"The drb sustains a level of commentary on Irish and international matters that no other journal in Ireland and few elsewhere can reach. It deserves all the support that can be given it." X
Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

James Joyce and Italo Svevo

The Story of a Friendship
Stanley Price
Somerville Press


From Chapter 1: First Meeting

The Via San Nicolo is in the centre of Trieste, a five-minute walk from the sea and the old port. No. 32 San Nicolo is a four-storey, mid-nineteenth-century grey stone house. On its impressive portico there are three plaques. The first reads (in translation): James Joyce lived on the 3rd floor with his brother Stanislaus in 1907. The second reads: The Berlitz School started on the 1st floor in 1905for the teaching of English Language. The third reads: The Berlitz School where Italo Svevo arranged his English lessons with James Joyce. These form part of a series of plaques that mark the Joyce and Svevo Ltinerari that today help guide scholars and tourists around Trieste.

When they first met in the spring of 1907 on that first floor, James Joyce was twenty-five and Italo Svevo forty-five. Joyce had been earning a scant living teaching English since he had arrived in Trieste two years before. Svevo was a successful businessman in the mercantile paint company belonging to his wife's family. His business took him on regular visits to England and he desperately wanted to improve his English. He had taken some lessons from an expatriate Englishman, but the lessons bored him. It was probably through friends in the prosperous business community that Svevo first heard of the young Irishman, bohemian and eccentric, a good, if unorthodox, English teacher. For his part, Joyce welcomed pupils like Svevo, because he was trying to recruit an affluent clientele for private lessons. Joyce quickly discovered that his new pupil had a wide-ranging knowledge of European literature in several languages, though English was his weakest. Svevo was equally surprised to find that, despite the age difference, Joyce's literary knowledge was almost equal to his own. Their lessons soon widened into discussions of comparative literature.

Initially the relationship was very formal and Mr. Joyce called his pupil Signor Schmitz. He would not have known anything about Italo Svevo, the pen name Ettore Schmitz had adopted. The reason for taking it, Svevo used to explain, was 'out of pity for the one vowel surrounded by six consonants in the name of Schmitz.'1 The pseudonym, which translates as Italian Swabian, neatly summed up his hybrid background. He was Italian by language, Austrian by citizenship (Trieste did not become part of Italy until 1919), and by ancestry and education German. In Italian, Svevo derives from Swabian, which is synonymous with southern German. His paternal grandfather, however, was Hungarian. This became a significant fact later, when Leopold Bloom makes his entrance into Ulysses. Joyce never forgot any detail that might some day prove useful. He makes Leopold Bloom's father originally Hungarian. When he first comes to Dublin his name is Virag, which translates into English as Bloom, the name he then adopts.

At this early stage in their English lessons, neither Joyce nor Svevo had yet discovered that the other was a writer. In 1907 neither had much to boast about in terms of literary success. Joyce's published work was a slim volume of poetry, Chamber Music, and two short stories in a Dublin magazine. He had, however, nearly finished Dubliners, the collection of short stories that was eventually published in 1914. Svevo had written two novels which were published privately, one in 1893 the other in 1898; to his intense disappointment, the critics had largely ignored them. 'Write one must,' he said, 'What one needn't do is publish.'2 Since then, he had limited himself to occasional newspaper articles on politics and art, several unproduced plays, and a collection of unpublished fables. He was, however, two published works ahead of Joyce at the time, and that didn't change for another seven years. Within a few weeks of their meeting, Joyce was going as often as three times a week to the Svevo home at Servola, on the sea just south of Trieste.