Leopold Bloom R.N.
For those who do not know who Leopold Bloom is , this blog will be esoteric at best. But for those who recognise the hero of James Joyce’s Ulysses the Royal Navy connection may prove interesting.
Bloom is of course the wandering Dublin Jew whose day in the life and whose thoughts and dreams have made Ulysses one of the most influential books published in the last 100 years. Most want to read it, many have tried and some have finished the weighty tome.
The character is in part based on Italo Svevo a lapsed Jew who Joyce befriended when working as an English teacher in Trieste. Joyce didn’t make it as a writer until the 1920s spoke several languages. He spent 1904-1915 in Trieste.(see link)
Trieste was the port for the Austria-Hungarian Empire. Its faded magnificence still exerts enormous charm.(I spent four days there last year). As such it spawned a plantation of ancillary industries-insurance, warehousing, shipping, banking etc. One of which was marine paint. Svevo the failed writer married into the family which had the world wide patent on an antifouling paint which resisted the decay and erosion which all ships suffer.
As the 20th century unfolded Britain and Germany were engaged in a super power naval race. Building more and bigger battle ships. Having the most sea worthy ships. By Jingo the Senior Service was not going to let Blighty down. First Sea Lord Sir John Fisher decreed that not only would the Grand Fleet be camouflaged grey but would cut down on refits by using the Veneziani paint. By 1914 the company was also supplying the German, French,Italian and Austrian navies.
In 1901 the greatest fleet in the world, The Royal Navy,the sword and butler of Pax Britannica ordered the paint. Italo Svevo was put in charge of the order and opened a factory in Charlton SE London. He became so domiciled that he supported the local football team, Charlton Athletic FC,”The Valiants”. But Svevo was always conscious that his English was not perfect.
So in 1907 having tried and disliked other language teachers he knocked on Joyce’s door. The two still failed writers despite a twenty year(25 and 45) age gap found they had much in common and one of the great literary friendships was born. They had few secrets they didn’t share. Svevo valued the friendship, lessons and the conversations. The always broke Joyce was also attracted by being paid monthly in advance. He was trying to earn more by attracting wealthy private clients.
They may have been intimates but Nora, Joyce’s eventual wife took in the richer family’s washing and Joyces sister worked as Svevo’s children’s governess. In 1914 Joyce joined the paint company .
When Italy declared war on Austria in 1915 Joyce left Trieste.He wrote Ulysses while in Zurich during the War. The book was eventually published in Paris where he had made his home.As Stoppard wittily states in Travesties, writing Ulysses, thats what Joyce did in the War.
For seven crucial years the two writers had encouraged each other, read each others work, criticised and took each other’s writing seriously. When few others did. Svevo gave Joyce a character to build Leopold around. Many have heard of Joyce and it was he who was instrumental in getting Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno, considered a comic classic, published. By the mid 1920s both were made authors.