James Joyce’s exile in Rome

Wanted in Rome 9 December 1998

“We want somebody completely dedicated to our firm, so you must not ask for a timetable that allows for extra jobs.” Thus the private bank of Nast-Kolb and Schumacher in Rome sought to put the screws on its prospective employee, the 25-year-old Irish writer James Joyce. Joyce had other ideas: “I hope to find time to finish my novel in Rome within the year.” But he had packed and gone before the year was out, having written nothing of consequence bar letters to his brother Stanislaus in Trieste. Together with Nora Barnacle, his companion of two years, and their son Giorgio, he had spent a total of seven months and seven days in Rome, and hated the place.

Their first address was a rooming house at Via Frattina 52, off the Corso. A memorial tablet now graces the building: “Where he lived from August to December 1906/ James Joyce/ A voluntary exile evoked the story of Ulysses/ Making of his Dublin our Universe.” Their lodgings were two blocks from the bank which was at Via S. Claudio 87.

Outwardly, Joyce was completely dedicated to the firm. His hours were long: 08.30-12.00, 14.00-19.30. After that there were the little English language teaching jobs, guaranteed to shrink the mind and to round out the ends of the months. Like many before and after, Joyce quickly found his salary (L.250 a month) inadequate and Rome expensive: “Rome certainly is not cheap, a lira goes a very short way here.”

With his linguistic skills, he was employed initially in the correspondence office of the bank. While in Rome he took Danish lessons from a man named Petersen. He was already fluent in French and Italian, and had taught himself Norwegian in order to read Ibsen in the original. This multi-lingual clerk had a jaundiced view of his colleagues: “This morning in the bank that German clerk informed us what his wife should be: she should be able to cook well, to sew, to housekeep, and to play at least one musical instrument. I suppose they’re all like that in Deutschland ... I am dead tired of their bello and bellezza. A clerk here is named (he is round, bald, fat, voiceless) Bartoluzzi. You pronounce it by inflating both cheeks and prolonging the u. Every time I pass him I repeat the name to myself and translate ‘Good day, little bits of Barto.’ Another is named Simonetti: they are all little bits of something or other, I think. This is my first experience of clerks: do they all talk for five minutes about the position of a penwiper?”

Irritations can create pearls. The pearls in this case are Joyce’s two masterpieces, the short story “The Dead” and the novel Ulysses. The seeds for both were sown in Rome. Joyce’s letters from this period are filled with parallels between Rome and Dublin. The figure of the Jew, Leopold Bloom, in Ulysses, wandering the streets of a provincial capital, echoes Joyce’s position as a friendless expatriate bank clerk. Bloom’s facile, wide-ranging, restless mentality is that of the Roman flâneur. Something too of the tessellated sense of history, which Rome epitomises, has gone into Ulysses.

While in Rome, Joyce read the socialist paper “Avanti!” and the anti-clerical “L’Asino”. Towards the end of his stay he read the verse of Carducci: “Not only does it not interest me: it even seems to me false and exaggerated. I dislike Italian verse.” He also took a lively, collapsed Catholic’s interest in ecclesiastical affairs, following the election of the “black pope”, the General of the Jesuits, with the fervour of an Old Clongownian: “I went up to the headquarters of the black lice to find out if they had chosen their general. A carman told me that they had elected a German (Francis Xavier Wernz) and were now at their pranzo.”

Like many writers before him, Joyce frequented the Caffè Greco in Via Condotti: “Rome has one café, and that one is not as good as any of the best in Trieste. I am forced to go to a little Greek restaurant, frequented by Amiel, Byron, Thackeray, Ibsen and Co.: bill of fare in English.” He also bewailed the postal system: “How I also detest these insolent whores of the bureaucracy.”

On Saturday 1 December, Joyce, Nora and Giorgio were evicted from their rooms by Signor Dufour, who took exception to Joyce’s late-night drinking. After a stint in a hotel, the family ended up in a small room on the fourth floor at Via Monte Brianzo 51. It was unheated, but had a view of the Tiber. Joyce, a hydrophobe all his life, wrote to Stanislaus: “The Tiber frightens me.” Nora was pregnant again and Giorgio was being weaned. These domestic circumstances, combined with Joyce’s inability to write, sent him out most nights to the bars.

In Exiles, his only play, Joyce has Bertha, a thinly disguised Nora, allude to the shabbiness of their Roman sojourn:

BERTHA: Heavens, what I suffered then – when we lived in Rome! I used to sit there, waiting, with the poor child with his toys, waiting till he was sleepy. I could see all the roofs of the city, and the city and the river, the Tevere. What is its name?
RICHARD: The Tiber.
BERTHA: It was lovely, Dick, only I was so sad. I was alone, Dick, forgotten by you and by all.

In February Joyce packed in work at the bank. His final humiliation came in March. After a night on the town, he was robbed in the street of his last salary and severance money from the bank. He returned to Trieste, “the city which has sheltered us. I came back to it jaded and moneyless after my folly in Rome.”