"I'm leaving for (destination) tomorrow. Can you recommend a book set there?" This is a rather frequent inquiry that booksellers face, and one of my favorite. It is also fun ot listen to my coworkers attempting to describe the exact location of the Destination Literature section of our store, which is a little hard to define. "Go down aisle three about, let's see, three-fourths of the way toward the back of the store, and at the second intersection, take a left..."
While Lisa has described the unique location of the Destination Literature section as a winding "Venetian canal," now that I think about it, the section really more closely resembles another Italian city: neither here nor there, composed of diverse genres from a variety of nations, and, of course, populated with dozens of exciting literary names. You could find a similiar demographic if you were to travel to Trieste, Italy.
The Italian shelf of Destination Literature is crammed full of books guaranteed to guide your travels to the typical Italian destinations. Glimpse Florence through Forster's A Room With a View, take a gondola along the canals of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, wander through Tuscany with multiple writers. Yet a few lesser-known titles on that shelf can take you into a lesser-known place, a corner of the world just about as hard to define as the Destination Literature section itself: Trieste.
You can find a great introduction to this city in Jan Morris's Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, a title that comes as close to defining the place as any I've seen. Trieste is an elusive city, situated on the coast of the Adriatic, somewhat cut off from the rest of Italy by that sea, and directly across the border from Slovenia. Morris describes Trieste as a place that often gets lost in the folds of the map. Trieste only recently achieved its Italian identity in 1954, having been occupied over the years by Austria, the United Nations, the British, and even Yugoslavia. The resulting population is, of course, a diverse one. I was not surprised when I learned that James Joyce wrote much of Ulysses there. The multiplicity of national identities must have been the ideal setting for what he described as a "Greek mother--a sea of a book," in a letter to one of his English students in Trieste.
That student was none other than Italo Svevo, whose works can also be found on the shelves of Destination Literature, provided that you have located the shelves. I particularily recommend reading Zeno's Conscience, but As a Man Grows Older is also quite charming. If you like the wandering melancholy of Svevo's Triestian prose, try out the works of the city's poet, Umberto Saba, who ran a bookshop there.
Saba wasn't the only poet to frequent these shores. Rainer Maria Rilke resided for a time in the Duino Castle, located just up the coast from Trieste, where he composed his Duino Elegies. (Mark Twain also visited the Duino Castle, but I think he was everywhere.)
"La mia anima e a Trieste" Joyce wrote in a letter to his wife, Nora, "My soul is in Trieste." Even Proust's sickly narrator longs to go to Trieste, imagining the city as "a delicious place in which the people were pensive, the sunsets golden, the church bells melancholy." And Natasha has just informed me that Nietzche's doctor sent him there. What were all these literary folk doing in this obscure corner of the world?
It's a question worth exploring through the literature of these writers, who all tend to circle around the elusive identity of the place. You can find the sweet melancholy tones of the exile in all of them. Simply ask the nearest bookseller how to find the Destination Literature section. But be careful, you may never find your way back.
There is still one Triestian author I have yet to mention, Claudio Magris, whose travel narrative, The Danube, wil take you from the mouth of the Danube River, wading waist high and sometimes deeper through European history and literature, and into Eastern Europe.
Which is where I will pick up next week, exploring the literature just across the border from Trieste, in honor of our upcoming event with Dubravka Ugresic, whose brilliant essay, "The Writer in Exile," I have just finished.