Joyce And Svevo: Art Borrowing From Life

Joyce and Svevo lives and writings overlap, borrowing from each other's experiences as they learn from and influence each other's works.

We can safely say that, had Joyce and Svevo not met, both their lives and literary output would have evolved very differently. Pages have been dedicated to the overlapping of these two influential artists’ lives and writings. My aim is to concentrate on the overlapping in their friendship and the practicalities for Joyce of living as an exile in Svevo’s native city, Trieste.

I want to underline Joyce’s extraordinary feat in creating Leopold Bloom, an exiled Jew in Dublin, who closely resembled, among others, Svevo himself. Through reading and borrowing from Svevo’s Una Vita (A Life), Joyce managed to see even more depth in very ordinary lives. He appreciated Svevo’s insight into the universality of character traits and social norms. Joyce’s appreciation for this novel spurred Svevo to go back to writing, having abandoned it for many years.

Exile in Trieste

From 1904 Joyce, the twenty-two year old struggling Irish, would-be writer in voluntary exile traveled between Paris, London and Rome, with his wife, Nora. They ended up in Trieste quite by chance because he got word of a possible teaching position at the Berlitz School there — a position that, it turned out, was non-existent. After some months spent teaching in Pola, he eventually got the teaching post in Trieste in 1907. Among his pupils were the businessman Ettore Schmitz and his wife Livia. Schmitz, a German and Triestine dialect speaker, was well read in German, French and Russian literature. He was manager of his father-in-law’s painting business and he needed English urgently as the business was expanding to England. Joyce admired the strong familiar ties and moral conscience he saw in this Jewish couple, qualities he thought described himself. 

Kindred spirits and shared confidences

When Joyce got the Schmitz couple to read his short story The Dead as a language exercise, they expressed enthusiasm and Schmitz showed a very astute critical sense. In a later letter to Joyce after reading three chapters of his novel The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, he wrote: “You must write only about strong things. In your skilled hands they can become stronger. I do not believe you can give the appearance of strength to things that are in themselves feeble, not important.”

This was the beginning of their long friendship and reciprocal esteem. Following this impressive letter, Joyce paid more attention to his pupil with whom he discussed many fashionable topics including psychoanalysis, introduced into Italy in 1910 by Svevo’s nephew, Dr. Edoardo Weiss. He also practically interrogated Schmitz on practices typical in Jewish family life and especially relating to Jewish women. His pupil shyly told him of the two novels he’d written without commercial success under the pseudonym Italo Svevo, Una Vita and Senilità. Joyce read them and was very taken with both. In the Una Vita characters, the brother and sister Emilio and Amalia Brentani, Joyce could see people from his own ‘sleepy’ Dublin and he recognized their depth and potential as fictional characters. This appraisal led Svevo to once again dip into writing what would become La Coscienza di Zeno. Joyce saw in the protagonist Zeno Cosini a new kind of hero, imperfect but kindly, comic and deeply human, his consciousness flowing upstream from his desires. 

In Zeno the theme of smoking addiction is part of the narrative. This fascinated Joyce, who believed that a person could resist being slave to any habit. Ironically, in 1928, Svevo himself would be refused a cigarette on his deathbed following a car accident. “It would have been my last,” he quipped, in reference to Zeno.


By 1923, Joyce was an established figure among the sophisticated writers living in Paris. Thanks to his growing contact network, Eugenio Montale wrote a positive review of Zeno. This and other reviews led to a publicity campaign and the publishing of a second edition of Senilità for which Svevo thanked Joyce, writing that he had “resuscitated him, like Lazarus.” A friend of Svevo’s, Carlo Serafini organized a conference on Joyce in Trieste which was favourably received. However, neither of them could afford to write full-time and the need to earn a living was one of their greatest frustrations. The Joyce family, James and Nora and their children Giorgio and Lucia, his brother Stanislaus and his sister Eileen, both of whom later married people from Trieste, all lived there for varying periods from 1904 to 1915. Nora’s life was spent minding her children, Giorgio and Lucia, and making ends meet on the paltry sums her husband gave her. She was often tempted to leave him, his biggest defect being his drinking habits.

Socializing in Trieste

He was a habitué of many of Trieste’s enticing coffee houses and bars. He was as much in his element in the company of dockworkers and sailors in their rundown harbor drinking places as he was with the intellectuals in the Caffé San Marco, the haunt of Svevo, Saba and other local letterati. This renowned establishment would later become the set for the film version of Senilità and La Coscienza di Zeno. Spoiled for choice in elegant coffee houses like the Caffé degli Specchi and the Caffé Pirona, his favorite meeting spot and the place where he enjoyed his favorite pastry, the pinolata, conveniently located on the street where Joyce lived from 1910 to 1912, Caffé Tommaseo, a meeting place for sympathizers of Italian nationalist movements and others that adorned the piazze of the town. He and the Italian nationalists agreed that exploiting what the oppressors provided did not amount to selling out on their aspirations. Joyce would boast that while it galled him to travel on a British passport, he proudly exhibited it when it was convenient.

Becoming more cosmopolitan

Joyce soaked up the atmosphere of the cosmopolitan town, absorbing the sounds and the babble of overlapping languages. This mixture would be central to the creation of the incomprehensible, yet melodic ‘soup of language’ he would later use in Finnegan’s Wake. He would do his caffé crawl until his credit ran out with even the most understanding of proprietors, and he was forced — weather and wife permitting — to walk the lungomare and chat with acquaintances, or sit at home writing in their cheap lodgings until his next pay check.

However, Joyce did gradually pick up the more refined socializing skills of his companions and learned that his ‘Irish’ drinking style was not always appreciated. One of Joyce’s traits was his restlessness. He was content in Trieste and his writing flourished, but he moved to Rome for no better reason than because, as he said in a letter to his brother Stanislaus, “I feel it’s there waiting for me.” In Rome he taught English in another language institute. He immediately disliked ‘the crumbling city’ and, in a letter to his friend Francini in Trieste, compared it to a cemetery. “The exquisite panorama is made up of flowers of death, ruins, piles of bones, skeletons.” He compared the coffee houses in Rome to the splendid establishments in Trieste and found them inferior. But it was Rome that inspired the short story The Dead and much of the family’s poverty stricken existence there filters into his masterpiece Ulysses. Disillusioned with Rome, they returned to the familiarity of Trieste.

Trieste filters into Bloom’s Dublin

In Leopold Bloom’s wanderings through Dublin, many scholars have seen that the two cities at times blend and sombre Dublin becomes its Adriatic mirror image — Trieste under Austrian rule, with Greek, Turkish and Albanian costumes in the street, drab Dublin under British rule, a bleak backwater of the Empire that knew its days as such were numbered, a fact that many in Dublin regretted.

Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Ulysses, is part of Joyce’s Trieste, inspired partly by Svevo, a Jewish merchant in a hostile city. Joyce also took traits from another real-life Trieste native, Teodoro Mayer, of Hungarian-Jewish origin, founder of Trieste’s Il Piccolo della Sera, whose aim was to spread Italian nationalism. The irony of Mayer being made an Italian senator was seized on by Joyce. Leopold Bloom was a Jewish newspaperman who did his bit for Irish nationalism. Reality and fiction sometimes overlapped and, between 1907 and 1912, Joyce contributed eight articles to this newspaper and gave a talk on the Irish political situation.

By the time Joyce left Trieste, Svevo had taught him everything he knew about Jewish culture, rites, and sacred texts. In a lecture he gave in Milan in 1927, translated from the Italian by Joyce’s brother Stanislaus, Svevo said: “We Triestines have a right to regard him with deep affection as if he belonged in a certain sense to us. It is a great title of honor for my city that in Ulysses some of the streets of Dublin stretch on and on into the windings of old Trieste. Recently Joyce wrote to me, ‘If Anna Livia (the Liffey) were not swallowed up by the ocean, she would certainly debouch into the Canal Grande of Trieste.’ Trieste was for him a little Ireland which he was able to contemplate with more detachment than he could in his own country. A piece of Ireland, his childhood and youth, ripening under our sun.” 

In 1915, the situation in Trieste made it impossible for the Joyce family to go on living there. They fled to Zurich leaving their belongings in Stanislaus’s flat. It would fall to Svevo to bring his papers to Switzerland.

One sour note in their friendship and typical of Joyce was that, after Svevo’s death, he refused his widow Livia’s request to write the foreword to the new English translation of Senilità, saying he’d always made a point of not commenting formally on the work of other writers. His brother Stanislaus wrote the foreword in his stead.

Final dedication to friends

In Finnegan’s Wake we see yet another tribute by Joyce to his friends and to Trieste. This was the character Anna Livia. Anna is both woman and river, the Liffey, the life of Dublin. Joyce wrote to Svevo telling him that he had immortalized Svevo’s wife Livia in using her name and her flowing hair as a symbol of the river Liffey. Livia was flattered, but when she heard that the context was two washerwomen scrubbing dirty linen on the riverbank, she was disgusted. For Joyce there was no problem in this juxtaposition, the river was lovely yet filthy, Dublin was dear yet dirty. He was a genius and a drunk. That’s life, he would shrug.

As to Anna Livia, the reader cannot identify with her. She is too remote, too abstract. Whereas Molly Bloom is flesh and appetite, Anna Livia is essence. “Is there one who understands me?” — she cries. Probably not, not even Joyce. Anna was Joyce’s final signature. Despite her trepidation, Anna meets her fate resolutely, as she goes towards her end, the enveloping sea. It was January 1941. His eyesight failing, hostility mounting towards Finnegans Wake. His daughter, Lucia, his inspiration, had been committed to an asylum, Europe in the throes of war and Joyce himself was unknowingly on the brink of death.

Another cryptic Irish writer, Edna O’Brien, sums up what Anna Livia represents. She is Joyce’s last linguistic creation, his farewell to words that, like the river, will run into the sea to be shared with the whole world.

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