A Story of Surprises- James Joyce & Szombathely: Walking Through Walls

Two things surprised me in Szombathely, both of which were people. After my arrival on a noon time train from Sarvar, I exited the elegant turn of the 20th century station which was an inspired confection from the heady days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The station was coated in a rich tone of vanilla, topped by a couple of turrets above a grand entrance way. Beyond the station I was stopped by my own confusion. I had no idea which way to walk in order to find the town center. I thumbed through my guidebook until I found the map of Szombathely which I used to get my bearings. With my focus on the map rather than the immediate surroundings, I was suddenly startled by a person who seemed to have come out of nowhere. A woman inserted her head just above my arm, looked at the map and said, “Can I help you?” Her dark eyes betrayed someone with less than noble intentions. Standing behind her was a man whose height was just above the level of a dwarf. Shaken by this intrusion I firmly stated, “No!” I closed the book and began walking in what I believed was the general direction of the city center. The man and woman followed closely behind me for the next five minutes, but my brisk pace and no-nonsense manner made them give up the chase. When I finally stopped to catch my breath, they were nowhere to be seen.

A High Opinion - Fo ter (Main Square) in Szombathely

A High Opinion – Fo ter (Main Square) in Szombathely

Making The Most Of It – Striking A Pose
First impressions can mean everything. The fact that I had been approached by strangers in Szombathely, with what I assumed to be ill intent, colored my initial impression of the city. It was hard for me to shake this feeling as I walked into the city center. The main square (Fo ter) went some way in ameliorating my concern. The uniquely shaped triangular square was expansive and spacious, a partly successful attempt at the spectacular. This square was out of all proportion to most of Szombathely, which was just a small provincial city on the western frontiers of Hungary. It was obvious that the residents of Szombathely had a high opinion of their city and wanted visitors to feel the same. The baroque, classicist and eclectically styled houses were covered with a diverse array of brightly painted facades beaming radiant in the early afternoon sunlight. My mood was becoming as bright as the sunny disposition of Szombathely’s core.

Then, as before, I was surprised once again by a person, but this one was not alive, at least not in the living and breathing sense. A figure from the world of literature who had long since been dead confronted me at 40/41 Fo ter. This was the Irish writer James Joyce, who was in the process of walking halfway through a wall. He had been improbably brought back to life in statuesque form as the ultimate wallflower. Joyce was resting his right hand on a walking stick while wearing his trademark spectacles and wide brimmed hat. His mustache was properly groomed, coat and tie in proper order. Joyce’s face managed an expression of both seriousness and sadness, while the statue was as notable for its portrayal of Joyce as his pose. Walking through a wall is an expression of magical powers, an unexplainable and incomprehensible phenomenon. Perhaps this was a nod to Joyce’s writing, which is praised by critics and unintelligible to the average person.  I have no idea if that was what the sculptor of this Joyce statue intended, but that was my own personal interpretation.

Ulysses in Hungary - James Joyce in Szombathely

Ulysses in Hungary – James Joyce in Szombathely

Back Story – The Search For Deeper Meaning
This search for deeper meaning did not answer my main question regarding the statue. What was a likeness of James Joyce doing in Szombathely in the first place? From what I discovered through research, Joyce had never visited the city, but was nonetheless aware of it. One of the central characters in his stream of consciousness novel Ulysses happens to be from Szombathely. The character is Rudolf Virag, father of Leopold Bloom the novel’s central character. According to the narrative, Virag, originally a Hungarian Jew, immigrated to Ireland. He is said to have later killed himself, leaving his son without a father. Did a Rudolf Virag ever live in Szombathely? The answer I found turned out to be ambiguous. There was no specific Rudolf Virag known to live at 40/41 on Fo ter, but there was a family by the name of Blum at that residence during the 19th century. In Hungarian Virag means flower. In the novel, Rudolf Virag had changed his last name from Virag to Bloom when after emigrating from Hungary to Ireland.  Why did Joyce select Szombathely as the hometown of Rudolf Virag? There are many different theories.

One of the more intriguing credits Joyce’s genius at word play. The pronunciation of Szombathely (Sombattay) sounds like “somebody”, thus it might have been a light-hearted play on words. The most plausible theory is that Joyce was naming it after a close Jewish friend, the scholar Marino De Szombathely. They became acquainted after Joyce and his wife went into self-imposed exile at Trieste (now located in Italy), which was one of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s main ports on the Adriatic Sea prior to World War I. Joyce may have never made it to Szombathely, but he had a great deal of experience with multi-ethnic Austria-Hungary. For over a decade he taught English, first in the port city of Pula (now located in Croatia) and then in Trieste. He would have come into contact with many Jewish citizens of the empire. Joyce also would have learned about the submerged nationalism of the many ethnic groups advocating for greater representation in the empire. This would have chimed with the Irish nationalism that he knew so well.

Home of the Blum Family - Szombathely

Home of the Blum Family – Szombathely (Credit: Pan Peter)

The Life Of Exiles – Ulysses in Hungary
James Joyce’s experiences while living in Austria-Hungary informed character details and back stories in Ulysses. While Hungary was peripheral to the story, it nonetheless played a part in perhaps the greatest modern novel ever written. Rudolf Virag was a self-imposed exile from Hungary and his creator was a self-imposed exile to Austria-Hungary. Joyce thought enough about Hungary to give Szombathely a minor role in the book, one that the city has repaid with the statue of him walking right out of a wall and nearly into me. This was a shocking surprise, one of several that afternoon in Szombathely.

Click here for: American Shadows – The Bombing of Szombathely: Explosive Effects (Part One)


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