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Modernism in Trieste: The Habsburg Mediterranean and the Literary Invention of Europe, 1870-1945 by Salvatore Pappalardo

Reviewed by Denis Topalović, University of Oxford

Modernism in Trieste: The Habsburg Mediterranean and the Literary Invention of Europe, 1870-1945, Salvatore Pappalardo. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021. £81.00. ISBN 9781501369964.


It would be hard to overstate the timeliness of a work that explores the literary invention of Europe at a time when the very question of ‘what it means to be, or who gets to be, European’ (2) has come under such renewed pressure. That is what Salvatore Pappalardo’s Modernism in Trieste does: casting its net over a period that stretches from the fin de siècle to the Second World War, Modernism in Trieste interrogates how literary modernism ‘invented’ a united, nonnational Europe avant la lettre. The laboratory for this experiment in ‘transnational literary modernism’ (3) is, as the title signals, none other than the Italian (formerly Habsburg) port city of Trieste, the polyglot outpost tucked away at the top of the Adriatic Sea, in between Italian, German, and Slavic worlds. Modernism in Trieste is therefore the first book-length study to examine the relationship between literary modernism and Trieste.

            Unlike the other, decidedly more renown capitals of modernism — London or Paris, for instance — Trieste makes for a somewhat marginal presence across modernist scholarship. Even for Proust, one of the modernists par excellence, Trieste was nothing like nearby Venice: ‘an unknown world’, so his hero Marcel describes it, that exuded a ‘hostile, inexplicable atmosphere’. And yet, Pappalardo argues, that was the place where some of the figures most commonly associated with modernism (Freud, Svevo, and Joyce, to cite but a few) lived and, at times, met. It was also the place, he adds, where many of these writers conceived their literary idea of Europe as a challenge to the bellicose nationalisms of the early twentieth century, seeing in this cosmopolitan city ‘an urban experiment for a future United States of Europe’ (3).

            While it is not true, as Pappalardo claims, that scholars of modernism have overlooked ‘the national indifference of authors’ (26) (after all, E. M. Forster’s oft-quoted readiness to betray his country rather than his friends is by now a common topos), the alternative network of political affiliations that he uncovers is certainly an inventive and neglected one. There is for instance what he calls the Habsburg Landespatriotismus of Trieste, a regional patriotism decoupled from national belonging in favour of loyalties at once local and multicultural. Pappalardo finds the most glaring catalyst for nonnational sentiments, however, in the period’s reappropriation of the Phoenicians as Europe’s forgotten forbears. Against the nationalist glorifications of a Greco-Roman lineage, modernists affiliated with Trieste appointed the famed and ancient seafarers of the Mediterranean — nomadic, diasporic, cosmopolitan — ‘as an alternative cultural foundation for a new Europe’ (35).

            Modernism in Trieste stages its argument across four main chapters. The extensive introduction, which couples Pappalardo’s formidable range of reference with clarity (and elegance) of exposition, surveys the multiple and conflicting loyalties, allegiances, and commitments that animated Trieste during and around the Great War, from the Italian Irredentism of Scipio Slataper to Aurel Popovici’s reformist project of a United States of Greater Austria.

            Chapter One addresses one of these political strategies in particular: the reclaiming of Trieste’s Phoenician origin as a nonnational alternative to Austrian loyalism as well as Italian Irredentism. After dwelling on the nineteenth-century debate of Triestine antiquarians concerned with local Phoenician settlements, Pappalardo examines how this Phoenician myth plays out in the work of such diverse figures as Sigmund Freud, Srečko Kosovel, and Theodor Däubler.

            Chapter Two centres on the first of his chosen modernists, Robert Musil, whose novel The Man without Qualities (1930-1943) turns Trieste’s political upheavals of 1913 into a portentous sign foretelling the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Pappalardo’s critical acumen, however, is less at home in the novel’s pages than in the events surrounding it, as evidenced from his dazzlingly detailed account of one of the novel’s unspoken yet pivotal backdrops: the 1913 Adria-Ausstellung, the exhibition with which Vienna staked its claim on the Mediterranean.

            Chapter Three reclaims Italo Svevo — long celebrated in the canons of Italian literary studies — as an Austrian Jew engaged in quietly yet cunningly dismantling Italian hegemony via his ‘politics of style’ (151). In his novel Zeno’s Conscience (1923), rhetorical camouflages like Zeno’s corrupt Italian or his preference for Austrian cigarettes serve to smuggle Svevo’s Habsburg Europeanism into his flaunted yet ambivalent loyalties to Italy. Again, Pappalardo’s focus on the cigarette as a token of ideological identification confirms his eye for the mundane and its political subtexts.

            Chapter Four moves to the last of Pappalardo’s modernists, James Joyce, whose decade-long sojourn in Trieste’s polyglot environs made its way, so he argues, into the ethnolinguistic hybridity of Finnegans Wake (1939). Focusing on the novel’s rewriting of Europa’s rape, Pappalardo shows how Joyce’s Gaelic Phoenicianism — the theory, that is, of Ireland’s Phoenician origin—becomes the organising principle of the novel’s anti-colonial politics. Joyce’s Ireland, in short, is less British than European, less Atlantic than Mediterranean.

            The idea of Europe that comes out of Modernism in Trieste, then, is at once Habsburg and Phoenician, Mitteleuropean and Mediterranean — its literary champions, conversely, a hybrid species under the catchy name of ‘Homo Europaeus habsburgensis’ (190). Pappalardo does acknowledge the persistence of cultural divides — and the consequent lack of dialogue — even among the city’s modernist intelligentsia, whose projects for a future Europe were often crafted ‘in tightly sealed parallel compartments’ (87). What to make, for instance, of Svevo’s silence about Trieste’s ‘Slavic component’ (144)? Modernism in Trieste, however, is more attracted to the frisson of recognition than to the friction of conflict, and its modernists are made to agree more often than disagree: to be a Habsburg European, they tell us, is (or rather was) something creditable.

            If this sounds at all like naive Habsburg sentimentalism, Pappalardo never tires of cautioning us against it: his approach banishes any facile nostalgia by interrogating ‘the very ambiguities of a rhetoric of European cosmopolitanism’ (5). Stating caution, of course, is not the same as being cautious, and so at times the book’s argumentative force unwittingly comes under the spell of its own object of study. This might explain the impression one gets of a critic unduly charitable toward his chosen authors: their texts prove, time and again, to be the invariable product of some ‘carefully constructed and shrewdly deployed strategies’ (198). No blindness is allowed, no margin of error permitted.

            Modernism in Trieste opens with an epigraph from Claudio Magris’s Danube, according to which ‘the European spirit feeds on books’ (1). It ends, unsurprisingly, with a consideration of Magris himself, the Triestine intellectual who did most to retrieve the nonnational legacy of the Habsburg experiment during the last throes of the Cold War. And just like that of his predecessors, Magris’s Europa is a paper one only, enshrined nonetheless as a possible cure to Europe’s ongoing ills. Here Pappalardo stops, though one might as well want him to probe further: what of this literary Europe at the end? Didn’t one such experiment in nonnational, multiethnic coexistence just on Trieste’s doorstep — Yugoslavia, which Magris himself saw as the later inheritor of the Habsburg mosaic — turn into genocidal violence shortly after Magris’s pronouncement? That said, these are questions beyond the ostensible scope of Pappalardo’s book, which is more preoccupied with the hopes and regrets of an older literary guard.

            In this sense, Modernism in Trieste delivers on what it promises, which is to say that it uncovers the many ways in which modernism plotted and replotted Europe’s future at a time when such future might have otherwise seemed foreclosed. As such, Modernism in Trieste is a long overdue intervention in the field, restoring this peripheral city to its place of merit among other capitals of modernism in modernist studies. As its literary denizens show, Habsburg Trieste was Europe en miniature; small wonder, then, that it should have fuelled so much European soul-searching among a generation of intellectuals grappling with war and fascism. Pappalardo traces these forgotten histories in the pages of modernism’s classics, but also in their authors’ lesser-known essays, lectures, and journalism (Pappalardo’s attention to these frequently overlooked documents is in fact one of the book’s strengths). The book can therefore be of value to scholars in Modernist, Mediterranean, and Habsburg studies alike — so many, and so varied, are indeed the disciplinary threads that Pappalardo deftly interweaves.