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Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 2, 2001

4.0 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews

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Located on a narrow, mountainous finger of Italy hard by Croatia and Slovenia, the port city of Trieste is something of a backwater, little visited and seldom in the news. As Jan Morris, who first came to Trieste as the English soldier James Morris in 1945, writes, "It offers no unforgettable landmark, no universally familiar melody, no unmistakable cuisine, hardly a single native name that anyone knows."

Yet, as historian and travel writer Morris ably demonstrates in this homage to one of her favorite cities (others about which she has written are Hong Kong, Sydney, New York, and Venice), Trieste has many charms. Its history is foremost among them, thanks to the city's former role as the sole port of the otherwise landlocked Austro-Hungarian empire, which housed a small fleet there--a fleet that, from time to time, would sail off to make war against the Ottomans or the Italians. At the beginning of the 20th century, Trieste had grown to international importance as an entry point into Central Europe, so much so that it was referred to as "the third entrance of the Suez Canal." Trieste briefly took center stage at the onset of the cold war, when Marshall Tito claimed it for Yugoslavia; it narrowly avoided being enveloped by the Iron Curtain. Morris tells all these stories and more, bringing the city's past to life; no one should be surprised if Trieste sees more visitors thanks to her spirited study.

Yet Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere is also a work tinged with melancholy. That befits the city's faded glory, but it also has to do with the sad fact that this will be Morris's last book--or so she promises. Let's hope she changes her mind. If not, however, this serves very well as the capstone of a distinguished career. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

With fluid, expressive prose, Welsh writer Morris (Lincoln) delivers an intriguing vision of the small seaside Italian city of Trieste. In an account that is part detailed history, part melancholy remembrance, Morris offers a vivid and loving description of a place and an eloquent reflection on growing old. In this slim volume, supposedly Morris's last, the author brilliantly weaves historic and personal memories (as the soldier James Morris, before her sex-change operation, she was stationed there during WWII), observations on love, lust, nationalism, exile and kindness, and a tender portrait of the oft-forgotten city. From glory to exile, from affluence to desertion, Morris shares the city's triumphs and hardships as one would the life story of an old and well-loved friend with affection, respect and a cheerful acceptance of little personality quirks. Tossed between Italy, Austria, Yugoslavia and finally back to Italy, Trieste, once one of the greatest port cities in the world, is now a sleepy town on the "end of its Italian umbilical." Morris writes, "So it is with me, after a lifetime of describing the planet, and I look at Trieste now as I would look into a mirror.... Much of this little book, then, has been a self-description." Populated with the well-drawn ghosts of such luminaries as James Joyce, Sir Richard Francis Burton and other "exiles" who made the city their home for a time, Morris's "little book" is as exuberant as it is bittersweet, as resigned as it is wistful.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition; First Printing edition (October 2, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743201280
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743201285
  • Product Dimensions: 8.7 x 6 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,220,012 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on February 20, 2002
Format: Hardcover
The only quibble I have with Jan Morris' lovely and lyrical homage to Trieste is that she has painted it in the colors of her own melancholy. I grew up in Trieste, and this is what I remember: the bluest sky one could imagine, the ever-changing colors of the Adriatic, the perfect crescent of the gulf. Certainly there was a beautiful melancholy in Trieste--in some ways it reminds me of Prague, or of Paris in late autumn--but there is also a joy I'd call particularly Triestine. I remember singing local ballads in the local trattorias, group hikes in the Carso, the summertime exodus to the city's wonderful beaches, the variegated populations of Eastern Europeans selling their wares in the Mercato Nuovo. I remember participating in avant-garde theatrical productions, hearing punk-rock bands before they became famous in the U.S., and attending Trieste's famous Science Fiction Film Festival...all these events drew laughing, happy, diverse, fashionable (oh, we Triestine women are chic...) crowds. And I beg to differ about the regional cuisine!! Anyone who has tasted my mother's jota (a dense, rich minestrone) or the city's wonderful "brodetto" (a light and spicy fish stew)or any of our Italo-Austro-Italian specialties could never assert a lack of culinary heritage for the city. Morris also claims that Triestini are not very sentimental about their own cultural heritage,and that (unlike our stereotypes of Italians)are not prone to lavish and very public displays of grief, joy, or anger. Perhaps she has not been around a group of Triestini singing or listening to our "Marinaresca", a local fisherman's ballad, or perhaps she has not been among our "esuli" ("displaced persons" in U.S. bureaucratic parlance) when they hear the "Va Pensiero" chorus from Verdi's "Nabucco".Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
Trieste is a city I knew nothing about, but always had a vague impression of. That impression, of faded grandeur, old-Europe cosmopolitanism gone to seed, and melancholy, is largely confirmed in this, the first of Morris' books I've read. The fishing village at the top of the Adriatic was a sleepy burg until the Austro-Hungarian empire transformed it into it's only seaport and HQ for its imperial navy in the early 1700s. It rapidly became one of the leading seaports of the world, and an international center of commerce. Following the defeat and dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Trieste was handed over to Italy, which already had plenty of ports, and thus it quickly reverted to sleepy backwater. Over the last century it was occupied by the Nazis, Allied forces, was a UN free territory, and eventually reverted to Italian rule. Nowadays, as Morris writes, "It offers no unforgettable landmark, no universally familiar melody, no unmistakable cuisine, hardly a single native name that anyone knows."
And while Morris ably rambles through the city's history (which she first visited in 1946), the book is a bit of a metaphor for human aging and memory. She has vowed this is her final book in a prolific career, and the melancholy tone echoes the melancholy of a city whose glory days lie a century in the past. She writes, "Trieste makes one ask sad questions of oneself. What am I here for? Where am I going?" That's not to say the book is depressing or sad, because her love for the city is evident throughout, as she grapples with its place in her own psyche. While she clearly enjoys recreating in her mind's eye the hustle and bustle of the imperial era, she also finds, "For me, Trieste is an allegory of limbo, in the secular sense of an indefinable hiatus.
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Format: Hardcover
Largely bereft of landmarks that might attract a sightseer, and for much of the year buffeted by the icy bora sweeping down from the denuded limestone plateau of the Karst, Trieste is outwardly an unprepossessing place. But with deft strokes, septuagenarian Jan Morris, in Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, depicts an exiled city in whose distinctive soul she has long seen reflections of herself.
Isolated from mainstream Europe, Trieste lies on the coast of the tiny sliver of north-east Italy hooked over the top of the Adriatic. Hemmed in by the Giulian Alps to the north and the Balkans to the east, the city is nonetheless steeped in a past which, until the Great War, saw this one-time medieval fishing village flourish as a cosmopolitan seaport serving imperial Vienna.
Some readers may blanch at Morris's fond remembrance of empire. But the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, put an end to all that, and half a millennium of Austrian rule rapidly came to a close. Trieste was cast adrift, passing in turn through the hands of Il Duce, the Nazis and the squabbling Allied liberation armies (in which a young Morris arrived in Trieste as a British soldier). For a time it was even an independent free territory under the auspices of the United Nations. It returned to Italy in 1954, but a 1999 survey showed that the majority of Italians are unaware the city is one of their own. Trieste remains the capital of nowhere.
In absorbing the influence of different races, nationalities and faiths, this place of transience has become a melting pot in which such distinctions are at best irrelevant, at worst a nonsense.
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