"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

January 7, 2013

"Zeno's Conscience" by Italo Svevo (Book Review)

Even if James Joyce had not written Ulysses, he would still be important for world literature for he was the discoverer of the Italian author Italo Svevo, whose major work, Zeno's Conscience (La conscienza di Zeno, 1923 - tr. by William Weaver, 2001), I want to discuss here.

Italo Svevo (1861-1928), whose real name was Aron Ettore Schmitz, was born in Trieste (a city in northwestern Italy, at that time part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire) into a Jewish family of German-Hungarian and Italian descent. His schooling was in the first place German, and he felt never completely comfortable when writing literary Italian (which was based on the Tuscan dialect, not on the Triestine one he heard around him). Svevo cherished the dream of becoming an actor, but a reversal in his father's business forced him to become a clerk in the Trieste branch of the Union Bank of Vienna. Outside office hours, he avidly read literature, with Zola as his idol. In the 1890s he published two short novels at his own expense, A Life (Una Vita, 1892) and As a Man Grows Older (Senilità, 1898), but as they were not very succesful, he abandoned literature. Svevo then married into a prominent Trieste family and joined the successful marine paint company set up by his his father-in-law.

[Italo Svevo. Photo Wikipedia]

In 1907, this company - which had a patented product that slowed down corrosion - , decided to set up a branch in London. Svevo was going to establish the branch office and needed to learn some English. He took a private tutor and by a happy twist of fate, that teacher turned out to be the young James Joyce (!), who was then working in Trieste at the Berlitz School. They talked about literature and Svevo showed Joyce his novels. Joyce expressed his admiration, and so stimulated Svevo to start writing again. It took until 1923 before the fruits of that renewed endeavor were published: Zeno's Conscience – and James Joyce, by now famous, promoted it by arranging a French translation. As a result, the 62-year old Svevo became famous, also in Italy. Svevo was working on a sequel when unfortuantely he was killed in a car crash in 1928.

The narrator of the novel, called Zeno Cosini, tells five stories; the book is not arranged chronologically but according to subject matter: Zeno's attempts to quit smoking, the death of his father, his courtship and marriage, his mistress (or rather, one of them), and the story of his business partnership with his brother-in-law. At the time the novel was written, psychoanalysis was popular and this provides the frame for the novel: the middle-aged Zeno feels there is something wrong with him and visits a psychoanalyst. For starters, the doctor wants him to write about his life – and when Zeno suddenly stops the treatment, the doctor publishes the manuscript in order to compensate for lost fees.

Zeno is a hardcore nicotine addict, who can't stop smoking and uses endless reasonings with himself that the next cigarette will be the last; he is also a guilt-ridden adulterer, who continually justifies his awkward affairs while convincing himself that he loves his wife; and a bumbling businessman who is caught in a doomed partnership with hs brother-in-law. As the narrative unfolds, the creative bookkeeping of his conscience becomes increasingly intricate. “Resolutions existed for their own sake and had no practical results whatever.” At the same time, he becomes more and more unsure of the meaning and the rightness of his actions, he is caught in the paradox of his own convoluted rationalizations. But his constant whitewashings are also alarmingly like the fictions many people tell themselves on a daily basis.

This may come over as rather serious, but the novel is above all extremely funny. Svevo learned much from Kafka. Zeno's tale is a comical exercise in self-revelation, that is as false as it can be, and the psychoanalytic treatment leads not surprisingly nowhere at all. Zeno never finds a solution for his problems – Svevo is not only skeptical about psychoanalyssis, but also more fundamentally about the notion that people can cure themselves - , but Zeno's not so honest confessions and extravagant fantasies make a great story, not in the least because he accepts everything he sees with humor.

The most funny part is the one about Zeno's courtship. Zeno is invited into the home an important businessman to select one of the four daughters for marriage. All daughters have names starting with an A, Zeno is of course a Z. The eldest daughter, Ada, is a classical beauty; the second, Augusta is out of the question as she has a squint; the third one is interesting but prefers intellectual pursuits to marriage and the fourth one is still too young. Of course, everything goes wrong - when Zeno tries to make polite conversation, he ends up uttering insults; when he leans nonchalantly on his umbrella (a Freudian symbol), the umbrella snaps in two, causing general mirth. And as could be expected Zeno ends up marrying the daughter with the squint – Ada dislikes him and already has promised herself to Guido, a German suitor. The whole family schemes to push Zeno into the marriage with Augusta – finally putting her next to him in a dark room so that he mistakes her for Ada and asks for her hand! But Augusta proves to be an excellent wife, who puts his chaotic house in order.

In the end, the sickness of Zeno, of which he doesn't want to be cured, is the civilizational crisis of Europe itself, the mal du siècle, which led to the wars of the 20th century. Svevo is remarkably silent about the major political events that shaped history during his life, just as there are no overtly Jewish characters or themes in his work. Although the Habsburg Empire broke apart in 1918, his comfortable life in Trieste continued without major upheaval, at least until his death. But later history would overtake his family with a vengeance: during WWII, his wife and daughter had to hide for the Fascist “purification” squads; of his three grandsons, two died at the Russian front, the other was killed when he took part in a rebellion against the Nazis in 1945.

The best English translation is by William Weaver (who has also translated work by Eco, Calvino and Pirandello), published by Vintage. There is an interesting essay about Svevo in Inner Workings by J.M. Coetzee.