Italo Svevo
Italo Svevo; drawing by David Levine

The Joyce Collection at Cornell includes among its curiosities a description of Joyce by Ettore Schmitz, otherwise known as Italo Svevo. In 1906 Schmitz, manager of a paint factory in Trieste, hired Joyce to teach him English. One of the set exercises was a description of the teacher. The text of Schmitz’s effort is given in Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce and reprinted now in Mr. Furbank’s study of Svevo. Schmitz fastens upon his teacher in motion, in gesture, walking, as if the Master were Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. Joyce seems to Schmitz “a man who considers things as points breaking the light for his amusement.” It is hard to decide whether this is as brilliant as it sounds or merely a stumble into profundity caused by the difficulties of English grammar. It is a remarkable epiphany, however achieved. But it applies even more splendidly to Svevo than to Joyce.

Most of Svevo’s comedy arises from the amused consideration of man’s double nature, body and spirit. The body in tandem with the spirit is funny enough, but not so funny as the two pedaling in opposite directions. Svevo’s cousin in philosophy is Descartes, in art Thurber, in psychology Pavlov. There is a magnificent paragraph in the “Short Sentimental Journey” (1925) where old Signor Aghios is accosted by a porter at the railway station in Milan. The porter speaks in Milanese dialect, which the old man, a Triestino, does not understand. So he attends, instead, to the porter’s smile, confident that a tip will keep it in place. The trouble is that a smile, if neglected or abused, changes into a scowl, a leer, a grimace:

Signor Aghios exploited his little tips like a born miser. He did not want to buy much with them—only lasting friendship. Therefore he began by paying less than the normal amount. Generally the recipient did not protest, but stood staring with amazed disbelief at the small sum in his outspread palm. Then, and only then, Signor Aghios would put further coins, one by one, into the other’s hand, until it closed and a smile appeared on the porter’s face. Thus that smile, which had been so slow to appear, was stamped the more indelibly in Signor Aghios’s memory, and sweetened his way for hours and miles ahead. Sometimes, before he had finished doling out the entire tip, the porter would get tired and stamp off with a rude word. When that happened, Signor Aghios went away with the tip in his pocket, but happy none the less—for he had quarrelled with an enemy, not a stranger.

In “Argo and his Master” (one of the last stories) Svevo tells of a man who tries to teach his dog Argo to talk, a feat already accomplished by a dog in Germany. The lessons, strictly speaking, are a failure. But Argo teaches the teacher. The problem is that Argo issues philosophical statements but he never explains them. “Animals are perfect but imperfectible,” the teacher concludes. “It is the one who studies them who must be able to progress.” When Argo came down from the mountain to the valley, he showed that he recognized his old friends. “He didn’t forget, but neither did he remember. He held things in abeyance.” Soon after, the dog dies from neurasthenia.

To pursue the figure, if you think of man as a machine haunted by a ghost, you probably mean a machine at work. Or, considering things as points breaking the light for your amusement, you can make the machine funny by keeping it ticking over, idling, doing nothing. Like Argo, you can hold everything in abeyance. This is the source of Svevo’s comedy. If a businessman is also, from time to time, a writer, he may think of his writing as a vacation exercise. He may even choose vacancy as his theme. It is at least amusing, and may be instructive, to judge a man by his idleness rather than by his work. Svevo is devoted to vacancy and abeyance. His motto is: never do today what you can put off until tomorrow, when assuredly you will be better qualified for the task. In The Confessions of Zeno (1923) poor Zeno delays proposing to Ada because he is waiting “to become nobler and stronger, more worthy of my divine mistress.” As he says, “this might happen anytime from one day to another. Why not wait?”

The richest form of abeyance is talk. To Zeno talk seems “an event in itself which must not be hampered by other events.” The fundamental difference between Zeno and his rival Guido is, he finds, that “all the knowledge I had acquired was used by me for talking and by him for action.” Ingenuities of talk are burnt offerings to vacancy. The result is the kind of comedy which one achieves by racing an engine, knowing that the transmission has been disconnected. A meditation in the “Short Sentimental Journey” is the result of identifying the soul of things with their smell rather than with their form or appearance. On this showing, dogs have a more agreeable life than people:


Dogs are nowhere foreigners. Their favorite sense is an essentially sociable one. Every casual meeting is immediately intimate, with the most recondite parts being offered to their noses for verification.

The principle invites development. Svevo treats his characters as if they were, from the start, what they will one day become. If a man, sane for the first sixty years of his life, goes mad on his next birthday, Svevo considers him as one who was always on the point of going mad. He thinks of his characters as revealed in their chances rather than their choices. He treats absolutes as if they were relative; finalities as if, like Zeno’s last cigarette, they were recurrent. “I did not want Carla,” Zeno says, “but only her embrace, and preferably her final embrace.”

The aim is to disengage these lives from their official responsibility, making them available for consciousness and analysis. No claims are made in behalf of this procedure. The chain of cause and effect is a bourgeois axiom good enough during office hours, but a man’s vacant time requires that the chain be disconnected. One does this in a spirit of disinterested abeyance. The results are not offered for sale. In Svevo’s fiction, causes result in effects which could only have been rationally sought by a different method. Conditions tending to failure yield success. The introvert makes a fortune. A squint turns out to be perfect vision. The hero of Senilità (1898) at one point stops kissing his mistress, “and as a preparation for her initiation into vice he assumes the severe aspect of a professor of virtue.” In “The Story of the Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl” (1926) the old man conducts his love affair as if its purpose were pedagogical. The hilarious aspects of misery are revealed by treating accident as if it were essence. When Zeno identifies himself with his illness he does not think of it as a mere condition or circumstance. “Ill-health is a conviction, and I was born with that conviction.”

MR. FURBANK has a very interesting discussion of the “infection of the will” in Svevo, and he associates the infection with Svevo’s notion of senility as a certain mal du siècle. One is born afflicted with senility. But this is also understandable in Svevo as a comic principle, the dislocation of official perspectives. It is Swiftian in kind and tendency, if not in degree. Svevo takes the psychopathology of everyday life for granted, as a comic axiom. Nothing could be less Freudian. Zeno is a poor violinist, a fact which he associates with his poor health. Pursuing health, he practices for hours. “There are certain slight inhibitions in my organism which are more obvious when I play the violin, and therefore easier to deal with.” Guido, the successful lover, is also an excellent violinist, flamboyant in both activities. Zeno’s only consolation in this double defeat is that “one’s own violin resounds so close to one’s ear that it reaches the heart very quickly”; a figure, incidentally, entirely in keeping with the comic reflexiveness of Svevo’s fiction generally.

To undergo psychoanalysis is funny enough, but not so funny as to be one’s own analyst. Best of all is to become one’s own analyst while retaining an official analyst who is making a mess of the job. The Confessions of Zeno is the record of this situation. Images gain in hilarity, rebounding from a cracked mirror. As Zeno says: “Health cannot analyze itself even if it looks at itself in the glass. It is only we invalids who can know anything about ourselves.” Or about others. Zeno wonders whether his wife’s health, formidably sound, would not perhaps need some treatment to correct it. The merits of psychosomatic illness are indisputable. “I might have been dead long ago, who knows of what ghastly disease,” Zeno reflects, “if my pain had not simulated each in turn so as to induce me to get cured before it had time really to take hold of me.”

One of the most accomplished chapters of The Confessions of Zeno is a discussion between the hero and his friend Enrico about the relative merits of a genuine invalid and a malade imaginaire. The matter is pursued with considerable erudition, and the friends finally agree that one sort of invalid is just as good as another:


In the case of Copler’s nephritis, just what he had lacked and in fact still lacked, was that warning from the nerves, whereas mine, it seemed, were so sensitive that they already gave warning of a disease from which possibly I was going to die only twenty years later. They might in fact be called perfect nerves, their only disadvantage being that there were very few days when they left me in peace.

This entire chapter is an enterprising parody of man as a rational animal, since the ratio is confined to one form, self-consciousness, and the speech is a travesty of dialogue. Zeno develops a limp by pondering the fifty-four separate muscles used in moving the human knee. In the “Short Sentimental Journey” Aghios in the train watches a little girl peering through the carriage window. After a while she whimpers because she can’t see herself or the train: “To see the landscape, the train, and oneself at the same time—that really would have been traveling!”

This kind of fiction is a risky business. Problems of tone and decorum are as delicate here as in Oblomov or Bouvard et Pécuchet. To follow Svevo’s work from Una vita (1892) to the last stories is to see the problems confronted and, time and again, solved with remarkable flair. To point to his achievement of style is to mark the seemingly effortless triumphs of tone, the balance magnificently held, especially in The Confessions of Zeno, the unfinished “Short Sentimental Journey,” Senilità (translated under the title, suggested by Joyce, As a Man Grows Older), “The Nice Old Man,” and Heady Wine (c. 1914). It seems clear that the tone is closely dependent upon the Triestine dialect which Svevo used. Critics have emphasized that Svevo’s language is a rudimentary, commercial idiom peculiarly in keeping with Triestine occupations. Renato Poggioli called it “a kind of Italian Esperanto or pidgin Italian.” Perhaps it is roughly comparable to the “scrupulous meanness” embodied in the early stories of Joyce’s Dubliners. This may explain, by the way, why the relations between Joyce and Svevo never broke through the formalities. Easy reasons are available. While Svevo helped Joyce in money difficulties, Joyce thought him tight-fisted. Svevo was generous up to a point, a limitation scandalous to debtors like Joyce who operate on the principle that what is yours is mine.

BUT THERE MAY BE a more oblique reason, represented by two different languages. Joyce’s Italian was the learned idiom, by all accounts. In Trieste he was amused by the dialects, but he never took them seriously. The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is heady Tuscan wine, full of Pater and D’Annunzio. Joyce approved of Svevo’s fiction and lobbied the influential critics in its behalf, but it was irrelevant to his own procedures. It is sometimes assumed that Svevo was the model for Leopold Bloom, but there was a better model close at hand, Teodoro Mayer, as Richard Ellmann shows. So the relation between the two men is entirely casual. In the matter of style there is hardly a relation at all. If you want to write the last forty pages of the Portrait, you need a high style, not the lingua franca of the Stock Exchange Gazette.

To Svevo’s artistic purposes, on the other hand, the Stock Exchange, the Tergesteo which figures so often in his stories, was a place of great significance. Imagine conducting an elaborate fiction, like Zeno, as a psychoanalytical confession, where you play both roles, penitent and confessor. Then imagine writing the whole thing out in a Stock Exchange style. Surely this would be, at the very least, a tour de force in the manipulation of comic perspectives. The Tergesteo would be as appropriate as the sanatorium in The Magic Mountain. Mr. Furbank shows that much of Svevo’s fiction is twisted autobiography. Hence the propriety of Mr. Furbank’s own book, two parts biography to one part criticism. Una vita has a lot of Svevo’s experience as a bank clerk. Senilità is very close to its author’s bone. Svevo’s brother Elio is much of Zeno. The Hoax (1926) is transposed fact. The point to make is that Svevo’s comedy is the force of an imperturbably low style applied to personal matters which, left to themselves, would fly off the handle.

The last pages of The Confessions of Zeno are exemplary marks of this force. “Perhaps,” Zeno reflects, “some incredible disaster produced by machines will lead us back to health.” Rounding out this speculation:

When all the poison gases are exhausted, a man, made like all other men of flesh and blood, will in the quiet of his room invent an explosive of such potency that all the explosives in existence will seem like harmless toys beside it. And another man, made in his image and in the image of all the rest, but a little weaker than them, will steal that explosive and crawl to the centre of the earth with it, and place it just where he calculates it will have the maximum effect. There will be a tremendous explosion, but no one will hear it, and the earth will return to its nebulous state and go wandering through the sky, free at last from parasites and disease.

Surely we have in these words a perfect balance of motives. Zeno, working out the implications of his terminology, pushes them to the end of the line. But the vengeance of the explosion is modified, as a scowl is changed to a smile, and the smile is transferred to the earth in its new beginning, a childlike smile of wandering and freedom. To end a story as unhinged as Zeno without making your apocalypse a malignant grimace is an unusually civilized achievement. Let us end the low story, Zeno seems to say, but let us take care to end it in such a way as to effect a new beginning. The aim of the book is to enable the dead to bury their dead. In The Hoax, a writer, Mario, eases his mind by composing bitter little fables of birds and animals. Committing his melancholy to his fiction, he “leaves his face without a cloud.” It is said of Rilke that when a friend wanted him to go to a psychoanalyst the poet answered: “I’m sure he would remove my devils, but I’m afraid he would offend my angels.” Santayana speaks of Parmenides smiling when the young pup Socrates turns away in disgust from ideas of rubbish and filth. It seems proper to think of Rilke, Parmenides, and Santayana in these genial images, and then to think of Svevo.

Nino Frank, who knew Svevo in Paris, said that he spoke “as if he were looking all round each word before he spoke it.” Mr. Furbank follows the same procedure. He moves from one identifiable occasion to another, presenting Svevo now in one relation, now in another. The relations are enlivened with report and anecdote. In the early chapters Svevo is seen in the context of his impressive family, Trieste, his marriage. Later he is shown in relation to Joyce, and at the precise moment (page 115) there is a splendid photograph of his wife Livia, her celebrated hair tumbling down as an inspiration for Joyce’s Anna Livia Plurabelle. Mr. Furbank is gifted in these proprieties. Later, the relations change; other characters, Montale, Crémieux, Larbaud appear. It is a fascinating story. Perhaps we need more detail, more idiosyncrasy, more analysis of the fiction when it comes. But Mr. Furbank’s book is an ideal introduction, guide, manual.

This Issue

May 4, 1967