Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere

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Read 15/03/2021-21/03/2021

Rating 5 stars

In Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, Jan Morris explores a place that had deep personal meaning to her. I picked it from my local library as my second book in this year’s Dewithon, hosted by Paula at the Bookjotter blog. It is my first experience of Morris’s writing. I thought it would be a travel book. It is, but it’s also a number of other things.

Written when Morris was 75, the book is a meditation on place and the way some places chime more deeply with our souls than others. Morris uses the Welsh word hiraeth, a deep-seated yearning for home, similar to the German heimat, as talked about by Paul Scraton in Ghosts on the Shore, but not quite the same.

For Morris, Trieste was the place to which she was transported when some random moment summoned it in her mind. Usually, she says, in moments of homesickness when, “I am thinking sad thoughts about age, doubt and disillusion, but I am not unhappy.” The Trieste of her mind was always the waterfront, always as it had been when Morris was there as a soldier. She classifies Trieste as a sort of nowhere, too mundane to excite exuberance about it.

I am not the first to associate the city with nowhereness. The Viennese playwright Hermann Bahr, arriving there in 1909, said he felt as though he was suspended in unreality, as if he were ‘nowhere at all’. Trieste is a highly subjective sort of place, and often inspires such fancies. People who have never been there generally don’t know where it is. Visitors tend to leave it puzzled, and when they get home, remember it with a vague sense of mystery, something they can’t put a finger on. Those who know it better often seem to see it figuratively, not just as a city but as an idea of a city…

Morris is a generous and playful tour guide. She provides Trieste’s history in a gently teasing way, as though the place itself is a friend to her. She talks of the inhospitable Karst plateau that sits behind it, the earliest inhabitants from Illyria, its first guise as a city given by the Romans, and then the transformation into a significant port under the Habsburg Empire, before being handed over to Italy at the end of the First World War,  where it has languished in a kind of limbo, save for a nine year period being bounced between Allied victors of the Second World War, who wanted it for what it represented, but struggled with what it is.

She walks us through modern Trieste, as she knew it at the time of writing, comparing it to other places picked up by an imperial invader and then left to its own devices. We stand with her at the Obelisk that marks the Habsburg city limits and look down on the old walled city and its modern neighbour as she reflects on the city’s present and its interrupted past.

There’s a drifting, meandering calmness to Morris’s writing that fits with the drifting, meandering spirit she felt Trieste has. She says it’s not a city for pedants – it has its own rhythm, and it’s not a tourist rhythm or even that of a hub of mercantilism. It’s a loitering place, a place for drifters, and has been loved as such by writers and poets through the ages. Her descriptions of the cityscape reminded me of another port city that was losing its meaning, thanks to a tunnel that had taken away much of its ferry traffic – Aomori in Japan. We visited a few years ago now, and I remember people in Tokyo asking us where we were headed next on our trip only to laugh in puzzlement at our choice. I loved it, though. There was a yonderliness to the place, as though the rest of the world had forgotten about it, leaving it to its own devices. I would love to go back to Aomori, and the way Morris wrote about Trieste makes me think I’d enjoy visiting there, too.

It interested me that Morris compares Trieste not with other mercantile port cities like Liverpool, Bristol, New York, but with the manufacturing cities of Chicago and Manchester. I’m interested in anything that makes a comparison to Manchester. It’s the city where I live and work, and the museum where I work documents the period of history after the small town on the River Irwell had burgeoned into Cottonopolis, with the new railway, the ship canal, the factory system and all the engineering and invention that underpinned it. Morris links Trieste to Manchester through its hard-headedness, its immigrant communities and its culture, in the form of universities, museums, concert orchestras and radical newspapers. She also makes reference to both places having a “conscious sense of separateness”, due to their both being “innovative, technological place[s], not hampered by nostalgia”. I see what she was driving at. Trieste became an Austrian city under the Habsburgs, but retained the influence of the Venetians and absorbed the migrant workers from surrounding countries. Manchester in the second half of the 19th century was a partly Germanic city, thanks to the arrival of engineers such as Charles Beyer and Hans Renold, the textile manufacturer Friedrich Engels Senior, and the pianist-conductor Charles Hallé, but also had a large Italian population and an Armenian merchant community, among others. Its 19th century attitude was one of non-conformity, something that has carried forward beyond the city’s industrial heyday.

The book starts out with each chapter reading like a new day on the holiday we’re taking with Morris as our guide. Later, it changes to reminiscence and reflection on a range of topics. Morris layers the history of Trieste with her own experiences and invites us to share her imaginings of what life there was like at its Habsburg peak. She introduces key personages in the city’s history, describing how they left their mark on the city, what they said about it, all of it recorded in a lyrical prose that really felt to me as though she was speaking to me alone, sharing her knowledge and her love for the place with me. Each chapter is also prefaced by a photograph, sometimes referred to directly in the following text, sometimes illustrative of an aspect of the chapter. The images lend an air of nostalgia to the writing, old as they are, and presented in a frame suggestive of a photograph album, and feel as though they are from a family collection that Morris is sharing with us.

Trieste is presented as a city of culture. James Joyce lived there for a number of years, learning to speak the local dialect and writing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and most of Dubliners. Two of Verdi’s operas had premieres in Trieste, the maestro attending the opening night of one. Egon Schiele spent time in the city, as did the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and the French consul who wrote under the name Stendhal.

Morris talks of Trieste as a place of exile, the end point of a journey, somewhere that people can banish themselves to in an attempt to be less visible, to live more anonymously than in the place they call home. It might be permanent or temporary. Trieste was also a place that people were banished to by others, a forcible removal from their regular lives, or fled to as the result of conflict. Morris talks of minor royals who don’t fit into their regal family’s rigid structure finding a different existence waiting for them in Trieste. I wondered what Morris would have made of the current British royal farrago. Other European royals arrived, fleeing revolution, counter-claims to a throne, or to be close to their deposed Emperor, in the case of Napoleon Bonaparte’s family. Morris casts a wry eye over their residencies in Trieste.

There is another exile that Morris gives a chapter of its own. For a place with such a history of changes of ruling state and such a multicultural population, it’s to be expected that Trieste would have a thriving Jewish community. Morris writes movingly of Trieste’s position as a gateway for Jews from other European countries to escape the Nazis to Palestine or to America, Albert Einstein among them, and the lack of movement of the Trieste Jews until too late. She tells of a former rice treatment plant, turned into a ‘processing’ centre by the Nazis after they took control of Trieste following Italy’s switch from Axis to Ally, and the hundreds of Jews killed there or transported from there to death camps elsewhere in the Reich.

Morris turns her thoughts to the issue of race and an apparent lack of bigotry in Trieste’s history, until the 20th century and the rise of Fascism. “What is race?” she asks. It’s a good question. What is it but a changeable construct that for most of the history of the term has been used to artificially separate humans on the basis of physical characteristics, but has also been used to separate us according to language, politics, religion, nationality and culture. Morris reached a similar conclusion, asking, “Could it be that racism is a sort of historical invention, a Satanic hoax?” And similarly, she questions the legitimacy of the notion of nationality and all that is built on it.

As the tangled history of [Trieste] shows, it is disposable. You can change your nationality by the stroke of a notary’s pen, you can enjoy two nationalities at the same time or find your nationality altered for you, overnight, by statesmen far away.

The final part of that second sentence made me think of Shamima Begum, the teenager from Bethnal Green in London who travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State/Daesh and who subsequently had her British citizenship, one of six types of British nationality recognised by the UK Government, stripped from her. Nationality is as political and ideological as race.

Morris wrote this book at the beginning of the 21st century. She was from an earlier generation, one that learnt history couched in patriotism underpinned by nationalism and its desire for power, where the language of race and racial difference was unchallenged by the holders of privilege.

I was a simple British patriot in those days – even Wales was subsumed in my idea of a benevolent and majestic British nation-state, benign suzerain of an unexampled empire, headed by a monarch everyone respected, led at that time by a charismatic champion, victorious as ever and destined to live happily ever after … In short, my views were probably much like those of most Britons of my age and kind, at the end of the Second World War.

It was interesting to read the thoughts of someone from her generation, getting their head around the slow change that the post Second World War push for equality is rendering. ‘Woke’ in its current meaning wasn’t yet a popular term in 2001, but Morris here shows signs of becoming aware of the social injustices around artificial structures like race. Thinking about how Morris perceived race, it flickered into my mind that all those who use ‘woke’ as an insult for people who want to address those social injustices are scared. White people invented race as a tool to divide and conquer, and now the people to whom we applied race terminology in order to classify them as beneath us are owning the terminology and making it their power. Morris only died last year. I wonder what her thoughts were on the changes that have happened since she wrote those words about historical invention, whether she continued her journey away from unthinking acceptance of racial terminology. She was an historian of Empire, after all. Perhaps I’ll read her Pax Britannica trilogy to understand her earlier viewpoint.

On nationality, Morris refers to herself as “a racial half-breed (father Welsh, mother English)” and talks about the Welsh resentment of the English, the Saeson, who first invaded the Principality in the 11th century under the Norman monarchy, and conquered it in the 13th century under Edward I. That resentment has, over the long centuries that followed, sparked into rebellion from time to time, from Owain Glyndŵr in the 15th century to Meibion Glyndŵr in the 20th. Morris doesn’t mention Welsh rebellion, but her discussion of the Italian nationalist Irredentist movement must have chimed with her knowledge of Wales’ own attempts at independence from a nation viewed by some as occupiers.

Morris considered herself to be Welsh, through her Welsh father, although she was born and raised in England. Her mother’s family was from Somerset, a place that, for Morris, links to Trieste through the limestone hills that make up the Mendips. For me, thanks to the last book I read, Somerset is also linked to Wales through its Arthurian mythology.

The book ends with Morris reflecting on the 21st century reinvention of Trieste as alternative tourist destination, outward looking centre of science, and place of international culture. Morris also muses on Trieste as a limbo for the living, a nowhere sort of place that frees people to momentarily be nobody and, in so pausing, perhaps finding out who to continue to be. Trieste, she says, exists to be itself, as do we. In the Epilogue, she quotes a line from the Wallace Stevens poem Tea at the Palaz of Hoon to show that this book about Trieste and about exile is a book about herself, an exile from normality in the years she spent living in the gender of her biological sex, and at the age of 75 an exile from time itself. In recent months, I have caught myself hovering on the border of what Morris describes. It’s not a place I want to be, but I think almost all of us end up there. It’s the nature of this thing called life.

The past is a foreign country, but so is old age, and as you enter it you feel you are treading unknown territory, leaving your own land behind. You’ve never been here before. The clothes people wear, the idioms they use, their pronunciation, their assumptions, tastes, humours, loyalties all become more alien the older you get.

Inside, I’m not the chronological age I am, but I know that the people who are the age I feel view me as that chronological age. I noticed it yesterday, as we stepped out of the house to go to a local shop, and the teenagers gathered on the opposite kerb dialled down their natural exuberance. I want to join in with the daftness and the curiosity, because a large enough part of me is still there mentally, but I know that I can’t. I don’t have the reference points any more. Nieces, nephews and now great-nieces have been teaching me this for a while, but it feels like it’s getting more obvious lately that I’m edging towards that unknown territory that Morris refers to.

For Morris, though, this exile of age is also a freedom – “most things don’t matter as they used to”. This is something that was picked up on in the episode of Grayson’s Art Club on Dreams this week (Series 2 Episode 4). I was moved by the 59 year old gay man who had spent his life fascinated by drag queens but hadn’t felt able to explore this aspect of his own personality. He and Perry talked about that point in life where it no longer matters what other people think and the liberation it brings.

I have noticed that, recently, too. The way I think about it is, I’ve more of my life behind me than I have in front, and the years of feeling a responsibility towards getting it right, making decisions that impact on a relatively distant future, are turning into the years of living for the moment. It’s not just the weirdness of the past 12 months that is changing my understanding of time, it really is condensing in the sense that waiting for things to happen doesn’t have the same impatience of expectation. Next things are increasingly just around the corner instead of aeons away. Doing what’s right for me is now more important than nailing some wider notion of what’s ‘right’. And something a friend of my mother’s once said, that has stuck with me since 16, about people distilling to the essence of who they are as they age, feels true rather than abstract now. We exist to be ourselves and the exile of aging makes that easier.

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere was a delightful read, not at all what I was expecting. I’ll definitely be reading more of Jan Morris’s writing.

7 thoughts on “Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere

    1. I can’t believe I’ve never read her before, Paula, or that it took her death and the response of other writers I like, all saying what an influence she has been on them, for her to appear on my radar. I’ve now got a group of her books on a library list for future reading pleasure.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Wonderful post, Jan. I’ve come close to reading something from Morris so many times yet it’s not happened. She was so prolific and wide-ranging that it feels quite daunting – deciding where to start and what to pick knowing it will not be possible to read everything. This certainly sounds intriguing. If Morris was right, I know I would love Trieste.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Sandra. She makes Trieste sound such an intriguing place. I love books that take places that seem unremarkable, if assessed against a set of criteria that favours general tourist appeal, and show a different side to travel. I think I’m going to try her book about travelling across America next.

      Liked by 1 person

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