Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere by Jan Morris


My library copy of this 200-page book is bristling with post-it notes as there's so much I want to remember about it. 

 I've meant to read something by Jan Morris for a long time, in particular her book about Venice, written in 1960. I don't remember what I saw that made me light on this one, but I'm so glad I did. Jan Morris was first in Trieste as a soldier in 1946 when her name was James Morris. She had been visiting the city for 50 years when she wrote this book in 2001. 

Trieste became a vibrant port city during the second half of the 19th century and flourished as "Vienna's port city" until the end of the Habsburg Empire in 1918. The city has no memorable landmark or cuisine and for Morris, at least, is a slightly melancholy place. Its merchant princes, whatever their origins, eventually "accepted Austrian titles; generally they lived in the Austrian style, florid and pompous but tempered by Biedermeier." I looked up that slightly familiar word "Biedermeier" and found that it refers to the artistic style of literature, interior design, and other arts that grew with the rise of the middle class during the period 1815 to 1848. So, a rather stolid city. 

The city is in Italy, though its connection to that country has not been constant; after the war the UN Security Council kept it from becoming a part of Yugoslavia and it wasn't until 1954 that it was returned to Italy. It is on the Adriatic Sea east of Venice, separated from Slovenia by a limestone karst. Duino is a half hour drive away, where Brooke has taught at the International Music Festival of the Adriatic. 

I was aware of the city as the place where Sir Richard Francis Burton, the explorer, was sent in 1872 as Consul, a post he found disappointing. He wrote The Arabian Knights and the Kama Sutra in Trieste where he lived until his death in 1890. James Joyce also lived here and wrote all of A Portrait of a Young Man as an Artist and parts of Dubliners and Ulysses in the city.

To give a taste of the joy of reading Morris, I quote from this chapter about exile:

…this is a city made for exiles. Many exiles, of course, are given no choice, but I imagine most of us sometimes tire of living in the open, where everything is plain to see and we ourselves are obvious, and for anyone with this sporadic impulse to withdraw into somewhere less transparent, Trieste offers a compelling destination–surreptitious itself, and ambiguous. It has offered a new home to many expatriates, voluntary or compulsory, but in the event many have spent half their time here wistfully wishing they were somewhere else. For this is an ironic gift of the place–to attract and to sadden, both at the same time.

I've been grateful to have a book about a place that is so other-worldly, written by a person whose life is so unconventional as I face the choice Americans made in this election (though it's important to remember that the majority of Americans voted for Hillary Clinton). I admire the courage of James Morris who had a operation for "change of sexual role" in 1972 and remained with the woman he married in 1949. 

Jan Morris, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, Simon and Schuster, 2001, 203 pages. Available in the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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