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Svevo in Italy

In response to:

An Early Modern from the February 6, 1964 issue

To the Editors:

May I register the following protest against a blatant inaccuracy in what is otherwise a very perceptive article by William Arrowsmith in your February 6 issue. Speaking of Italo Svevo, he says:

In his native Italy, where a mandarin literary tradition has always tended to patronize the provinces, the Triestine Svevo (a Jew whose real name was Ettore Schmitz) has been shockingly ignored or treated as a barbarous upstart.

This is a gross factual mistake compounded with venom. I am shocked myself by the patronizing attitude Mr. Arrowsmith takes to modern Italian culture, and even more by his ignorance of pertinent scholarship. A brilliant scholar like Mr. Arrowsmith should not have been carried away by his personal discovery of Svevo’s work to the point of forgetting that Svevo was acclaimed by a leading Italian poet, Eugenio Montale, as early as 1925, and that expecially since World War II he has been attracting massive critical attention in Italy, where he is considered a major writer in a class with Pirandello and Montale himself. Between the Fifties and the early Sixties critics like Bruno Maier, Giorgio Luti (of Florence!) and Arcangelo de Castris have written important studies, and among these I would suggest De Castris’s monograph for illuminating comment on Svevo’s European stature and for bibliographical information. Mr. Arrowsmith should also consult Svevo’s biography by the late Mrs. Svevo (Vita di mio marito) and the anthology Svevo Testimonianze (published in the early Fifties) for additional information.

More generally, Mr. Arrowsmith seems to forget that the “mandarin” Italian tradition, far from dominating the Italian cultural scene, has been repeatedly challenged and defeated in our time. How else could he explain the fact that two Sicilian mavericks like Verga and Pirandello are recognized in Italy as the greatest modern authors of Italian prose fiction and drama respectively? or that most of the significant writers there have come from the peripheral provinces in our century, or at least have freely experimented with unacademic dialect forms? The battle Mr. Arrowsmith so earnestly advocates now was fought and won in Italy a long time ago, and I am sure that, after reviewing the facts of the case, he will reconsider his rash statement.

Glauco Cambon

Rutgers University

New Brunswick, N.J.

William Arrowsmith replies:

There was neither venom nor inaccuracy in my review, and it is Professor Cambon who is patronizing. I suggest he reread the studies he recommends to me, especially Bruno Maier’s essay on the critical fortuna of Svevo. Except perhaps to touchy Italian eyes, the facts are clear. Both Una Vita (1892) and Senilità (1898) were, outside Trieste, atrociously neglected. Svevo himself complained of the “absolute and glacial silence” which followed the publication of Zeno in 1922. It was his despair of getting a hearing that led him to send copies of his work to Montale and if Montale and a tiny handful of Italians praised Svevo’s work, the solid (Mandarin) majority of Italian critics sneered for twenty-five years at the Triestine upstart who had had the misfortune to win acclaim outside Italy. Only after the Second World War did Italian critics generally recognize Svevo’s stature. But can Professor Cambon seriously pretend that a recognition that came fifty years after Svevo’s first two novels and twenty-five years after his third and last, is evidence of anything except shocking neglect?

As for the Mandarin tradition, it is still very much alive, though less powerful than it once was. The reason is not the lively responsiveness of Italian criticism, but a fundamental change in Italian culture. As for Italian criticism, I don’t deny that I find it even today one of the least interesting in Europe—academic, antiquated and obtuse. This will doubtless prove my venomousness to Professor Cambon, but that is a risk I am ready to take. If Italian critics would spend as much imagination and energy on the present as they now lavish on passionate hindsight, they would do their literature a service.

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