The youthful James Joyce’s hatred of his time in Rome may have been the inspiration for 'The Dead', Jonathan deBurca Butler explains

Verbal Magazine, Issue 25Rome was rather tense in 1906. The Pope, still smarting from his loss of the Papal States some 30 years earlier, refused to move beyond his small but palatial safe zone around St Peter’s Basilica, while the Savoy family, his rivals and Italy’s new monarchs, built grand monuments that were ultimately empty and ugly gestures of their own hollow grandeur. The Romans themselves scratched their heads and wondered about divided loyalties.

Into this tension, where tourists were apathetically ferried around the city’s archaeological sites, walked a 24-year old James Joyce. A man desperately trying to escape tensions of his own.

Since leaving Dublin, Joyce had been living in the Adriatic coastal town of Trieste, in northeast Italy. He made quite an impact on the expatriate community and their hangers on. Many people befriended Joyce and seemed endlessly willing to help him and his wife as they struggled to come to terms with the realities of raising a young family. But Joyce was a restless and flamboyant character with a fondness for alcohol. The English school in which he worked began to tire of his tardiness and his requests for advance payment. His wife began to worry about the late nights and drinking. Joyce even lured his brother Stanislaus to Trieste, knowing that extra income would help maintain his indulgent lifestyle.

In the midst of this, one of the school’s directors absconded with a healthy sum of the school’s funds, meaning no guarantee of work for Joyce. There were problems everywhere in Trieste. It was time to move on.

Joyce fixed his mind on Rome and went about securing a job for himself with little difficulty. Aided by a letter of recommendation from a former Lord Mayor of Dublin, Timothy Harrington, Joyce was offered a temporary post in the bank of Nast, Kolb and Schumacer, which stood at the corner of Piazza Colonna and Via S. Claudio - today the site of a large department store.

Arriving in Rome on July 31st 1906 the Joyce family took lodgings on the third floor of a house at 52 Via Frattina, where today a plaque commemorates his stay. The accommodation was small, but close to his work and to the bars and cafes around the Spanish Steps.

However, from the very beginning his letters to Stanislaus speak negatively of the city and its people. His work in the bank was soul destroying. He often had to work 12 hours a day, copying out up to 200 letters James Joyce text portraitin an office where he had no interaction with the public. He had nothing but contempt for his colleagues who spoke endlessly of their ailments. 'When I enter the bank in the morning I wait for someone to announce something about either his cazzo, culo or coglioni (penis, rump or testicles).'

According to Joyce the area around the Colosseum was simply 'like an old cemetery with broken columns of temples and slabs'. In a letter to his brother he wrote: 'Rome reminds me of a man who lives by exhibiting to travellers his grandmother’s corpse.' It’s clear that the city’s former glories did nothing for such a modern man.

However, he clearly admits his own shortcomings and demonstrates his indignation in another letter to Stanislaus lamenting: 'I wish I knew something of Latin or Roman history. But it’s not worthwhile beginning now. So let the ruins rot.'

Poor Stannie, as his brother was affectionately known, received constant updates on how difficult life in Rome was. And although Joyce was earning more money in the bank he frequently begged his brother to send more cash.

His struggle was compounded by his drinking; a vice that infuriated his landlady, Signora Dufour and towards the middle of November she requested that he leave the accommodation on Via Frattina. Joyce expected to charm his way out of the tight spot but the Signora kept her word and he found himself out on the streets with a young family and nowhere to go. After four days searching, with suitcases and child in tow, he moved into 51 Monte Brianzo.

Today the area, which is near the wonderful Piazza Navona, is by no means objectionable but was rather grim in Joyce’s time. The house was located beside the river that Joyce disliked so much. 'The Tiber frightens me', he wrote. Its deep gorge and hasty waters apparently no match for the Liffey’s more placid demeanour.

By Christmas he was forced to take another job as a teacher. But it wasn’t enough and the family dined on pasta on a thoroughly depressing Christmas Day.

While he struggled to make ends meet in Rome nothing came from his pen. He found no time to write and no immediate inspiration.

The glorious ruins that lay dormant in the Forum compounded his misery. James Joyce statue in TriesteHe complained of nightmares involving 'death, corpses, assassinations, in which I take an unpleasantly prominent part'. The intrigues and gore of ancient and Papal Rome’s history was having some kind of influence on him.

These intrigues led him to think of Dublin and its own history. Living in Rome seems to have led to a deeper appreciation of his native city, an appreciation not so keenly felt since his departure. He wrote to Stannie that the area around St Peter’s wasn’t a patch on Dublin’s Pembroke township, an area which today centres around the Southside’s RDS.

It was at this time that the ideas for his wonderful short story 'The Dead' began their gestation. Perhaps the simple Christmas lunch and Signora Dufour’s apparently barbarous treatment of his family led to dreams of more lavish feasts, and what Gabriel Conroy (the hero of 'The Dead') refers to as unique Irish hospitality. In the same breath Joyce through Gabriel, a character fixated on the attractions and trappings of continental Europe, acknowledges those things that Ireland has to offer the world by way of this tradition.

Rome’s irreverence for the dead - who are constantly on display - is in sharp contrast to 'The Dead'’s quietly melancholy image of Dublin, covered in snow. The romance and bombast of Michelangelo, Bernini or Borromini contrasts with the humble, but no less passionate Michael Furey who, we find out, courted Gabriel’s wife Gretta and died of consumption.

Joyce decided to leave Rome. As always he dilly-dallied but eventually admitted in a letter to his brother that this particular expedition had been a failure from the beginning.

Of course Joyce was not to go without a bang and he finished his Roman holiday in bacchanalian style.

The day before leaving he was given the last pay cheque from his bank job and splashed out on a few farewell drinks. During his revelry two men managed to get a look inside his wallet and when Joyce left the café they attacked and robbed him.

Luckily, he had left some of his pay at his lodgings and with it he packed his son and wife on to a train for Trieste and left Rome. He never returned.

This article originally appeared in Verbal Magazine (Verbal Arts Centre, Derry). Verbal is distributed to 100,000 homes across Northern Ireland each month inside the Belfast News, Newsletter and Derry Journal. A full pdf version can be downloaded for free from the Verbal Magazine website.