On 30 January 1924 Joyce writes to Ettore Schmitz about La coscienza di Zeno.
Joyce was not renowned for his assistance to other writers but with Ettore Schmitz there was a special and enduring relationship of mutual support that began during Joyce’s early years in Trieste when both he and Schmitz were struggling authors, and continued beyond Schmitz’ death in 1928.
Born in 1861, Schmitz was a Triestine businessman who, because of his business links with England, decided to take English lessons. In 1907, Joyce became his teacher, and later taught his wife, Livia, as well. Schmitz had already published two novels, Una Vita (A Life) and Senilità (As a Man Grows Older). The latter had been written under the pen-name Italo Svevo, reflecting Schmitz’ Italian and Swabian descent, and his novels also reflected this same mix of cultures and languages which were very much a part of life in Trieste.
Discouraged by the fact that critics had taken no notice of his works, Schmitz did not consider himself a writer, but he lent the books to Joyce to read. Joyce, who was rarely impressed by others’ writing, thought very highly of the novels and encouraged Schmitz to carry on writing. The Joyces and the Schmitzes became close friends. When he’d completed the story ‘The Dead’ in the summer of 1907 Joyce read it for the first time to Ettore and Livia Schmitz, and Eileen Joyce became governess to the Schmitzes’ daughter, Letizia. Schmitz also read the early chapters of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and gave Joyce some helpful advice.
Perhaps more significantly, Schmitz provided an early model for the character Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. Schmitz’ large moustache, and his Hungarian and Jewish ancestry, all become part of Bloom, and he provided Joyce with a lot of information about Jewish life and lore. While he was living in Zurich, Joyce had a photograph over his desk of a Triestine friend, presumed to be of Schmitz, which he claimed was Bloom.
Now, in 1923, Joyce was a world-renowned if controversial author, and was the centre of literary attention in Paris. Schmitz, now sixty, had just published La coscienza di Zeno (Confessions of Zeno) in 1923 and, like his earlier novels, it had gone largely unnoticed. Discouraged again, he sent a copy to Joyce who responded by saying that it was by far Schmitz’s best book. Joyce particularly liked the theme of smoking and the treatment of time in the novel. Joyce himself was an inveterate smoker but claimed he had not thought that smoking could dominate someone in the way depicted by Schmitz.
Joyce suggested critics to whom Schmitz could send copies of the novel, and he told Valery Larbaud that Schmitz was the only modern Italian writer of interest to him. The subsequent attention paid to Schmitz encouraged him to publish a second edition of Senilità. He and Joyce met several times in Paris in the few years between 1924 and Schmitz’s death after a car accident in 1928. But even in 1931, Joyce was still in touch with Livia Schmitz about her husband’s books, offering advice and assistance with getting them noticed in the English, American, and Czech press. Joyce declined to write an introduction to an English edition of Senilità but prompted his brother Stanislaus, then Professor of English at the University of Trieste, to write one instead.
Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vols. II and III, edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1966.