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 because of faulty Italian elocution.
In 1880 Schmitz senior suffered financial reverses and his son had to break off his studies. He took a job with the Trieste branch of Unionbank of Vienna, where for the next nineteen years he worked as a clerk. Outside office hours he read the Italian classics and the wider European avant-garde. Zola became his idol. He frequented artistic salons and wrote for a newspaper with Italian nationalist leanings.
In his mid-thirties, having tasted what it was like to publish a novel (Una vita, 1892) at his own expense and be ignored by the critics, and about to repeat the experience with Senilità (1898), Svevo married into the prominent Veneziani family, owners of a plant where ships’ hulls were painted with a unique compound that slowed down corrosion and prevented the growth of barnacles. Svevo joined the family firm, where he took charge of the mixing of the paint from its secret formula and supervised the workforce.
The Venezianis already had contracts with a number of the world’s navies. When the British Admiralty indicated interest, they opened a branch in London, which Svevo oversaw. To improve his English he took lessons from an Irishman named James Joyce, who taught at the Berlitz school in Trieste. With the failure of Senilità Svevo had given up serious writing. Now, in his teacher, he found someone who liked his books and understood what he was up to. Heartened, he pressed on with what he called his scribbling, though he did not publish again until the 1920s.
The Trieste of Svevo’s day, overwhelmingly Italian in culture, was nevertheless part of the Habsburg Empire. It was a prosperous city, the principal seaport for Vienna, with an enlightened middle class running an econ-omy based on shipping, insurance, and finance. Immigration had brought in Greeks, Germans, and Jews; much of the menial work was done by Slovenes and Croats. In its heterogeneity Trieste was a microcosm of an ethnically various empire that was having trouble keeping a lid on interethnic resentments. When these burst out in 1914, the empire and Europe were plunged into war.
Though they looked to Florence for their lead in cultural matters, Triestine intellectuals tended to be more open to currents from the north than their Italian counterparts. In the case of Svevo, Schopenhauer, Darwin, and (later) Freud stand out as philosophical influences.
Like any good bourgeois of his time, Svevo fretted about his health: What constituted good health, how was it to be acquired, how maintained? In his writings health comes to take on a range of meanings, from the physical and psychic to the social and ethical. Where does the feeling come from, unique to mankind, that we are not well, and what is it that we desire to be cured of? Is cure possible? If cure entails making our peace with the way things are, is it necessarily a good thing to be cured?
To Svevo, Schopenhauer was the first philosopher to treat those afflicted with the disease of reflective thought as a species of their own, coexisting warily with the healthy, unreflective types who in Darwinian jargon might be called the fit. With Darwin—Darwin read through a Schopenhauerian lens—Svevo carried on a dogged lifelong tussle. His first novel was to have carried a Darwinian allusion in its title: Un inetto, the inept or ill-adapted one. But his publisher objected, and he settled for the rather colorless Una vita. In exemplary naturalistic fashion, the book follows the history of a young bank clerk who, when at last he has to face the fact that he is vacant of all drive, desire, or ambition, does the correct evolutionary thing and commits suicide.
In a later essay entitled “Man and Darwinian Theory” Svevo gives Darwin a more optimistic slant, one that carries over into Zeno. Our sense of not being at home in the world, suggests Svevo, results from a certain unfinishedness in our evolution. To escape this melancholy state, some adapt more or less successfully to their environment. Others prefer not to adapt. The unadapted may look from the outside like nature’s rejects, yet paradoxically they may be better fitted than their well-adjusted neighbors to whatever the unpredictable future will bring.
Svevo’s home language was Triestine, a variant of the Venetian dialect. To be a writer he needed to master literary Italian, which is based on the Tuscan dialect. He never achieved this mastery. Furthermore, he had little feel for the aesthetic qualities of language and in particular no ear for poetry: to his friend the young poet Eugenio Montale he remarked that it seemed a pity to use only part of the paper when you had paid for the whole of it. P.N. Furbank, one of Svevo’s better translators, labels his prose “a kind of ‘business’ Italian, almost an esperanto—a bastard and graceless language totally without poetry or resonance.” When it first came out, Una vita was criticized for its grammatical errors, for its unwitting dialectal usages, and for the general poverty of its prose. Much the same was said of Senilità. When he had become famous and Senilità was to be reissued, Svevo agreed to check the text and fix up the Italian; but he did so in only a desultory way. Privately he seems to have doubted it would achieve anything.
To a degree the controversy about Svevo’s command of Italian can be ignored as an affair among Italians, irrelevant to outsiders who read Svevo only in translation. For the translator, however, Svevo’s Italian raises a substantial question of principle. Should its defects, which run the gamut from wrong prepositions to archaic or bookish turns of phrase to a general laboredness of style, be reproduced or silently improved? Or, to put the question in converse form, how, without writing a deliberately clotted prose, does the translator get across what Montale called the sclerosis of Svevo’s world, seeping up from his very language?
Svevo was not unaware of the problem. His advice to the German translator of Zeno was to translate his Italian into grammatically correct German but not to beautify or improve it.
Svevo disparaged Triestine as a dialettaccio, a petty dialect, or a linguetta, a sub-language, but he was not being sincere. Much more from the heart is Zeno’s lament that outsiders “don’t know what it entails for those of us who speak dialect [il dialetto] to write in Italian…. With every Tuscan word of ours, we lie!” Here Svevo treats the step from the one dialect to the other, from the Triestine in which he thought to the Italian in which he wrote, as inherently treacherous. Only in Triestine could he tell the truth. The question for non-Italians as well as Italians to ponder is whether there might have been Triestine truths that Svevo felt he could never get down on the Italian page.
Senilità grew out of an affair Svevo had in 1891–1892 with a young woman of, as one of his commentators puts it, “indeterminate profession,” later to become a circus equestrienne. In the book the girl is named Angiolina. Emilio Brentani pictures her as an innocent whom he will instruct in the finer aspects of life, while she in return will devote herself to him. But it is Angiolina who dishes out the lessons: the induction she offers Emilio into the evasions and squalors of erotic life would be well worth the money, were he not too wrapped up in self-deceiving fantasy to absorb it. Years after Angiolina has run off with a bank clerk, Emilio will look back on his time with her through a rosy haze (Joyce learned by heart the wonderful last pages of the book, bathed as they are in romantic cliché and ruthless irony, and recited them back to Svevo). The truth is that the affair has been senile through and through, in Svevo’s unique sense of the word: not youthful and vital at all, but on the contrary lived from the beginning through the medium of a self-regarding lie.
In Senilità, self-deception is a willed yet unrecognized state of being. The fiction Emilio tells himself about who he is and who Angiolina is and what they are doing together is threatened by the fact that Angiolina sleeps promiscuously with other men, and is too incompetent or too indifferent or perhaps too malicious to conceal it. Along with The Kreutzer Sonata and Swann’s Way, Senilità is one of the great novels of male sexual jealousy, exploiting the technical repertoire bequeathed by Flaubert to his successors to enter and leave a character’s consciousness with a minimum of obtrusiveness, and to express a judgment without seeming to do so. Svevo’s exploration of Emilio’s relations with his rivals is particularly keensighted. Emilio both wants and does not want his male friends to make a play for his mistress; the more clearly he is able to visualize Angiolina with another man, the more intensely he desires her, to the point that he desires her because she has been with another man. (The eddying of homosexual currents within the triangle of jealousy was of course pointed out by Freud, but only years after Tolstoy and Svevo had done so.)
The standard English translations of Senilità and Zeno hitherto have been by Beryl de Zoete, an Englishwoman of Dutch descent and Bloomsbury connections whose main claim to fame was as a student of Balinese dance. In the introduction to his new translation of Zeno, William Weaver discusses de Zoete’s versions and suggests, as gently as can be, that the time may have come to retire them.
De Zoete’s 1932 translation of Senilità under the title As a Man Grows Older is particularly dated. Senilità is very much about sex: sex as a weapon in the battle between the sexes, sex as a commodity to be traded. Though his language is never improper, Svevo does not pussyfoot around the subject. De Zoete, by comparison, is too decorous. For instance, Emilio broods obsessively on the sexual doings of Angiolina, imagining her leaving the bed of the rich but repulsive Volpini and, in order to rid herself of the infamia (disgrace, but also horror) of his touch, plunging straight into bed with someone else. Svevo’s phrasing is barely metaphorical: by a second act of sex Angiolina will be trying to wash (nettarsi) herself of traces of Volpini. De Zoete delicately passes over the self-washing: Angiolina goes “in search of a refuge from such an infamous embrace.”
Elsewhere de Zoete simply elides or synopsizes passages that—rightly or wrongly—she decides do not contribute to the sense, or are too colloquial to get across in English. She also overinterprets, filling in what she thinks is going on between the characters where the text itself is silent. The commercial metaphors that characterize Emilio’s relations with women are sometimes missed. On one occasion de Zoete gets the sense calamitously wrong, attributing to Emilio a decision to force himself sexually on Angiolina (possess her), whereas all he intends is to clear up the question of who owns her (possesses her).
The new translation of Senilità by Beth Archer Brombert is a marked improvement. Unerringly she picks up the submerged metaphors that de Zoete passes over. Her English, though firmly of the late twentieth century, has a formality that reflects an earlier era. If there is one criticism to be made, it is that in an effort to be up to date she uses expressions that are likely to age quite rapidly: “the bottom line”; to “be there for someone”; to be “all excited.”
Svevo’s titles have always been a headache for his translators and publishers. As a title, A Life (Una vita) is simply dull. On Joyce’s recommendation, Senilità first appeared in English under the title As a Man Grows Older, although it is not at all about growing older. Brombert reverts to an earlier working title, Emilio’s Carnival, despite the fact that for the revised Italian edition Svevo refused to let go of Senilità. (“I would feel I were mutilating the book,” he told his publisher. “That title was my guide and I lived by it.”)
Svevo’s writing career stretches over four turbulent decades in Trieste’s history, yet strikingly little of this history is reflected, directly or indirectly, in his books. From the first two books, set in the Trieste of the 1890s, one would never guess that Trieste’s Italian middle class was in the grip of Risorgimento-like fervor for union with the motherland. And though Zeno purports to be a document written during the 1914–1918 war, the war casts no shadow over it until the last pages.
Through contracts with the government in Vienna, the Veneziani family made a great deal of money out of the war. At the same time they presented themselves at home as passionate Italian irredentists. John Gatt-Rutter, Svevo’s biographer, calls this “a hypocritical sham” and finds that Svevo himself at the very least played along with it.1 Gatt-Rutter is highly critical of Svevo’s politics during the war and after the Fascist takeover of 1922. Like many upper-class Triestines, the Venezianis supported Mussolini. As for Svevo, he seems to have accepted the new regime in what Gatt-Rutter calls “perfect bad faith,” on the grounds that Fascism was a lesser evil than Bolshevism. In 1925, in the person of Ettore Schmitz, he accepted a minor award from the state for his services to industry. While he never became a card-carrying Fascist, he did as an industrialist belong to the Fascist Confederation of Industrialists. His wife was an active member of the women’s Fascio.
If he was morally compromised by his association with the Venezianis, Svevo/Schmitz at least did not hide it from himself in his writing. Of the old man in the story “The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl,” set during the war, Svevo as narrator writes:
Every sign of war which [he] witnessed reminded him with a pang that he was making plenty of money out of it. The war brought him wealth and degradation…. He had long grown accustomed to the remorse occasioned by his successful business deals and he went on making money in spite of his remorse.
The moral atmosphere in this late piece may be darker, and the self-criticism more mordant, than we get in the essentially comic Zeno, but it is only a matter of degrees of dark-ness or mordancy. From Socrates to Freud, Western ethical philosophy has adopted as its imperative the Delphic Know yourself. But what good does it do to know yourself if, taking your lead from Schopenhauer, you believe that character is founded on a substratum of will, and doubt that the will wants to change?
Zeno Cosini, the hero of Svevo’s third novel and the masterpiece of his maturity, is a middle-aged man, comfortably married, prosperous, idle, with an income from the business founded by his father. On a whim, to see if he can be cured of whatever it is that is wrong with him, he embarks on a course of psychoanalysis. As a preliminary his therapist, Dr. S., asks him to write down whatever memories occur to him. Zeno obeys in five story-length chapters whose subjects are: smoking; the death of his father; his courtship; one of his love affairs; one of his business partnerships.
Disappointed in Dr. S., whom he finds obtuse and dogmatic, Zeno stops keeping appointments. To compensate himself for lost fees, Dr. S. publishes Zeno’s manuscript. Hence the book we have before us: Zeno’s memoir plus the framing story of how it came to be, “an autobiography, but not my own,” as Svevo put it in a letter to Montale. Svevo goes on to explain how he dreamed up adventures for Zeno, planted them in his own past, then, deliberately eliding the line between fantasy and memory, “remembered” them.
Zeno is a chain smoker who wants to give up smoking, but not strongly enough to actually do so. He does not doubt that smoking is bad for him, he longs for fresh air in his lungs—the three great death scenes in Svevo, one in each novel, feature people who gasp and strain terrifyingly for breath as they die—yet he rebels against the cure. To give up cigarettes, he knows at some instinctive level, is to concede victory to people like his wife and Dr. S., who, with the best of intentions, will turn him into an ordinary, healthy citizen and thereby rob him of his powers: the power of thinking and, more important, the power of writing. With a symbolism so crude that even Zeno has to laugh at it, cigarette, pen, and phallus stand for each other. “The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl” ends with the old man dead at his writing-desk, a pen clenched between his teeth.
To say that Zeno is ambivalent about smoking and therefore about being cured of his undefined malady is barely to scratch the surface of Svevo’s corrosive yet curiously gay skepticism about whether we can improve ourselves. Zeno doubts the therapeutic claims of psychoanalysis as he doubts all cures, yet who would dare say that the paradox he comes to embrace by the end of his story—that so-called sickness is part of the human condition, that true health consists in embracing what you are (“Unlike other diseases, life…admits of no cure”)—does not itself invite skeptical, Zenonian interrogation?2
Psychoanalysis was somewhat of a craze in Trieste at the time when Svevo was working on Zeno. Gatt-Rutter quotes a Triestine schoolteacher: “Fanatical adherents of psychoanalysis… were continually swapping stories and interpretations of dreams and telltale slips, carrying out amateur diagnoses of their own.” Svevo himself collaborated on a translation of Freud’s On Dreams. Despite appearances, he did not consider his book to be an attack on psychoanalysis as such, merely on its curative claims. In his view he was not a disciple of Freud’s but a peer, a fellow researcher into the unconscious and the grip of the unconscious on conscious life; he took his book to be true to the skeptical spirit of psychoanalysis, as practiced by Freud himself if not by his followers, and even sent Freud a copy (it was not acknowledged). And indeed, in the larger picture, Zeno is not just an application of psychoanalysis to a fictional life, or just a comic interrogation of psychoanalysis, but an exploration of the passions, including such meaner passions as greed and envy and jealousy, in the tradition of the European novel, passions to which psychoanalysis proves only a very partial guide. The sickness that Zeno does and does not want to be cured of is in the end no less than the mal du siècle of Europe itself, a civilizational crisis to which both Freudian theory and La coscienza di Zeno are responses.
La coscienza di Zeno is another of Svevo’s difficult titles. Coscienza can mean modern English conscience; it can also mean self-consciousness, as in Hamlet’s “Conscience doth make cowards of us all.” In the book Svevo glides continually from one sense to the other in a way that English can-not imitate. Evading the problem, de Zoete entitled her 1930 translation Confessions of Zeno. For his new translation, William Weaver gives up on ambiguity and settles for Zeno’s Conscience.
Weaver has published translations of, among other Italian writers, Luigi Pirandello, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Elsa Morante, Italo Calvino, and Umberto Eco. His translation of Zeno into appropriately unobtrusive, low-key English prose is of the highest standard. In one detail, however, the English language lets Weaver down. Zeno makes a great deal of play on the malato immaginario versus the sano immaginario, rendered by Weaver as the “imaginary sick man” and the “imaginary healthy man.” But immaginario here is not, strictly speaking, “imaginary” but “self-imaginedly,” and a malato immaginario is not, strictly speaking, an imaginary sick man but a man who imagines himself sick.
Zeno’s malato immaginario is from the same stable as Molière’s malade imaginaire, and it is Molière whom Zeno’s wife clearly has in mind when, having listened to him going on and on about his ailments, she bursts into laughter and tells him he is nothing but a malato immaginario. By invoking Molière rather than more up-to-date theorists of the psyche, she in effect attributes her husband’s ailments to a predisposition of character. Her intervention sets off Zeno and his friends on a pages-long discussion of the malato immaginario versus the malato reale or malato vero: May a sickness born of the imagination not be more serious than one that is “real” or “true,” even though it is not genuine? Zeno takes the inquiry a step further when he asks whether, in our age, the sickest of all may not be the sano immaginario, the man who imagines himself healthy.
The entire disquisition is carried on with a great deal more point and wit in Svevo’s Italian than is pos-sible in circumlocutory English. De Zoete is a step ahead of Weaver in giving up on English and resorting to French: malade imaginaire for malato immaginario.
Published at his own expense in 1923, when he was sixty-two, Zeno was reviewed here and there, but in no case by a leader of critical opinion. One Triestine reviewer said he was put under pressure to ignore the book, since whatever else it might be, it was clearly an insult to the city.
For old times’ sake, Svevo sent a copy to Joyce in Paris. Joyce showed it to Valéry Larbaud and other influential figures on the French scene. Their response was enthusiastic. Gallimard commissioned a translation, though on condition cuts were made; a literary journal ran a Svevo issue; PEN hosted a banquet for Svevo in Paris.
In Milan an appreciative essay on his work appeared, signed by Montale. Senilità was reissued in its revised form. Italians began to read him widely; a younger generation of novelists adopted him as a godfather. The right reacted with hostility. “In real life Italo Svevo bears a Semitic name—Ettore Schmitz,” wrote La Sera in 1927, and suggested the Svevo craze was part of a Jewish plot.
Buoyed up by the unexpected success of Zeno, reveling in his newfound fame, Svevo set to work on a number of pieces whose common feature is the aging self with its unquenched appetites. These may or may not have been intended to fit into a fourth novel, a sequel to Zeno. They can be found, in translations by P.N. Furbank and others, in Volumes Four and Five of the five-volume edition of Svevo’s writings published in the 1960s by the University of California Press but now out of print. It is time for a reissue.
Volume Five also contains a translation of the late play Regeneration. Svevo never lost his interest in the theater and wrote numerous plays over the years, even when working for the Venezianis. Only one, The Broken Triangle, was staged during his lifetime.
Svevo died in 1928, from complications resulting from a minor automobile accident. He was buried in the Catholic cemetery of Trieste under the name Aron Hector Schmitz. Livia Veneziani Svevo, reclassified as a Jew, spent the war years, along with the Svevos’ daughter and the daughter’s third son, hiding out from the purification squads. The third son was shot by the Germans during the Triestine uprising of 1945. The other two sons had by that time perished on the Russian front, fighting for Italy and the Axis.
September 26, 2002
Italo Svevo: A Double Life (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1988). ↩
In Weaver’s translation the passage reads: “Unlike other sicknesses, life… doesn’t tolerate therapies.” Weaver consistently uses “therapy” for Svevo’s cura, which can mean either the process of being under cure or the end result, being cured. But sometimes “cure” gets Svevo’s meaning more exactly than “therapy,” as here, or in Zeno’s vow to himself that he will recover from Dr. S.’s cura. ↩