Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Joyce Trail in Trieste Part 3: English Lessons with Signor Joyce

'he was capped out of beurlads* scoel for the sin against the past participle'   FW 467.24

This magnificently moustachioed gentleman is Maximilian Berlitz, inventor of the Berlltz method of language teaching. In the Berlitz system, there is no formal teaching of grammar or use of translation. Instead, classes are held solely in the target language, and the teacher uses gestures and tone of voice to convey meaning. It's a system Berlitz discovered by accident while running a language school in New York in 1878You can read the whole story on the Berlitz website which describes how he came to realise that 'the strict learning method had to give way to an animated process of discovery.'  

The system was so successful that, by the time Joyce reached Trieste, there were more than 200 schools worldwide. Here's the Trieste Berlitz school, founded in 1901 by Almidano Artifoni (who gave his name to Stephen's music teacher in Ulysses). The school was on the first floor, and had four classrooms.

There are two Joyce Trail plaques on the building because, as well as teaching here, Joyce lived upstairs, on the 3rd floor, in 1907.

He also lived next door, at 30 Via San Nicolo, from May 1905 to February 1906, after being evicted from Piazza Ponterosso because of Nora's pregnancy. In a letter to Stanislaus, Joyce explained that he 'conceived the daring plan of living in the house next the school and astonishing the landlady by the glamour of that wonderful establishment.' It was here that their son Giorgio was born, on 27 July 1905.  On the ground floor, there's a famous bookshop once run by the poet Umberto Saba (who has his own trail around Trieste).

Joyce lived on the second floor here



'He (Berlitz) had managed to patent an American style gimmick for filling skulls with modern languages and then making these languages come out through the mouth sounding like a big belch. Then using American high pressure, he gathered an army of stray dogs from every place imaginable and unleashed them on the surface of the globe...Here they are, the wretched ones, with no other inclination but to line the pockets of the Wizard, not only eating their lungs and livers out but also showing the holy image of the Venerable to ignorant and devout humanity.
'Who is this?'
'It is Mr B.'
'Am I Mr B'
'No, (unfortunately). You are Mr Joyce.'' 

That's a description of Joyce teaching the Berlitz method from his fellow teacher and friend, Alessandro Francini Bruni. It comes from 'Joyce Stripped Naked in the Piazza', a scurrilous and very funny lecture Francini Bruni gave in 1922, which you can find in Portraits of the Artist in Exile.

The bit that jumped out at me is the description of the Berlitz teachers 'eating their lungs and livers out.'  It reminded me of this Wake line:

'And trieste, ah trieste ate I my liver!'  301.16

This is glossed in McHugh with the Italian expression 'mi sono mangiato il fegato': I ate my heart out (literally 'I ate my liver') expressing grief, vexation or anger.

The Wake line also echoes a Verlaine poem, which the poet Dario de Tuoni remembers Joyce reciting in Trieste on evening walks:

'Stopping where the shades grew darker, he would exclaim in a mysterious grieving tone: ''O triste, triste était mon âme/ A cause, à cause d'une femme.' (Ricordi di Joyce a Trieste)
'My liver' also suggests 'livre', or book: Trieste was (était) my book, and 'my living' maybe. So this little Wake line is packed with memories of Trieste.
In his letters to Stanislaus, Joyce often 'eats his liver', expressing vexation at working in the school:

'The other English teacher here said to me last night as he looked at my suit 'I often notice that eccentric people have very little taste: they wear anything. I give you a tip. If you have no taste go for grey. Stick to grey. Doesn't matter what kind – always looks gentlemanly.' Now this seems to me on mature reflection a bloody awful position to be in. Some day I shall clout my pupils about the head, I fear, and stalk out.'  
To Stanislaus 4 April 1905 (SL 59) 

'Trieste is not cheap and the difficulties of an English teacher living with a woman on a salary fit for a navvy or stoker and expected to keep up a 'gentlemanly' appearance and to ease his intellectual heart by occasional visits to a theatre or bookshop are very great...The regime of these schools is a reign of terror and ...I should be in a much more terrorised position were it not that many of my pupils (noblemen and signori and editors and rich people) have praised me highly to the director....There is no hope of advancement and a continual fear of collapse. 
 To Stanislaus 12 July 1905 (SL 65)


Near the Berlitz School, on the corner of Via Dante and the piazza Sant' Antonio Nuovo, we found the Caffe Stella Polare, a regular haunt of the Berlitz teachers, who'd come here after work to 'eat their livers'.  Joyce used to meet his friend and pupil Italo Svevo here, who also has a plaque on the wall.

I had a pint and Lisa had a caffè freddo.

A pint in memory of Joyce at the Stella Polare



On Corso Saba, just down the road from our hotel, Lisa spotted a building with a Joyce plaque which I wasn't expecting – it's not included in the Joyce Trail leaflet.  
This is the grand house of Count Francesco Sordina, a Greek nobleman who took lessons with Joyce at the Berlitz school. Joyce wrote to Stanislaus in October 1905, 'Count Sordina has praised me very highly and brought several real live ladies and gentlemen of his acquaintance to the school.' (Letters II 123).

Thanks to Sordina's connections, Joyce was able to leave the Berlitz school in 1907, and make a better living as a private teacher to the upper classes.  Sordina also helped Joyce get to Zurich when World War One broke out. 

The front door of Sordina's house has this lovely wooden relief of Mercury, the god of money, holding a moneybag. I bet this struck Joyce as a lucky sign every time he walked through the door.  In 1921, he wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver, 'I have spent a great deal of time with Greeks of all kinds from noblemen down to onion sellers....I am superstitious about them. They bring me luck.' (Letters I 167)


Here's another school we found on the Joyce Trail. It's the Scuola Superiore di Commercio, known as the 'Revoltella', at 12 Via Carducci.  Joyce taught for six hours a week here from 1913-15. This was very different from the Berlitz system, as grammar was taught, and Italian was spoken alongside English. Joyce was expected to teach commercial correspondence, using English accountancy texts and business contracts.



John McCourt's excellent book, The Years of Bloom, has some fascinating accounts of what it was like to be taught by Joyce. He quotes Boris Furlan, a pupil of Joyce's at the Revoltella.


'His lessons were...a little bit particular: he could ask me to describe a petrol-lamp – of course I was unable to do so, with my knowledge of English, and then he started describing it himself for about half an hour.'


And here's a private pupil, Oscar Schwarz, from a letter sent in 1955 to Richard Ellmann:

'I do not know how James spent his time with other pupils: as to myself I can tell you that he mostly declaimed Paul Verlaine in French or read St Thomas Aquinas in Latin or sang arias by Bellini accompanying himself on the piano....he treated me more as a friend than as a pupil. I was then 17 years old.'


My favourite account is from Renzo Crivelli's Triestine Itineraries, where he quotes an interview with a lady referred to as Signora G:

'Here in Trieste there was an English teacher who taught me very little English. Sometimes he was competely dressed in grey, from his hat to his shoes. Other times he wore an embroidered waistcoat, hem-stitched with figures and scenes...Sometime he began to talk and would not stop. He spoke about me, about my friend who came to the lessons with me, about my mother who came to the door and immedately withdrew, about my father, whose voice we could hear, about all my relations and friends that he could see in the photographs on the walls and on the tables. Joyce did not know them but he talked about them all the same.' 

So Joyce did decide to take the other English teacher's advice and 'go for grey'!  The embroidered waistcoat must be the hunting one, made for Joyce's grandfather, which Gabriel Conroy wears in 'The Dead', and which you can see today in the James Joyce Tower and Museum in Sandycove. When I quoted this on twitter, the James Joyce Gazette posted a photograph.

'a waistcoat of purple tabinet, with little foxes' heads upon it...'
Back to Signora G's memories, as quoted in Triestine Itineraries:

'My friend fell in love with him, she started to write and speak in English. She really lost her head. But her mother cured her'. And, because Joyce was 'inclined to get drunk', one evening 'he fell flat out on the floor of our sitting room. My friend's mother stopped us from helping the teacher get up and from assisting him in any way; she rushed off in a taxi to collect her daughter who was visiting a friend a couple of kilometres away, and brought her straight back to the house where Joyce was still lying on the floor. My friend, on her knees with a handkerchief in her hand, like a humble servant with a rag, looked at the teacher's face for a long time, at the bubble of saliva that swelled and shrank between his lips, at the one gloved hand that seemed, more than ever, to be made of fabric and the other, half hidden under the unbuttoned waistcoat, at the left pupil shining like a piece of glass at the edge of his eyelid.' This disgusting and repellent spectacle certainly had an immediate effect. 'Joyce came to a minute after love had left his young student's heart.'

Imagine if your English teacher did that!

* Berlitz and the Irish word 'Béarla': English language


  1. The story in final paragraph had me laughing hysterically.

    Thanks for this.

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