An Early Modern

A Life

by Italo Svevo, translated by Archibald Colquhoun
Knopf, 398 pp., $4.95

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…

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