JOYCE ON THE BATTER

Having taken a wife, the costs of keeping a family throw a man further into misery, the wife soon withers under the strain of having to look after the children, the kitchen, to pay the costs of her profession. The husband can no longer put up with the dark, small, cold and unhealthy house, full of the shouts of the children and the complaints of the wife. The pub nearby gives him the oblivion of drunkenness, he becomes nasty and is destined for a bad end. And with him the family ...

These words of Giuseppe Bertelli, writes John McCourt, in The Years of Bloom, give “a rather dire prognosis, yet when applied to Joyce’s early years in Trieste [provide] a somewhat apt summary of a period that was characterized by a permanent shortage of money, by tensions between the couple and by Joyce’s frequent escapes to drown his sorrows in the osterie of the old city”. His brother Stanislaus wrote: “Jim went out at night until one or two o’clock, ranging from one smoky pothouse or low bar to another, and then came falling in about the place, or I went out to look for him.”

Joyce, writes McCourt, entertained good relations with the bar proprietors, who were considerably more generous in allowing him credit than Dublin publicans. Luckily for those who had to go out looking for him in the early hours – Stanislaus or his friend Francini Bruni – Joyce was not a belligerent drunk, and he was so slight he could be easily carried.

Many of these low dives were patronised by agitators and Joyce was able to learn a lot about Trieste’s thriving socialist culture. An Austrian (Trieste being then part of the empire) police report referred to

the usual hangouts of anarchists and socialists, who cursed God, incited hostility towards those from different classes of civilized society and mocked the doctrines and beliefs of a religion legally recognized by the state, supplying clear evidence of crimes under article 122 and offences listed in articles 302 and 303 of the Penal Code of the Empire.

The narrow streets of the old town where Joyce stumbled from dive to dive are a fashionable quarter today, with no smoky shebeens but some pleasant wine bars and, near one of Joyce’s favourite haunts, l’Osteria della città di Parenzo, a fine and expensive antiquarian bookseller. John McCourt’s fascinating account of Joyce’s Trieste years is published by Lilliput.