Buoyed by the prospect of a New Year blessed with remarkable clarity, the 2020 vision, the Society assembled to hear Katri Skala discuss her much acclaimed first novel, A Perfect Mother, and explore the attraction of its setting, Trieste. The evening’s format had the author being interviewed by her partner, John, who opened by pointing out that it had taken her a long time to get to Trieste. Like the embedded narrator of the novel, Jacob, our speaker had been drawn to the city for some years with both of them having part-Jewish ancestors with a pre-war association with Trieste and Vienna. The city boasts some distinguished literary associations; Stendhal was a rather jaundiced consul there for the Orleanist monarchy in the 1830s, Sir Richard Burton finished his stint as British Consul by translating the Arabian Nights in his refuge on the Karst Plateau above the port and James Joyce arrived in 1907 on his odyssey into voluntary European exile and managed to finish Dubliners and write a large section of Ulysses before his departure in 1915.
Perhaps the writer who most influenced Katri was a pupil from Joyce’s English class at Trieste’s Berlitz School, Italo Svevo. This was the pen name of Aron Ettore Schmitz and possibly recalls his time in boarding school in Stegnitz in Swabia, a medieval German duchy straddling the border between the present day Länder of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg. His father had sent him there to learn German, an asset for the aspirational middle class of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the literal translation of the pen name, Italian-Swabian, could be either conscious irony or an echo of a school nickname. This part-Jewish business man had published two novels which had passed largely unremarked by critics and public alike but Joyce advised having his third novel, Zeno’s Conscience, published in Paris where it was proclaimed a modernist masterpiece and proceeded to great commercial and reputational success. Perhaps inevitably, Svevo is canvassed as a model for Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. This was the first psycho-analytic novel and the Zeno recalls the ancient Greek philosopher famous for his use of paradox. The paradox in the novel being that the character in the story goes to a psychoanalyst but confounds any putative benefits from the exercise by lying to the doctor. Zeno’s problem was shared by Svevo – a lifelong inability to give up smoking.
The core dramatis personae in A Perfect Mother, which Katri emphasised was an ironic title, are Jacob the narrator and two other English nationals, Jane and Charlotte. The former is a forensic psycho-analyst with a previous professional relationship as well as a social one with Charlotte who is 10 years her junior. Jacob is a journalist in his mid-50s whose professional star is fading and who is going through a dispiriting divorce which threatens to reduce his future, much cherished contact with his two sons. Drawn to the attractive upper-class Charlotte, Jacob seeks an affair with her, thereby eliciting ambiguous tender feelings from Jane towards her. The tension rises in this darkly psychological tale before bursting over the trauma at the onset of the women’s relationship. Our speaker likens the work, pervaded as it is by a sense of dislocation, to Tolstoy’s novella, The Kreutzer Sonata , with which it shares a sense of the confessional. In making Jacob the narrator, Katri said she viewed the action at a slant with this oblique detachment reducing the emotional intensity in comparison with the Tolstoy story. The seed of her interest in Trieste had been planted when she read Jan Morris’s description of it as a melancholy place of nowhere but she loved its multiple layers; Roman amphitheatre Romanesque cathedral, medieval town centre and the baroque Maria Teresa borgo – the Hapsburg legacy. It must have been a wrench to move the action back to Gloucester in the later stages of the novel.
The talk concluded with the audience sated by the unravelling of this tale of love, loss and delayed emotional reaction running pari passu with an intriguing peeling of the onion that is Trieste. For those bitten by the Skala bug, the author next moves to a non-fiction saga from ancien régime France and the life of une dame entretenue or as Nigel Farage might say “a kept woman”.