James Joyce wrote most of the Dubliners in Trieste. The images he saw were projected not through the inward projector of his eyes, but instead outward from his amygdala. The Italian city throbbed around him, while he managed to populate rural roads and city streets and pubs of Ireland from somewhere inside of him.
I accompanied my wife once to her high school reunion, I believe it was the 25th. 25 years later, it amazed us both how few people left the confines of the villages they called home. How on earth, I wondered, did they find themselves? Or, perhaps, they never felt lost to begin with.
I find myself uncomfortably judging those others, the Ones Who Never Left Home, as if that is a thing. I see them, pretentiously, as once-born elves living in a forest from which I do not want to return. But that is unfair. As I once overheard at a coffee shop, we are all water balloons submerged in the ocean, our skins getting thinner as we age, until we burst and what was once separate is no longer. The name of the person who spoke those words was Ocean Oracle. Yup, that coffee shop was in California. How did you guess?
I am probably as wrong about this as I am about most things, but I have always believed that it was necessary to leave a place in order to find one’s place in it. That is because if you are a Sequoia tree growing in a grove of Sequoias, you grow up believing that all trees are Sequoias. Or, to torture both you and the metaphor further, all redwoods look the same until you live among the redwoods.
I wrote in a long ago blog post that I thought that one reason baseball is so popular (or once was), at least in the U.S., is that the object, against terrific odds, is to leave home just so you can eventually return to it. No one I know has ever given a passing thought to the idea that a home run is pointless because it merely takes you back to where you started.
My wife and I went to Trieste not to sightsee, but to write. We certainly could write at home, and we do, but it has its drawbacks. We are surrounded there by the typical distractions of our daily lives. We have our day jobs, our kids with whom we are blessed to love spending our time, dogs and friends, and other gardens that need tending.
Neither my wife nor I speak Italian, and along with writing we were struggling to figure out what my body was capable of doing shortly after chemotherapy, so we made no deep friendships while we were there. But that was not the reason we went there. We were there, ultimately, because in being in the unfamiliar there we were not in the familiar here. There were new sounds that we never heard. American music playing at the cafes, but not the music we ever would have chosen. Different sirens, the beautiful prosody of the Italian language around us, different birds and birdsong. In the unfamiliar there, the visual sensations were different. Men in tight pants, hair buzz-cut on the sides, straight-backed women with sharp facial features and soft skin. And if it hadn’t been for my allergies, I imagine the smells around me would have been different. And if it weren’t for the cancer that dulled and sullied my taste buds, I am sure the food would have tasted better than whatever they call Italian food at home.
I can’t help but wonder if Joyce writing the Dubliners and other tales located on the streets and houses of Ireland took him away from feeling the sensations of the city that actually surrounded him. I don’t think so. There is life that happens when one isn’t writing. For Joyce, there were the English lessons he gave while trying to support himself, the women he met and seduced before coming back to his apartment and his wife and young children, the cafes in which he sat, the food he ate and the friends he made.
That is the thing about writing. It doesn’t happen without the writer, and the writer never really leaves home because he takes it with him wherever he goes. Until or unless dementia grabs hold of our memories, we carry our histories wherever we go, and can’t escape it.
Perhaps it is the contrast between the world around us in the present moment and the worlds we carry in the baskets of our memory that even enhances our ability to write about that which defines us. The trick can even work in both directions. An acquaintance of mine wrote wonderful novels that took place in a foreign city to which she had never been—except for the virtual exploration she did through Google Earth.
For Joyce, writing about Dublin and rural Ireland from Trieste may have been just the ticket he needed. He could see the forest better when he wasn’t in the trees, but instead from the top of a metaphorical mountain located in an actual place a thousand miles away.