Melancholy but Marvellous

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The capital of nowhere – could anywhere be more tantalizing? For those of us increasingly blasé or wary about visiting ‘somewheres’ the world over, many of them the target of hordes of other tourists hellbent on pleasure (and often compromising the particular qualities of their destination in the process), nowhere sounds the ultimate place to go. And, as it turns out, this place does have its own geographical co-ordinates, and is even accessible by public transport. It’s just that on arrival you may experience a sudden sense of dislocation, an overwhelming wistfulness for an elusive past, and a present that feels curiously like limbo. For in the words of its chronicler, Jan Morris, in Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere (2001), the Mediterranean port ‘stands above economics, or tourism, or science, or even the passage of ships, or if not above them, apart from them’. And it is a city whose precarious geographical position and contested imperial history have, she thinks, bred a civility rare in our hectic times, a simple decency that makes the place a ‘half-real, half-wishful Utopia’. That was certainly our experience on a recent visit; we were tactfully absorbed into the gentle mêlée of city life, and warmly welcomed into the quirky museums and houses that keep the city’s complex history alive.

It is hardly surprising to discover that Morris’s elegiac meditation on Trieste, published at the turn of the century after a lifetime of acquaintance with the place, stands as her own favourite among all her many works, and that Trieste was the model for her imaginary ‘favourite’ city of Hav. Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere was to have been her swansong, which adds a layer of poignancy to any reading (in fact, she has since brought out a delightful short tribute to Vittore Carpaccio, that most irresistible of Venetian artists). Her affection for the place is so contagious that I was immediately seduced on a first reading, and

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About the contributor

Ariane Bankes is the author of a monograph and co-curator of an exhibition about David Jones. She would like to revisit Trieste at regular intervals, each visit bringing a deeper unravelling of its resonant past.

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