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‘The Italian Proust’

Nathaniel Rich
Italo Svevo’s late fiction has all the dark irony, self-flagellating introspection, manic obsessiveness, and unapologetic moral perversity of his best-known work. 
The author Italo Svevo sits in an armchair

Svevo Museum, Trieste

Italo Svevo, Trieste, circa 1911

“I am a man born in inopportune times,” says Zeno Cosini in A Very Old Man. It’s a line thick with dramatic irony, since the description applies much better to his creator, Italo Svevo, for whom it could serve as an epitaph. In Zeno’s case, the meaning of “inopportune” is narrow. As a young man, his elders didn’t respect him. In the aftermath of World War I, having finally won senior status, Zeno discovers that the youth are not only running the world, but his own family business. He is left out again.

But Zeno’s creator had it worse. Inopportuneness in all its manifestations—bad timing, rotten luck, missed connections—is the dominant theme of Italo Svevo’s life, work, and afterlife. Aron Ettore Schmitz was born of German and Italian descent in Trieste, itself a city of mixed parentage, the subject of a paternity dispute between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and largely populated by Slovenians. Svevo spoke Triestine, a dialect that borrows from Slovenian, Greek, and German, and is unintelligible to other Italians. Although he wrote in formal Tuscan Italian, following national literary convention, it was for him a second language, and one he despaired of mastering. “Every Tuscan word we write,” he says in Zeno’s Conscience, “is a lie.” Schmitz’s cultural sensibility was neither Italian nor Triestine, however, but German. He attended boarding school in Swabia, where he was heavily influenced by the deterministic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, and chose a pseudonym that reflected his mongrel identity (“Italo Svevo” means “Italian Swabian”). He was a Jew who converted to Catholicism to appease his wife, though only after receiving a dispensation for refusing to learn the catechism, leaving him in good standing in neither religion.

One of Italy’s greatest authors spent most of his life too ashamed to admit he was a writer. He hid his passion from public view—he even avoided discussing it with his wife—while working for nearly two decades in the correspondence department of the local branch of the Union Bank of Vienna. During this period he wrote Una Vita (A Life), about the simmering desperation of white-collar life, and Senilità (As a Man Grows Older), about an affair between a failed writer and a woman of dubious morals. The novels, quietly radical in their subversion of nineteenth-century literary convention, were published at his own expense and roundly ignored, except by a couple of critics who scolded him for his low subject matter. A fellow banker, upon later hearing that his colleague had published novels, exclaimed, “Who? Not that jerk Schmitz?”

For the second half of his professional life he worked for his father-in-law, manufacturing protective paint for ships’ hulls. By his fortieth birthday he had renounced his literary aspirations. “The writer in him,” wrote his wife, Livia, in her Memoir of Italo Svevo (1950), “seemed fast asleep.” He spent the next two decades, the prime of many novelists’ careers, making varnish.

Svevo’s one stroke of fortune was so extreme—one of the great lucky breaks in literary history—that in retrospect it seems only inevitable, only Svevian, that it should be followed by a final cruel thud of fate. In Svevo’s life, as in his fiction, no pleasant surprise went unpunished.

When his firm opened a new factory in a London suburb, Svevo resolved to improve his poor command of English. He arranged for private lessons from a twenty-five-year-old Berlitz instructor who had developed the reputation, as Livia put it, of “a fashionable teacher of Trieste’s rich bourgeoisie.” Svevo called him “Professor Zois.” For one lesson, James Joyce asked Svevo to critique the first three chapters of a novel that had stymied him; Svevo’s homework assignment encouraged Joyce to finish A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. When Svevo admitted that he, too, had written fiction as a young man, Joyce read his novels within days. At their next lesson Joyce declared that Svevo had been unjustly neglected by his critics and was the most important Italian writer of his era. He recited passages of Svevo’s fiction from memory.

Emboldened, the paint manufacturer returned to his private hobby. After the outbreak of World War I freed him of his professional obligations, he began a new book. La Coscienza di Zeno is the rare novel that is as pleasurable to read as it is revolutionary in its formal approach. Svevo was a man with nothing to lose and he wrote like it, abandoning all accommodations to popular and critical convention. His prose became simple and unadorned, almost childishly so. His authorial stand-in was unreliable and unapologetically obnoxious. Freeing himself from the formal strictures of the nineteenth-century novel, he gave himself over fully to his obsessions.

The novel is the memoir of Zeno Cosini, a chain-smoking, sexually delirious, bumbling, self-doubting valetudinarian who writes the story of his life at the behest of his psychologist, Dr. S. (for Svevo?). The narrative logic is neither chronological nor thematic but associative, following the caprices of memory. It begins with Zeno’s account of his frequent attempts to quit smoking, which happens to be the best thing ever written on the subject, with its chronicle of his many “last” cigarettes, each described with the kind of tenderness reserved for past lovers. There follow chapters about the death of his father; the bungled wooing of his boss’s daughter, which results in Zeno’s engagement to her squinty-eyed sister; his failures at adultery, despite his most fastidious efforts to succeed; and his erratic business career. Central to the novel is the division that Zeno makes between sickness and health, a dichotomy that in Svevo’s convolutions assumes a thunderous metaphorical power. Those who live in the present tense, who don’t dare to look too far ahead or behind, who ignore their deepest insecurities and desires—those who lead unexamined lives—are healthy. Society says they are, at least. Zeno is defiantly ill. Nothing escapes his scrutiny, least of all his own shortcomings. “It is only we invalids,” he writes, “who can know anything about ourselves.”


Zeno was published in 1923, three years after Ulysses. In Italy, Zeno enjoyed the same response as its predecessors. Belatedly, however, thanks to Joyce’s enthusiastic advocacy to a cohort of influential Parisian critics, Zeno became a Continental phenomenon and Svevo’s life, as he put it, underwent a “revolution.” He was celebrated at aristocratic literary salons in Paris and Versailles, hailed as “the Italian Proust,” cheered in the streets of Milan, and mobbed by young artists and writers at his local café.

David Levine

Italo Svevo

Thus began the most prolific—the only prolific—period of Svevo’s life. For the next three years, Svevo tried to make up for lost time. He edited translations of his work, campaigned for the republication of Senilità, conducted a lively correspondence with editors and critics and patrons, lectured on Joyce, read Kafka and Proust, wrote new stories and plays, and, as early as January 1927, began a new novel about an old man named Giovanni Respiro. (“Respiro” is the first-person present tense form of respirare, “to breath easily again, as after a period of exertion or trouble.”) In later drafts, Giovanni became Zeno Cosini, and Svevo accepted that he was writing a sequel.

His wife reports in her memoir that Svevo, approaching his seventieth birthday, “worked with a certain difficulty.” He had experienced a series of heart problems and complained of weakness, worrying that a great “blow,” usually imagined as a stroke, was coming for him. Nevertheless he managed to produce a manuscript of nearly book length by the time he died on September 13, 1928, following a minor automobile accident that overstrained his heart.

Like its author, A Very Old Man is stuck in between. It’s neither a novel nor a story collection but a series of attempted openings, scenes, subplots, and character sketches. Livia retrieved the new Zeno fragments from a chaos of unsorted papers in his study and published them in a volume together with some of his short fiction. The collection was introduced by Svevo’s most important Italian champion, the young poet and future Nobel laureate Eugenio Montale, who called Svevo “the greatest novelist our literature has produced from Verga’s day to our own.”

Yet in the century since, readers hoping for further encounters with Svevo’s genius have typically turned to the earlier novels, with disappointing results. While Una Vita and Senilità were ahead of their time, they also lagged well behind Zeno’s Conscience; the novels belong to the realist tradition that Svevo undermines, but does not fully escape, until his masterpiece. The audacious, indefatigable Frederika Randall, who completed this new translation shortly before her death, makes clear in her artful rendering of Svevo’s “irregular style” that A Very Old Man is Zeno’s legitimate heir. The lineage extends well beyond the identity of the protagonist. The dark irony, self-flagellating introspection, manic obsessiveness, and unapologetic moral perversity—the qualities that make Zeno one of the most thrilling works of the twentieth century—cackle from every page.


A Very Old Man begins not long after Zeno ends. The war, which descends upon the Cosinis in Zeno’s final pages, is over. Zeno, an inveterate gambler, has squandered his wartime profits through a hoarding scheme gone bad, but little else has changed, despite some chronological eccentricity that the author had yet to sort out. Zeno, depending on the chapter, is sixty-one or sixty-three or seventy; his son and daughter, young children when we last saw them, seem to have aged approximately two decades during the war. Beautiful Antonia has chosen a disappointing match in the dull Valentino, a union redeemed only by its blessing of a grandson, Umbertino, whose curiosity about the world brings Zeno back to his own youth.


Zeno’s son, Alfio, is a struggling painter, ripe with bohemian hauteur; as Zeno tries to navigate his disappointment about his son’s artistic pursuits, he finds himself crudely impersonating his own father, whose paternal disapproval dominates the early pages of Zeno’s Conscience. Zeno’s business partner, old Olivi, has been replaced by his son, young Olivi. Zeno has a few new servants and a new mistress, but the Cosini milieu is largely the same: burgher-comfortable, intimate, and largely amicable, its routine disrupted only by Zeno’s periodic paroxysms. Augusta, Zeno’s wife, also remains constant: homely, predictable, skittish, faithful, and unwavering in her love for her undeserving husband.

The major shift comes within Zeno himself. Though he continues to speak of life in terms of a fatal disease, obsess over his health, and gleefully catastrophize (“when I see a mountain I always expect it to become a volcano”), his aged heart’s not entirely in it. The old angst has dried up. Zeno is no longer imprisoned by his desires; now, instead, he finds himself “in a rather enjoyable state of freedom…Long life cures all ailments.” He even discovers that his accursed cigarette addiction, by inhibiting his appetite, has helped ward off his weight problems. In short, the miracle cure prescribed by Dr. S. on the opening page of Zeno has succeeded. The act of writing his autobiography has rejuvenated him.

Yet it is only while writing that the cure holds. “I have to think and write in order to feel alive,” he laments. Rereading the diary entries that constitute Zeno’s Conscience, Zeno concludes that his account of his life story is “the only important thing that has ever happened to me…How alive that life is, and how definitively dead the part I didn’t recount.” He finds himself back in one of the recursive loops that define his character. He lives what he writes, writes what he lives, and loses sight of where one activity ends and the other begins. He’s hit upon the premise—that literature is more honest, more real, than life itself—that helped launch the modern novel.

Readers of A Very Old Man will find themselves in the same position as Zeno—uncertain where his story begins, where it’s going, or where it ends. This is a consolation, of sorts. It’s impossible to know what shape the novel would have taken had Svevo’s chauffeur never run the family car into a tree. Each previous edition, in Italian and in translation, has presented the chapters in different combinations. Given the Escher-like quality of Svevo’s narrative style, a series of fragments, linked by the weak connective tissues of memory and free association, seems as appropriate a form as any for the novel to take. One could imagine it ending where it begins, like his former tutor’s Finnegans Wake, or perhaps with a sudden arbitrary blow, such as a stroke—or a car crash. No unfinished novel in literary history has better claim to remaining unfinished. A Very Old Man delivers a particularly Svevian thrill: the joy of reuniting with a long-lost friend who, while older and wiser, still has a long life ahead of him.

A version of this essay appears as the introduction to Frederika Randall’s translation of A Very Old Man, out August 30 from New York Review Books

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