This is an unusual and important novel, blessed by an excellent translation, which deserves to be read for its own sake and which will, hopefully, be read for Svevo’s sake as well. Despite Joyce’s early recognition of Svevo as a writer of genius and the tardier homage of French and Italian intellectuals, Svevo is in fact one of those great modern writers who are much regarded but very little read. 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; in Europe and America the influence of Joyce and Valéry Larbaud has perhaps made Svevo’s name familiar but not famous, as it deserves to be. For Svevo is unmistakably a major and original modern writer. A Life is, to be sure, his first novel (it was originally published in 1892 and completely ignored); Svevo’s corpus is of a rare coherence and concentration; and doubtless A Life is both enlarged and fulfilled by As a Man Grows Older and the great “psychoanalytical” epic novel, The Confessions of Zeno.
But none of these facts diminishes the claim of A Life to independent importance. Here, for instance, for the first time in modern literature, not sketched in but worked out in full detail, is the prototype of the “victim-hero” or “anti-hero”; here, I am tempted to add, is the first demonstrably modern novel. Like its two successors, it is a work of acute introspection and analysis, of extraordinary prescience and perception.
Svevo once wrote, “I have at last rid my life of that ridiculous and harmful thing called literature. My sole wish in these pages is to understand myself better.” And in its ascetic style and structure, its avoidance of traditional situations, the novel is fifty years ahead of its time, especially in the context of the Italian literary tradition. More than anything else Svevo’s distinctive functionalism derives from his use of the novel as a device for self-analysis; because the need for clarity is personal, it constantly sweeps away the muffling elegances required by the traditional literary novel. The rigor and thought emerge as a coherent, schooled vision, self-mastery turned into truthful and thoughtful art, and finally, in the closing pages of Zeno, into prophecy. That prophecy is not accidental but the result of Svevo’s lifetime of severe honesty with himself.
At first blush A Life seems to use the conventions of the traditional Bildungsroman, but only in order to invert them, to set a modern weakling Wilhelm Meister against a heroic backdrop. Into the murky atmosphere of bourgeois Trieste, Svevo sets the healthy, country-nourished Alfonso Nitti, a born misfit “in search of his fortune.” Here in a dingy bank Alfonso finds work copying letters, and in conditions of squalid, meaningless routine, his ineptitude for life is quickly revealed. Lacking exercise, his energy sapped by his job, he feels a chronic nausea; then he turns violently introspective and at last breaks down. He recuperates by study, long walks, and an affair with the banker’s daughter Annetta, in which he imagines himself the aggressor though it is actually she who seduces him. Incapable of seizing the main chance, “of falling on his prey,” he flees to his paese where he finds his mother on her deathbed. Cut off from past and future, his illusions shattered, he returns to Trieste where his mistress is about to marry another man. He “copes” by adopting an attitude of resignation, work, and altruism—he will be “superior” to the struggle. His “altruism” finds its chance when his landlady’s daughter is seduced and deserted; in a paroxysm of guilt Alfonso uses his mother’s inheritance to bribe the girl’s seducer to marry her. But he is demoted to the counting house by the banker, and bitterly protests. The protest is construed as blackmail, Alfonso is challenged to a duel by his mistress’s brother, whereupon he commits suicide.
In short, the perennial Svevo world: malaise, impotence, envy, neuraesthenia, and guilt. Because he is young, Alfonso is impotence personified, a Julien Sorel of diseased instinct. He lacks the wry humor and comic resignation of Zeno; all he has of positive virtue is the falling effort to cope, to think well of himself even at the price of self-extinction. “The ancient hero,” wrote Svevo, “was one who confronted death, the modern hero accepts life.” Alfonso Nitti is neither, but the sick misfit, the vinto della vita (“Anyone who isn’t born with the necessary wings won’t grow them afterwards. Anyone who can’t drop like a plummet on his prey at the right second by instinct will never learn”). Around him Svevo sets image upon image of meaninglessness and malady. In Annetta’s living room hangs a painting which shows “nothing but a long road winding across a rocky landscape. There were no figures: just rocks and rocks. The color was cold and the road seemed to lose itself on the horizon.” Alfonso himself has only two strong emotions—self-pity and self-loathing—and he necessarily becomes a pathetic monster. As for his suicide, it is based upon lucid and accurate self-analysis: “He felt incapable of living. Some feeling which he had often tried and failed to understand made it an unbearable agony to him…. He knew neither how to love nor to enjoy…. He was leaving life without regret. It was the one way to become superior to the suspicions and hatreds of others. That was the renunciation of which he had dreamed.” And with these reflections, he turns on the gas.
Alfonso’s introspection fails to identify the obscure feeling which has made his life an agony, and this is surely because to give that feeling a name would dispel its pervasive power. Besides, Alfonso is a pioneer in what he suffers; a non-hero at the frontier of sensibility, the first victim of mankind’s new malady, and his hideous, sensitive passivity registers the future of the race.
His terror is, in fact, a clear case of “bad conscience,” of Angst—the old, and once anonymous, terror of modern man Alfonso himself, as the first victim of a new disease, cannot see it, but his repeated atonements leave no room for doubt. He atones to his colleagues, his employers, his landlady, his mistress, and his mother; and finally, in his death, he atones to the world. Death is the expiation by which he will ransom himself from insignificance, offering himself, Christlike, as a sacrifice to his creditors—for Alfonso is the debtor of all the world—to achieve that “paid balance” with life which nothing in life will let him feel. For 1892 it is an extraordinary, terrifying, and prophetic vision.
It is important here not to misunderstand Svevo, who means by “bad conscience” not existential Angst so much as the bewilderment and despair that follow the atrophy or perversion of animal instinct. Alfonso seeks death because he cannot live as his body requires: “it would continue to drag him into the struggle because that was what it was there for.” And his own febrile consciousness is similarly the effect of a life which cannot give the instincts release or play.
In all of Svevo’s novels the theme is persistent. Zeno reflects: “Our life today is poisoned to the root…. Health can only belong to the beasts, whose sole idea of progress lies in their own bodies…. But bespectacled man invents implements outside his body—the machine creates disease because it denies what has been the law of creation throughout the ages. The law of the strongest disappeared, and we have abandoned natural selection. We need something more than psychoanalysis to help us”—and he proceeds to prophesy that disease will spread until finally cauterized by a great bomb-explosion that will end disease by ending the world also. Like Zeno’s, Alfonso’s impotence and abulia are an emblem of the sickness of instinct which stimulates consciousness and drives it inward; diseased, the organism finally dies of “progressive paralysis.” Indeed, all of Svevo’s characters torture themselves with introspection because it is their fate to have nothing else to do, becoming that definition of impotent absurdity, the amateur psychoanalyst. It is a vision to terrify even Freud.
So accented, Svevo’s thesis sharply recalls Nietzsche (indeed I suspect that for Svevo the crucial formative master was always Nietzsche—Freud was secondary). Set Nietzsche’s Geneology of Morals (1887) against Svevo’s A Life (1892), and the illumination is lively and immediate. Thus Nietzsche:
I take bad conscience to be a deep-seated malady to which man succumbed under the pressure of the most profound transformation he ever underwent…. Of a sudden men found all their instincts devalued, unhinged…. Man became the inventor of “bad conscience.” Also the generator of the greatest and most disastrous of maladies, of which humanity has not to this day been cured: his sickness of himself, brought on by his sudden severance from his animal past, by his sudden leap into new layers and conditions of existence, by his declaration of war against the old instincts…. It is the predestined failures and victims who undermine the social structure, who poison our faith in life and our fellow men…. The ambition of these most abject individuals is at least to mime justice, wisdom, love, superiority…. Bad conscience, the desire for self-mortification, is the wellspring of all altruistic values.
Svevo’s Alfonso is, in fact, a Nietzschean misfit who takes his revenge upon the strong by becoming “good.” Just as Alfonso commits suicide in order to win “superiority,” and preaches the gospel of altruistic quietism to his land-lady’s daughter, so he consistently proposes to write a book to prove that “the only basis for a moral idea in the world is the good of the community.” Only by being “better” than the strong—a “victim” who throws himself to the “beast of prey”—can he redress the balance. But whereas Nietzsche emphasizes the Christian ambiguity of altruistic vindictiveness, Svevo stresses the impulse which modern life, with its dehumanizing routines and its demotion of man to a sedentary existence, has given to it. The body is not only denied morally, but physically as well. At the end of a day of copying letters it is only Alfonso’s hand which is tired (at night he masturbates)—the rest of his body is utterly unused, almost vestigial. The result is a dramatic quickening of the sense of death in the body—death not as natural mortality, but an alien invader, an industrial cancer or paralysis.
Svevo, that is, builds upon Nietzsche’s vision of the European sanatarium, but also expands it. For if Svevo saw that modern life literally starves the instincts, he also saw that passive routine falls with particular severity upon the poor and the petit bourgeois who staff the offices and man the factories. If one is an upperclass “victim,” social or economic superiority may spare him the cruder forms of altruistic ressentiment. But for the poor no such protection is possible, and their rancor and perversion is therefore, as with Alfonso Nitti, particularly terrible.
Thanks to this social awareness, Svevo can give his “victim-heroes” the compassion which Nietzsche could not. Besides, Svevo’s misfits are in some sense the wave of the future, prototypes of pathetic modern man whose habitual introspection gives them the power of prophecy but not the gift of life. For as against the “beasts of prey”—the brainlessly purposive gulls, pure feathered instinct, effortless and sure, “each flying on its own account with great white wings outstretched”—Svevo’s heroes have enlarged and exacerbated consciousness, the cursed gift which makes its possessor unhappy but always interesting.
For it is altruistic, conscious man, not the “beast of prey,” who holds the shape of the future, who has, in Nietzsche’s words, “an interest, a suspense, a hope, almost a conviction—as though something were heralded, as though he were not a goal but a way, an interlude, a bridge, a great promise…”
In this perspective Svevo’s protagonists—the Chaplinesque Zeno above all—tend to become images of man-in-mutation: hideously deformed or impoverished from the viewpoint of the heroic tradition, they are nonetheless the transitional prototypes of future man’s enormous consciousness. From the perspective of the past, they are misfits; from the viewpoint of the future they are tragicomic heroes, a useless agony to themselves but men who suffer for the species’ sake, that man may “become the thing he is.” Scratch Zeno, or Alfonso Nitti, and you come, sooner or later, upon the modern Oedipus or Prometheus.
February 6, 1964