Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere

One warm day in 1946 I sat down on a bollard on the Molo Audace, close to the Piazza Unita, to write a maudlin essay.
– Jan Morris, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere

On a day of downpour and flood there was nothing else to do but grab a book and hole up as the rain hammered down. I alighted on one that’s been lying around for some time: Jan Morris’s Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, published in 2001 and stated by Morris herself to be her last book. It’s a  work infused with sweet melancholy about a city where, she writes, ‘more than anywhere I remember lost times, lost chances, lost friends, with the sweet tristesse that is onomatopoeic to the place’:

Melancholy is Trieste’s chief rapture. In almost everything I read about this city, by writers down the centuries, melancholy is evoked. It is not a stabbing sort of disconsolation, the sort that makes you pine for death (Although Trieste’s suicide rate, as a matter of fact, is notoriously high.) In my own experience it is more like our Welsh hiraeth, expressing itself in bitter-sweetness and a yearning for we know not what.

Trieste, and in particular that bollard on the Audace jetty, was the symbolic focus, too, of the last book I read by Jan Morris, Fifty Years of Europe: An Album, which came out in 1997.  It was a celebration of Europe in all its diversity, and of the New Europe that seemed to be emerging following the end of the Cold War.  Snapshots of Europe across time and place were illuminated by Jan’s musings as, metaphorically perched on that jetty bollard, she circled back to the young officer James Morris seated on the same bollard in a smashed and divided Europe at the end of the second world war, preparing to write an essay on nostalgia.  Morris concluded that the nostalgia she felt then – for the Hapsburg Mitteleuropa of shared values, a cohesive mixture of peoples and languages – was, ‘nostalgia not for a lost Europe, but for a Europe that never was, and has yet to be’.

In Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, Morris returns to Trieste to explore the city as a world in itself, the capital of nowhere:

There are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, a diaspora of their own. They come in all colours. They can be Christians or Hindus or Muslims or Jews or pagans or atheists. They can be young or old, men or women, soldiers or pacifists, rich or poor. They may be patriots, but they are never chauvinistic. They share with each other, across all the nations, common values of humour and understanding. When you are among them you know you will not be mocked or resented, because they will not care about your race, your faith, your sex or your nationality, and they suffer fools if not gladly, at least sympathetically. They laugh easily. They are easily grateful. They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion or political correctness. They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if only they knew it. It is the nation of nowhere, and I have come to think that its natural capital is Trieste.

What she’s getting at here (and she admits she may be romanticising somewhat) is that Trieste is a city which has found itself part of  successive empires – Illyrian, Roman, Venetian, Hapsburg – and states, resulting in a cultural mix of languages, peoples and traditions. Austro-Hungarydeveloped the docks and brought the railway from Vienna, so that the city became, for a short time, a trading port with global connections.  The Italians claimed it, European Jews enriched it –  until the Nazis arrived and stayed long enough to deport those Jews who had not already left for Palestine.

Jan Morris is unequivocal in her detestation of nationalism:

The Europe of my dreams had never existed, above all because of nationality.  If race is a fraud, as I often think in Trieste, then nationality is a cruel pretence.   There is nothing organic to it.  As the tangled history of this place shows, it is disposable.  You can change your nationality by the stroke of a notary’s pen…or findd your nationality altered for you, overnight, by statesmen far away.

Morris extols Trieste’s relaxed and cosmopolitan flavour. Part-Austrian, part-Italian and part-Slovenian, Trieste has benefitted from the mercantile know-how of Greeks and Jews and all these ingredients of the city’s make-up are explored as she wanders the streets, squares and quays.

She also writes evocatively about the limestone plateau above the city, the Karst – its name adopted by geologists to describe all such similar limestone topographies – an ‘elemental slab’ of  rock and stone above the city, whose people have been hardened by history, climate and geology.  It’s a Slavic world of partisans, the Glagolitic alphabet and Hum, the self-proclaimed ‘smallest town in the world’.

Towards the end of the book, Morris remarks that she has looked at Trieste as she would look into a mirror, and to emphasise the solipsistic nature of most travel and travel writing she quotes Wallace Stevens:

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself

She continues:

For years I felt myself an exile from normality, and now I feel myself one of those exiles from time.  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 the more alien the older you get.  The countryside changes.  The policeman are children.  Even hypochondria, the Trieste disease, is not what it was, for that interesting pain in the ear-lobe may not now be imaginary at all, but some obscure senile reality.

Morris declares that this is her last book:

The books I have written are no more than smudged graffiti on a wall, and I shall write no more of them. Money? Enough to live on. Critics? To hell with ’em. Kindness is what matters, all along.

If it is her last, it completes an extraordinary life of travel. The book’s publication in 2001 coincided with her seventy-fifth birthday. God knows how many books she has written since that first visit to Trieste.   Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere is a passionate and beautifully-written conclusion to that literary career.

As for me, when the clock moves on for the last time…now and then you may find me in a boat below the walls of Miramar, watching the nightingales swarm.

2 thoughts on “Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere

  1. I wanted to thank you for your wonderful blog. I “met” you through your ruminations on Trieste and I really enjoyed the Liverpool canal walk. You have a wonderful ability to make me feel the place you’re talking about and you love the places that are a bit scruffy and worn, places that have heart. Please keep writing and taking pictures.

  2. Thank you very much, Linda, for your kind comments. I’m always pleased when others find these reflections worthwhile.

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