Who wouldn’t take down a title like that? I did, from the family bookshelves, in the summer of 2017. I had just returned from Ravenna, a city known for its mosaics and the tomb of Dante Alighieri, but otherwise a small provincial town that sits on the same crook of shallow grey water as Trieste, just on the other side. Perhaps I took it down because, for the previous year of my life, Trieste had always been there, on the far shore.
In May 2018 I was back in Italy, this time in Florence. After work, I would go to the Harold Acton Library and sit on the sofa in the Sala Ferragamo, facing out over the Arno until closing time. For whatever reason, the book that I selected for those late spring evenings was Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere: having already read it once, I felt that I could take my time with it and luxuriate in Morris’ prose, letting it transport me from one of Italy’s most iconic cities to one of her most illusive.
Jan Morris, when she was James Morris of the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers, was stationed in Trieste in 1945. At that time the city was a free territory, belonging to no nation, and it made her feel – as it would always make her feel – “an unspecified longing [that] steals narcotically over me – the Trieste effect, as I call it.” She strives to define this feeling over 200 pages, but she never strives too hard. The book’s beauty is like the beauty of the city itself, misty but not quite misty-eyed, aching with sad smiles. Like in Venice, you don’t really want the mist to clear.
On those evenings in the library, Morris stirred in me a longing for the town that she was writing. One of the most extraordinary cities in the world lay outside the library window, the palazzos and the belltowers and the Ponte Vecchio, but there was nothing that I wanted to do more than to take one of the overnight Intercities, round the Adriatic and wake up in Trieste. Or better yet, to wake up on the final approach, rumbling over the Karst – “a loveless limestone formation”, a spur of the Julian Alps that almost shunts Trieste into the sea.
There seemed something utopian about it, in utopia’s twin senses as ‘good place’ and ‘no place’. Morris quotes a Triestine mayor – “We are the eastern limit of Latinity and the southern extremity of Germanness” – adding “the western extremity of Slavdom, too.” In its Habsburg heyday, it was a place where Italians, Slavs and their Austro-Hungarian overlords lived and worked together with little apparent friction and a great deal of common civic pride. Various incentives were offered to Jewish immigrants: freedom of worship and investment, exemption from military service, things that could hardly be taken for granted elsewhere in eighteenth-century Europe.
Before Mussolini came along, Trieste was a place that was happy to have you. Of course, it preferred you if you were rich and enterprising, but the permanently penniless James Joyce managed to make it his home, there writing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, much of Ulysses, and a play, aptly titled Exiles. He even “became an oddly welcome guest in some of the rich mercantile houses of the city.” But Trieste was less happy for Nora Joyce, from the moment when she first arrived at the train station, only to be stood up by her husband. Jim was carousing with sailors, got drunk and disorderly, and was arrested. It took an unimpressed British Consul to prise him out of gaol.
Those were the last glory years of Trieste, the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s window onto the Mediterranean. Indeed it was often called ‘Vienna on the sea’: Triestine clothes could usually be read as an index of the latest Viennese fashions, while its bars could be mistaken for Viennese coffee houses (Illy, my choice of ground espresso coffee, when I can afford it, is Triestino). And though it all fell under the distant aegis of the Emperor, its order was not driven by a feckless, philistine aristocracy but by “that well-heeled business society, solid and earnest, [which] flourishes still…Like the governing classes of Chicago and Manchester, it interested itself assiduously in the arts.”
As with so many other places, Britain among them, Trieste’s golden age ended with the First World War. It was passed to Italy in thanks for their part on the Allied side, but what with Venice, Naples and Genoa, Italy had little use for another port city. Robbed of its raison d’être, Trieste lost its self-confidence: it embraced Mussolini’s promises of power and glory, though kept a strong enough grip on its humanity to help speed the escape of central-European Jews, mostly to British-ruled Palestine. It even earned another nickname, the Port of Zion. But in 1943, Italy threw in its lot with the Allies: the very next day, the Nazis took Trieste in reprisal, and converted the rice treatment plant of San Sabba into the sole extermination camp on Italian soil. “I hate to go there now,” Morris writes:
It is the one place in Trieste that speaks of the tragic rather than the poignant. Although it is now an Italian national memorial and a tourist site, with its bare walls and shadows, its death chamber, its vile cells and the site of its crematorium, it still feels menacingly terrible to me. As it happens it stands not far from the city’s Jewish cemetery, where in happier times Jews had passed to a more proper end.
After the war, Trieste spent nine years as a bewildered free state. Churchill’s “iron curtain” quote is famous, but we usually forget that in the same breath he drew it “from Stettin to Trieste.” Now it lies once again within the compass of Italy, that part of Italy snagged on the Balkans; and if its destiny as a trade centre has been lost forever, it has at least, Morris argues, remembered its destiny as a calm, cultured, compassionate melting pot. “If race is a fraud, as I often think in Trieste, then nationality is a cruel pretence,” she writes. “You can change your nationality by the stroke of a notary’s pen.” At a time when nostalgist mythmongers currently shout across Italian politics, one hopes that Trieste still maintains its traditional, polite scepticism.
In early January 2017, on a cold, dark winter’s night, I landed at Venice airport. I boarded the bus that would take me to the train station, where I would catch two regionali back down to Ravenna. As the engines idled, the woman sitting across from me struck up conversation, obviously recognising me as part of the TEFLing diaspora. I taught English in Ravenna, she in Trieste: while my train would take me south, hers would take her up and around the Venetian lagoon, all the way down to the Istrian peninsular. It seemed impossibly far away. Years later, now in Florence, two of my students would name Trieste as their favourite Italian city. They were both of a type: sober, thoughtful young men, gentle and kind. Had she met them, Morris would have known who they were:
There are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, or a diaspora of their own. They are the lordly ones! They come in all colours. They can be Christians or Hindus or Muslims or Jews or pagans or atheists….They may be patriots, but they are never chauvinists. They share with each other, across all the nations, common values of humour and understanding. When you are among them you will not be mocked or resented, because they will not care about your race, your faith, your sex or your nationality…They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion or political correctness. They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if only they knew it. It is the nation of nowhere, and I have come to think that its natural capital is Trieste.
Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere is published by Faber and is available here.