Overall it was a stimulating and engaging read and I was able to get through it pretty quickly (two weeks) without ever being bored by it except for a few passages listing all the operas that Joyce was attending. The book tells the story of James Joyce's time spent in Italy beginning with his leaving Dublin in 1904 at the age of twenty-two with 20-year-old girlfriend and future wife Nora Barnacle, four months after they'd met and it ends with the onset of World War I and the Joyces having to leave Trieste, at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as the city's multi-cultured populace plunges into chaos. In between, he...
writes Dubliners, struggles with publishers who insist on censoring it, works as an English teacher, befriends and mingles with many prominent artists throughout the richly cultured city, gets shitfaced almost every night, struggles to raise a family, sojourns unsuccessfully in Rome, uses his younger brother like a slave, writes Stephen Hero and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, falls for beautiful young female pupils and writes a mysterious novelette about it, moves his family from one apartment to another a few times after getting evicted for unpaid rent, writes a few articles, gives some lectures, masters Trieste's Italian dialect, writes Exiles, attends countless operas, spends much more money than he has, and also conceives of and begins composing Ulysses...
That about sums it up.
What I found most impressive was the author's thorough explication of various aspects of Joyce's work, specifically showing the influence of Trieste impressed upon themes, names, passages, etc. In fact, the main premise of the book is not just to tell the story of Joyce's time spent in Trieste, but to show that Trieste played a major role in Joyce's artistic formation and his books are littered with clandestine references to this. As McCourt explains in the introduction, "For much of the Oriental, Jewish and Greek elements of Ulysses, for much of the multilingual chaos of 'Circe' and Finnegans Wake, Trieste was his principal source."
My favorite passages in the book were those that deciphered passages or sentences from Finnegans Wake. Of the numerous wonderfully informative explanations of Wake passages, here's a particularly entertaining one in which Joyce alludes to a bunch of coarse and obscene Triestine expressions (from page 54):
"Not to wandly be woking around jerumsalemdo at small hours about the murketplots, smelling okey boney, this little figgy and arraky belloky this little pink into porker but, porkodirto, to let the gentlemen pedestarolies out of Monabella culculpuration live his own left leave, cullebuone, by perperusual of the petpubblicities without inwoking his also's between (sic) the arraky bone and (suc) the okey bellock (FW, 368.9-15)"
The 'jerumsalemdo' suggests of course Jerusalem, and by extension a place inhabited by Jews, a Jewish quarter. By the time Joyce came to Trieste, the old ghetto, abandoned by most of its original Jewish population but still commonly referred to (as it still is today) as the ghetto, was part of the seamier old city which housed the brothels. It was also close to the fruit markets (the 'murketplots'). In the passage quoted above, Joyce clearly links the sale and 'tasting' of fruit to the sale of women through a series of images and sexual innuendoes which a speaker of Triestino would easily spot. The 'little figgy', apart from the obvious reference to the sweetest fruit of all, suggests the Triestine word 'figa', deriving from the Latin 'fica' or the Greek 'pheke', both meaning vagina. The 'Okey boney' hides the Triestino 'O che boni' (Oh how good they are) while the 'arraky belloky' and the 'arraky bone' perfectly reproduce the sound of the Triestine 'Ara, che bello che' (Look how nice it [is]), and 'Ara che bone' (Look how nice they [female] are). The 'ara' is a Triestine word that does not exist in Italian, but that is also written with a double 'r' by Joyce, who thus very subtly reproduces the sound an enthusiastic Triestine would make while admiring/tasting/enjoying something (or someone) he likes, or being admired, tasted, enjoyed by that same something or someone. The sexual innuendoes become more explicit as the passage progresses and the reader encounters 'the little pink', which suggests the English slang for the little finger, while the 'pedastarolies' points to pederasts, and the 'Monabella' is perfect Triestine for 'beautiful vagina' ('mona' being a Triestine version of 'figa'); the 'Cullebuone' suggests both the Italian 'con le buone' (by fair means) and the Triestine 'cul', meaning 'arse', giving 'nice arses', a meaning also hinted at in the 'culcupuration'.
As that passage suggests, the author's knowledge of his subject is stunning. The other highlights of the book for me were McCourt's thorough analyses of aspects of Ulysses that were, as he indicates, influences of Trieste. He gives thorough background to many of the names used in Ulysses and points to a few people who Joyce used creatively in crafting the Leopold and Molly Bloom characters. Towards the end of the book he even explores the likely possibility that the name of the main character in Joyce's most famous epic was taken from the partners of a large Trieste-based shipping company: Leopoldo Popper (a father of one Joyce's students) and Luis Blum (who later adopted his father-in-law's last name, Gentilomo, because he had no sons and didn't want the family name to die out).
Overall it was an illuminating and smooth read, providing a nice picture of early 20th Century Trieste and Joyce's love of the city with its rich mix of languages and cultures but also the struggles he went through to raise a new family who in turn had to withstand his spendthrift and alchoholic ways and, with all this going on, his helpless battles with publishers who refused to print his work.
If there's anything I didn't like about it, it would have to be the very few references to the actual writing process of Joyce's works during this time. Early on in the book (p. 10) McCourt states that "His writing, no matter what the turmoil around him, would always remain his first priority" but after that there's not much about Joyce composing his books. There's really barely anything at all written about the process of writing A Portrait which was completed during this period. Although, to make up for it all, at the end of the book as the city is falling into chaotic turmoil, buildings are being burned and destroyed and mobs are fighting in the streets, there's this wonderful paragraph:
Despite the tensions and tumult around him, Joyce forged ahead with his work and, extraordinarily, none of his letters contains any reference to the events going on around him in Trieste or in Europe. It is as if he was too absorbed with Ulysses to notice. On the highly symbolic date of 16 June 1915, he sent Stanislaus [his brother] a postcard in German reporting that "the first episode of my new novel Ulysses is written..." (p. 246)