by Somerville Press, price £14.99.


This story was from August 2016 issue. Subscribe Now