A man—a very big man beside whom you feel very small—invites you to meet his four daughters and choose one to marry. Their names all begin with A; your name begins with Z. You pay a visit and try to make polite conversation, but insults come tumbling out of your mouth. You find yourself telling risqué jokes that are met with frosty silence. In the dark you whisper seductive words to the prettiest A; when the lights come on you find you have been wooing the A with the squint. You lean nonchalantly on your umbrella; the umbrella snaps in two; everyone laughs.
It sounds, if not like a nightmare, then like one of those dreams that, in the hands of a skilled Viennese dream-interpreter, Sigmund Freud for instance, will prove all kinds of embarrassing things about you. But it is not a dream. It is a day in the life of Zeno Cosini, hero of La coscienza di Zeno (1923), a novel by Italo Svevo (1861– 1928). If Svevo is some kind of Freudian novelist, is he Freudian in the sense that he sets out to show that the lives of ordinary people are filled with slips and parapraxes and symbols, or in the sense that, using The Interpretation of Dreams and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life as sources, he has concocted a character whose inner life runs on textbook Freudian lines? Or is it possible that both Freud and Svevo belonged to an age when cigars and purses and umbrellas seemed to be pregnant with secret meaning, whereas to the present age such objects seem barely worth bothering one’s mind with?
“Italo Svevo” (Italo the Swabian) is of course a pseudonym. Svevo was born Aron Ettore Schmitz. His paternal grandfather was a Jew from Hungary who had settled in Trieste. His father began as a peddler and ended as a successful glassware merchant; his mother was from a Triestine Jewish family. The Schmitzes were observant Jews, but of an easygoing kind. Aron Ettore married a Catholic convert, and under pressure from her converted too (halfheartedly, it must be said). The autobiographical sketch issued under his name late in life, when Trieste had become part of Italy and Italy had become Fascist, is evasive about his Jewish, non-Italian antecedents. His wife Livia’s memoir of him—somewhat hagiographic in tendency, but thoroughly readable—is similarly discreet. In his own writings there are no overtly Jewish characters or themes.
Svevo’s father—a dominant influence on his life—sent his sons to a commercial boarding school in Germany, where in his spare hours Svevo immersed himself in the German Romantics. Whatever advantage his German schooling was to give him as a man of affairs in Austria-Hungary, it deprived him of a training in literary Italian. Back home in Trieste at the age of seventeen, Svevo was enrolled at the Instituto Superiore Commerciale. Dreams of becoming an actor ended when he was turned down at an audition…
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