James Joyce and Italo Svevo. The history of a friendship, from Trieste to Milan

This article is a translation by Marianna Orsi of the original Italian work “James Joyce e Italo Svevo. Storia, un po’ triestina, un po’ milanese, di un’amicizia” by Mario Taccone, published for RadiciDigitali on November 27, 2017.

Life Makes Connections
What do James Joyce, Italo Svevo, Eugenio Montale and Ezra Pound have in common? This is a question that might be a good starting point for a class discussion.
The answer is, in fact, simple: they are all contemporary authors, whose biographies are intertwined in space and time.
This notion certainly helps to understand a crucial concept: “Authors” are not parallel universes uncommunicative vassels, as students often think, when they consider writers separated chapters of a school book, or different subjects unrelated to one another.
Keeping this in mind, we can start an interdisciplinary, multilingual, and eclectic trip through the story of Joyce’s and Svevo’s friendship.

A Fortunate Meeting
Everything started in Spring 1907, in Trieste, at the time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. James Joyce is a young Irish expatriate, he has lived in Italy for a couple of years, and he is teaching English at Berlitz School. At night he tutors several students to supplement his wages: among them, Ettore Schmitz – also known with the pen name Italo Svevo – a gentleman working in his father-in-law’s paint factory, who has just opened branches in England. Schmitz needs to learn English in order to take care of the new family business.

They are very different men: Joyce is a twenty-five-years-old Irish catholic, Svevo a fourty-six-years-old Asburgic Jew, but soon they find out they are both writers, and more precisely unappreciated writers. Joyce has indeed published his poetry collection Chamber music, but his name is still unknown to the wider audience; Svevo had published two novels, Una vita (1892), and Senilità (1898) in the complete indifference of the public opinion and critics.

If they do not give up with writing completely, it is just because of the support they offer one another. Svevo and his wife Lidia smother their young friend with compliments and gifts, deeply touched by the reading of The Deads, and this is for Joyce a great source of motivation. Even after his permanent departure from Trieste in 1920 (when he moves to Paris and then to Zurich), Joyce retains a so loving memory of his friend that he models Leopold Bloom, protagonist of his masterpiece Ulysses (1922), on Svevo himself.

Joyce acknowledges his friend’s remarkable literary gift; he reads and appreciate Svevo’s novels and pushes him to resume the writing work he had abandoned for seven years, disappointed for the double fiasco. Following Joyce’s suggestion, Svevo writes La coscienza di Zeno (1923); Joyce receives it in Paris, and, enthusiastically, sends copies to several friends, including the critics Valery Larbaud and Benjamin Crèmieux. This is Svevo’s real consecration as a writer: between 1925 and 1926 Larbaud and Crèmieux review his works on Nouvelle Revue Française, and later that year they devote to him a monographic issue of the prominent journal Navire d’argent. It is a belated yet striking victory. The author enjoys two years of unexpected and resounding international success.

The Open Horizon of a Glocal Journal
The story of this friendship is well known. Less known is instead the fact that the success of both authors passed through the same street in Milan: via Borgopresso, close toMontenapoleone district, at the time known as “the poetry district” (la contrada della poesia). Here, in 1920, a twenty-years- old Enzo Ferrieri founded Il Convegno, “Journal of Literature and Arts”, connected to a club, a publishing house, a book store and a theater. This lively Institute would have a long life (closing only in 1940), and would play an intermediary role between the earthly regression of Strapaese and the europeist bravery of Solaria and ’900. To use a modern word, a glocal journal, firmly grounded in the native Lombardia, imbued with Scapigliatura and Manzonism ,yet open and available to new ferments.

It is not by chance that prominent figures, such as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Benedetto Croce, and Luigi Pirandello, regularly attend the club, and that the journal boasts prestigious columnists, such as Eugenio Montale and Giorgio De Chirico. Both Svevo and Joyce collaborate with Il Convegno, and this experience leads them both to literary success.

Starting with Joyce, his relationship with the journal is mediated by its main contributor, Carlo Linati, a writer devoted to the most polished fragmentism, inspired by belletrism and “La Voce” (as a consequence distantrom Joyce’s desecrating style, dissembling and recombining linguistic items). On October 31, 1918, Linati receives an unexpected letter:

Dear Sir,

I read your translations of the works of two friends of mine, Synge and Yeats, “Il Furfantello dell’Ovest” and “La Contessa Cathleen”, and I thought that you might be interested in reading my novel. The fact that you have chosen to present to the Italian audience Synge and Yeats, instead of the mushy novels revered by English readers, reassures me. 

Respectfully yours

James Joyce.

Linati cannot believe his eyes. He had heard really good things about Joyce from Ezra Pound, who in those years was playing the role of the wise uncle for young European avant-guardists. Indeed Linati defines Pound “the one who introduced Joyce to Europe” (see Carlo Linati, Ezra Pound). In the 1910s, when Italian critics had not yet written a single line on Joyce (the very first Italian article about him is Diego Angeli’s Il romanzo dei Gesuiti, 1917), Pound had already recommended the Irish author to his young friends at “Il Convegno”.
Here it is Ferretti’s claim:

The first to mention James Joyce to us, so many years ago that I do not even remember the date, was Ezra Pound, the leader of “Imagists”, who still today, at the age of eighty, reads Dante’s and other poets’ verses in Spoleto […]. It was him, together with Eliot and our Svevo, to welcome “Ulysses” as an actual literary creation. Even before World War I! (from Enzo Ferrieri, Gli “Esuli” di Joyce in Italia).

He also adds an amusingly ironic anecdote:

One day, finding myself in London for some conferences, I saw an impressively big man, with a big beard, moving forward from the other end of the room, to congratulate with me in an Italian mixed to English and a dozen of other languages, including Chinese. He was Ezra Pound, who whispered with the air of an innocent boy, “In any case, I was the first to mention Joyce to you” (see Ezio Ferrieri, Gli “Esuli” di Joyce in Italia).

Ezra Pound. Picture from this URL

Pound had realized that if there was a place able to accept the novelty of such a disruptive style, during Italy’s completely isolating Fascist autarky, that place was certainly Milan. Indeed, Pound writes that Milan is “a really active Italian city”, and that “Il Convegno is a very serious monthly publication. I like Ferrieri and Linati is absolutely solid and trustworthy” (see T. Materer, The Letters of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis). In the following years Pound acknowledges the groundbreaking role of the journal, remembering how, while Italian critics were stuck in their obstinate and suspicious classicism,

Carlo Linati, in Milano, acknowledged Joyce’s merits many years before the critics of “Nouvelle Revue Française” in Paris, and he wrote about it with no hesitation [see Ezra Pound, Storicamente Joyce (e censura)].

Linati, in fact, absorbs Pound’s suggestions like a sponge (on the relationship between Linati and Pound, see Maurizio Pasquero, Ezra Pound: un poeta americano sul lago di Como) and many years later he still remembers the dinners with the “illustrious friend […] talking sharply and originally about European poets and many young and promising authors he used to find all over Europe” (letter to Giuseppe Prezzolini, dated 24 January, 1947, Fondo Giuseppe Prezzolini, Biblioteca cantonale di Lugano), always emphasizing his intuition as a talent scout.

I owe him gratitude for much enthusiasm and for his deep knowledge of ancient and modern authors. His strong, groundbreaking, impartial taste, his prophetic spirit always ready to “touch” and find new characters, his sensitive keenness as a reader […], his delicate impatience for the “already written”, in how many ways he guided my avid desire! (See Carlo Linati, Decandenza del vizio e altri pretesti)

When Linati receives Joyce’s letter, he is already very familiar with him thanks to Pound’s recommendation. Pound also tries to organize a meeting: in May 1920 he is in Sirmione, on Lake Garda, and asks Joyce and Linati to join him. They both accept the invitation, but, at the last minute, Linati gets stuck in Como due to his mother’s worsening health (“Unfortunately, despite my desire to meet you and Mr Pound, and spend some time with both of you, in these days I have some very important business here” he writes; “we are very sorry about that” they reply from Sirmione (see Giorgio Melchiorri, Lettere/James Joyce).

Joyce and Linati meet only in 1927, in Paris; at the time, Linati has just received a copy of A portrait of the artist as a young man (1916), and, flattered, says that he cannot wait to read it. He immediately realizes that Joyce’s book is “something really strong and original”, but he also confesses that he cannot entirely understand it and feels quite irritated by “that insolent chatter” (see Carlo Linati, Nota su Joyce). However, he appreciates a plainer text such as the play Exiles (1919).
Emilio Cecchi, a prominent scholar of English literature, underlines the marginal role of Exiles within Joyce’s corpus, and considering this a strategy and a trick, defines Linati “a glutton Epulone who, when a good roast with potatoes is served, after tasting it, praises the potatoes keeping everyone’s attention focused on them, in order to eat the roast undisturbed” (Emilio Cecchi, Recensione a “Ulysses”). At any rate, the translation of the three acts of Exiles appears on Il Convegno, namely in the April, May and June 1920 issues.

Joyce becomes a celebrity but never forgets his friends
Later, Joyce sends Linati a detailed summary of Ulysses, known as “Schema Linati”, crucial for clarifying the complicated plot of his masterpiece. In the meantime, Il Convegno is becoming the favored channel for promotingJoyce’s works in Italy: in 1923 it sponsors a lecture by Alessandro Francini Bruni, scholar and for a while Joyce’s flatmate (Alessandro Francini Bruni, Joyce intimo spogliato in piazza); in 1924 Linati edits the first European translations of Dubliners, Araby (1914); in 1926 Il Convegno devotes an entire issue to Joyce, including a few excerpts of Ulysses, translated by Linati (these are the first Italian versions translated directly from the original, and not from French translations). Ferrieri, dragged along by a possibly excessive enthusiasm, even proposes to the author, at the time a literary celebrity, an unlikely collaboration. Joyce’s polite refusal, does not compromise Linati’s and Ferrieri’s esteem and affection for him.


Svevo Finds a Well-deserved though Late Success (Neither does he forget His Friends)
As for Joyce, they show the same esteem and affection for Italo Svevo, since their first meeting in February 1924. At the time, Joyce is sending around copies of La coscienza di Zeno, and he sends one to Ferrieri as well. The book, however, passes unnoticed. Linati states that one day, in Paris, while Prezzolini was talking to Joyce over lunch “he assured him that the Italians had a great writer, but they were not aware of that”. “And who’s that?” – Prezzolini asked – “Italo Svevo” – Joyce replied – (see Carlo Linati, Destino di scrittore). Once back to Italy, Prezzolini, an occasional contributor to Il Convegno, hurries to the editorial office announcing his “amazing finding”, and he starts a frenzied search of Svevo’s previous novels, really hard to find at the time. After one year of fruitless search, one morning Montale comes in, proudly showing off an old copy of Senilità. Bobbi Balzen, a friend from Trieste, who knew Mr Schmitz’s works, had found it for him. Montale writes to Linati claiming that “he had just found a strong contemporary Italian author that Joyce and Larbaud like immensely” and that he wanted to discuss this with him soon (see Federico Roncoroni, Montale: “Grazie per la recensione dei miei Ossi”). But he has never done it. He keeps the information to himself, and, on December 1925, beating everyone to the punch, “discovers” Svevo with a long article on the journal Esame (see Eugenio Montale, Omaggio a Italo Svevo).

This sudden consecration secures Svevo a place in the Pantheon of Italian Authors. However, he never forgets Il Convegno, and he always stays in touch with Via Borgotasso. Whenever he is in Milan – rarely, because he does not really like the city – he always drops in to greet the editorial staff, often talking about Joyce, and always praising his friend’s “great kindness, integrity and intelligence” (see Carlo Linati, Destino di scrittore), as well as his beautiful tenor voice, his amazing memory, and his excellence as a husband and a father. A vivid and passionate portrait gives testimony to Svevo’s veneration for his former English professor (once he finds out that Linati is from Como, Svevo even thinks to move there and to start working on a colossal project: a complete translation of Ulysses). Svevo’s admiration for Joyce materializes in proposing a conference on his mentor to be held in Via Borgotasso. Despite his well-known bashfulness, many hesitations, and a tormented writing process – seven different drafts – finally Svevo gives his lecture on March 8, 1927 (see Italo Svevo, Scritti su Joyce), in a crowded room. The essay that follows is one of the best Svevo has ever written; it mixes a lighthearted tone, a commemorative intent, and authentic critical insights on the musicality of Joyce’s prose, on his supposed – and refuted – pornographic features, and the unexpected influence of psychoanalysis on his writing. The best way to close the circle.

When Svevo dies on September 13 of the following year in a tragic car accident, his name, inextricably bond to Joyce’s one, is already part of History. A History in which, it must me remembered, a small Milanese journal such as Il Convegno played a major role.


    • Nota su Joyce di Carlo Linati in “Primato”, II, 3, 1941
    • Recensione a “Ulysses” di Emilio Cecchi, in “La Tribuna”, 2 marzo 1923
    • Lettere/James Joyce a cura di Giorgio Melchiori, Mondadori, Milano, 1974
    • Joyce intimo spogliato in piazza di Alessandro Francini Bruni, La Editoriale Libraria, Trieste, 1922
    • Omaggio a Italo Svevo di Eugenio Montale, “L’esame”, nov-dic 1925
    • Destino di scrittore di Carlo Linati, “La stampa”, 18 marzo 1931
    • Montale: “Grazie per la recensione dei miei Ossi” di Federico Roncoroni, “Corriere della Sera”, 19 giugno 1986
    • Scritti su Joyce di Italo Svevo, a cura di Carlo Mazzacurati, Pratiche, Parma, 1986
    • Ezra Pound di Carlo Linati, in “Poesia”, anno I, nn.5-6, agosto-settembre 1920, pp. 11-15
    • Un romanzo di Gesuiti di Diego Angeli, in “Il Marzocco”, XXI, n.32, 12 agosto 1917
    • Gli “Esuli” di Joyce in Italia di Enzo Ferrieri, in “Corriere d’Informazione”, 24 luglio 1965
    • The Letters of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, a cura di T. Materer, New Directions, New York, 1985
    • Storicamente Joyce (e censura) di Ezra Pound, in “L’indice”, I.11, settembre 1930
    • Ezra Pound: un poeta americano sul lago di Como di Maurizio Pasquero, Agorà & Co., Lugano, 2015
    • Decadenza del vizio e altri pretesti di Carlo Linati, Bompiani, Milano, 1941

Author: Mario Taccone
Traslator: Marianna Orsi
Editing: Maria Rizzo, Valentino Valitutti

Quest’opera di RadiciDigitali.eu è distribuita con Licenza Creative Commons Attribuzione – Non commerciale – Non opere derivate 4.0 Internazionale.

Lascia un commento

Il tuo indirizzo email non sarà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *

Questo sito usa Akismet per ridurre lo spam. Scopri come i tuoi dati vengono elaborati.

Torna in alto