Friday, 21 December 2018

Book Review: Zeno's Conscience by Italo Svevo

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1407803.Zeno_s_ConscienceSometimes it can be just as difficult to understand own behaviour and thoughts as it can be to figure out a complete stranger, not least because we all have traits in us that we like to overlook because we disapprove of them. Human nature wants it that these shadows of our characters terribly annoy us when we recognise them in others, and yet, we seldom become aware that they are actually ours, too. Sigmund Freud was one of the first to explore the unknown, repressed sides of the soul, but his work wasn’t really taken seriously at first. In Trieste of the mid-1910s, the wealthy protagonist of Zeno’s Conscience by Italo Svevo consults a Freudian psychiatrist only because he is curious about this absurd new method and ready to try out anything to rid himself of his (imagined) ailments. Upon the psychiatrist’s request he wrote his memoirs until losing interest.

Italo Svevo was born Aron Hector Schmitz in Trieste, Austrian Empire (today: Italy), in December 1861, but later changed his name to Ettore Schmitz. He attended a German boarding school and then studied commerce in Trieste. After his father’s bankruptcy in 1880, he worked in a bank for nearly twenty years and started his writing career with articles for a newspaper along with first short stories published under the pseudonym Ettore Samigli. For his debut novel A Life (Una vita: 1892) that was followed by As a Man Grows Older (Senilità: 1896), he adopted the pseudonym Italo Svevo. Disillusioned by being ignored as an author, Italo Svevo focused on family and business until his English teacher James Joyce encouraged him to resume writing. After World War I, he wrote the semi-autobiographical novel Zeno’s Conscience (La coscenza di Zeno: 1923) that made his fame only after its translation into French upon the initiative of James Joyce. Other works available in English are the novellas The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl (La novella del buon vecchio e della bella fanciulla: 1926) and A Perfect Hoax (Una burla riuscita: 1926). Italo Svevo died in Motta di Livenza, Italy, in September 1928.

Hoping to understand better Zeno’s Conscience, the Freudian psychiatrist Doctor S. asked his patient to write his autobiography. However, the Triestine businessman in his late fifties discontinued the therapy and as revenge the doctor publishes the compromising manuscript after World War I. Zeno‘s account shows that he never believed in psychoanalysis and just wished to try a new cure for his various ailments. He evokes his first cigarette and numerous occasions when he promised himself that the current cigarette would be his last. He realises that being able to choose to smoke makes him feel free. A lack of determination also marks other aspects of his life. As a student Zeno repeatedly changed his major from law to chemistry and back. Later he would have liked to work with his father, but he proved completely inept for business with the result that he was never given any responsibility in the company until he left of his own accord. Moreover, his father blamed him for never taking anything seriously. After his father’s death, Zeno’s share of company profits permitted him a carefree life and as a pastime he frequented business circles where he made a successful Triestine businessman his paternal friend and soon his father-in-law, too. Even in his choice of wife Zeno showed irresolution. He believed to love his friend’s eldest daughter, and yet, when she as well as the daughter whom he liked second best refused him, he proposed to the third of marriageable age on the same evening. Miraculously the marriage turned out to be happy although this didn’t save Zeno from stumbling into an affair. When his brother-in-law started a merchant business, Zeno was too soft to refuse supporting him in the initial stage or to take the necessary steps to save the self-indulgent man from himself…

From the start, the first-person narrator and protagonist of Zeno’s Conscience appears unreliable for fooling around and deceiving himself as well as others, be it compulsively or on purpose. He stages himself as a bourgeois intellectual given rather to observing and contemplating than to taking action or accepting responsibility, a fact that partly explains his lack of determination bordering on indifference if not dissociation from his surroundings. Altogether, he comes alive as a credible character with a large ego that cost him quite some sympathies with me. As a wealthy man without meaningful occupation he reminded me of similar characters in novels, especially Austrian and German ones, set in the “years of decadence” preceding World War I. First released in 1923, the novel captures the true atmosphere in Austria-Hungary, more precisely in bourgeois Trieste until the war reached the Isonzo valley nearby in 1915. There is no chronological plot or any real plot at all because preface and preamble are followed by six separate though strongly interconnected chapters focusing each on an important theme rather than a specific period in the protagonist’s life. The author’s language is unpretentious with a pleasant touch of irony that made it an enjoyable read.

In fact, I found Zeno’s Conscience by Italo Svevo an engaging, in many aspects even amusing novel although on the whole it didn’t actually send me into raptures to be truthful. When the author wrote and self-published his book almost a hundred years ago, it needed his friend James Joyce to draw attention to it because it was a strikingly original work that defied many established standards of style as well as the literary taste of the time. It’s a well-known fact that the innovative character study of Zeno inspired many a modernist writer who came after Italo Svevo, and yet, I must admit that personally I felt a lot more interested in the descriptions of scenery and society of the Austro-Hungarian port city of Trieste before World War I. Be that as it may, it’s an important work of world literature and it therefore more than deserves my recommendation.

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