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The Liar's Tale

The return of a great writer.

Zeno’s Conscience
By Italo Svevo translated by William Weaver
(Everyman’s Library, 437 pp., $20)

Emilio’s Carnival (Senilita)
By Italo Svevo translated by Beth Archer Brombert with an introduction by Victor Brombert
(Yale University Press, 233 pp., $14.95)

A Life
By Italo Svevo translated by Archibald Colquhoun
(Pushkin Press, 411 pp., £10)

Memoir of Italo Svevo
By Livia Veneziani Svevo translated by Isabel Quigly
(The Marlboro Press/ Northwestern University Press, 178 pp., $15.95)

Italo Svevo’s third and final novel, Zeno’s Conscience, is most famously a novel about quitting smoking. It is obviously more than that, an extraordinary and slippery liar’s memoir; but when all else is forgotten, Zeno’s addiction and its ramifications remain. The Triestine idler Zeno Cosini, and through him the Triestine writer Italo Svevo, make a life’s philosophy not simply of smoking, but of the joys of the last cigarette: “I believe the taste of a cigarette is more intense when it’s your last,” Zeno announces in the book’s opening section, “Smoke.” “The last one gains flavor from the feeling of victory over oneself and the hope of an imminent future of strength and health.” Inevitably, we will learn that neither strength nor health is Zeno’s forte. With a pessimist’s optimism, he aspires forever to these states, even as he is grateful to be spared them. “Who knows? If I had stopped smoking, would I have become the strong, ideal man I expected to be? Perhaps it was this suspicion that bound me to my habit, for it is comfortable to live in the belief that you are great, though your greatness is latent.”

Encapsulated in this dance of resolution and resignation are many of the novel’s, and the novelist’s, themes. Zeno Cosini is a modern antihero, the bourgeois nephew of Dostoevsky’s nameless narrator of Notes from Underground—seething, oppressed, suffering, but with a veneer of manners and social pretension, and a comical haplessness. In his supposed search for health, Zeno is in the process of psychoanalyzing himself: this is the novel’s premise. Psychoanalysis is perhaps the ultimate bourgeois luxury, and the very notion of an illness that requires analysis is an indulgence. In short, the ailments of the malade imaginaire are the diseases of the rich.

Unlike his Dostoevskian counterpart, Zeno would seem to want to shed his disease, just as he would seem to want to stop smoking. But both undertakings are merely feints: he wants above all else to keep smoking, just as he wants to remain “ill,” and thereby—as he confesses—to persist in the belief in his potential, or latent, greatness and health. His relationship to analysis, to the writing of the manuscript that we are to read, is that of his bond to the cigarette: an engagement with disease in the pretended hope of health, but in truth for the greater delight of the disease.

“Health doesn’t analyze itself, nor does it look at itself in the mirror. Only we sick people know something about ourselves,” muses Zeno, with regard to the good health of his wife Augusta. Consciousness—one of the meanings of the novel’s Italian title, La Coscienza di Zeno—is itself a disease. Zeno goes so far as to assert that “Life does resemble sickness a bit ... [although] unlike other sicknesses, life is always fatal.” If being alive, and being conscious, is to suffer ill health, then ill health is clearly a state to be prolonged. To have ostensible faith in the cure, even while knowing that the cure will be lethal and is thus, at all costs, to be avoided: this is the only way forward for Zeno. To be smoking, and yet on the cusp of not smoking, is physically to enact that same paradox. The morbidity of this enterprise reflects, as do his earlier novels, Svevo’s devotion to a Schopenhauerian bleakness. But the novel resists the fin-de-siècle decadence of its predecessors; its comedy and its modernist structures make Zeno’s anti-vitalism almost joyful, and thoroughly new.

DESIRE IS AT the heart of Zeno’s acrobatics: the desire to believe always in the future instead of the past, or even the present. And in the willed heat of passion, the object of desire—the last cigarette, the latest woman—will always be an invention, whose resemblance to the actual is vestigial. Thus Zeno makes ample use of signs and symbols as he plans his last cigarettes—on Napoleon’s birthday! on his father’s death day! on the day he left studying chemistry for the law, or left studying the law for chemistry!—and thereby grants a particular flavor, a Proustian conjuring power, to each of them.

Zeno drums up his desire for women, and its meaning, as deliberately and arbitrarily as he wills significance into his cigarette-stubbing resolutions. On the eve of consummating his first marital infidelity with the aspiring opera singer Carla, Zeno writes in his dictionary, next to “C,” “last infidelity.” His apparent hope would seem to be that the words, like a magic spell, would stop him from taking a mistress; but they have only an inverse and titillating effect, like the words “last cigarette.” Indeed, when Zeno ultimately breaks off his affair with Carla, he does so unintentionally, by announcing that they will make love “for the last time”: “It was a delightful moment. The resolution made by both of us had an efficacy that canceled all guilt. We were innocent and blissful! My benevolent fate had reserved for me an instant of perfect happiness.” But Carla does not know the pleasures of living ironically, of speaking as if she meant it: “All of a sudden, with no pity at all, I was forced to maintain such a resolution. I felt ill, really ill. I limped, and I struggled also with a kind of shortness of breath.”

Zeno is a man who has taken to his simultaneously ironic and innocent heart the adage “live every day as if it were your last.” Paradoxically, only this presumption enables him to live each day as if it were his first, as a new beginning. His resolutions—like his cigarettes—are a sense-enhancing drug; but being forced to keep them causes him physical pain.

Svevo’s novel itself reflects, in its structure, the circular logic by which Zeno orders his life. An autobiography, it is not strictly linear. It is divided into sections covering different aspects of his history: his relationship to smoking, his relationship to his father, his courtship and relationship to his wife and mistress, and his business partnership with his brother-in-law. None of these connections is simple; nor is Zeno’s telling of them simple. He confides in us the lies that he has told those around him, and yet we can discern that he also lies to us, his readers (his doctors), without admitting it.

In one spectacular fiesta of mendacity, he leaves his sister-in-law’s engagement party to see his mistress, under the auspices of paying a visit to a dying friend named Enrico Copler. In order to keep up his alibi, Zeno stops in on Copler on his way back to the party, only to find that his friend has died. Uncertain whether to disrupt the festivities with sad news, he lies and pretends to his relatives that Copler is still living; then, in a fit of pique, reveals that he is dead; then recants this announcement; so that all are ultimately confused and amused over an event that ought to have been tragic. He provides conflicting information about his opinions and emotions. Although he sometimes seems to see himself clearly—and is unabashed about the baseness of his motives and the cowardliness of his behavior—at other moments he reveals a profound incapacity for self-knowledge. In short, he is that slippery fish, the unreliable narrator, whose comedies unnerve us and whose inconsistencies troublingly resemble our own.

Yet the fundamental outlines of his life are not as elusive as all that. Zeno Cosini is the ne’er-do-well son of a prosperous Triestine businessman, a mama’s boy whose relations with his father were never close. Upon his father’s death—and this early section, along with the opening section about smoking, is one of the strongest in this marvelous book, bleak and hilarious and above all humanly true—Zeno decides that he needs a wife. He takes, instead, a surrogate father, Giovanni Malfenti, a businessman unlike himself, a “man of health imaginaire,” and the father of four daughters whose names all begin with the letter A.

Ada and Augusta are the two elder girls of the foursome, and it is upon Ada that Zeno fixates, proceeding to imagine his own Ada into being, with little attention to the reality before him: “She was the woman I had chosen, she was therefore already mine, and I adorned her with all my dreams, so that the prize of my life would appear more beautiful to me. I adorned her, I bestowed on her all the many qualities I lacked and whose need I felt, because she was to become not only my companion but also my second mother, who would adopt me for a whole lifetime of manly struggle and victory.” Zeno’s idealized Ada bears no necessary relationship to Ada Malfenti; and with comparable whimsy he dismisses her sister Augusta on account of her squint.

Of course, it is not Ada but Augusta whom he marries, after a series of darkly comic errors. Ada—whom Zeno protests hollowly to have renounced for the remainder of the novel, while frequently revealing through his actions that his passion still burns—marries the dapper Guido Speier, who can play the violin beautifully, who “spoke Tuscan fluently, while Ada and I were condemned to our horrid dialect,” and who sports a fine head of hair, in painful contrast to Zeno, who comments that “a good deal of my head had been invaded by my brow.” Guido is his second self, his alter ego: the man of action to Zeno’s man of thought, the supposed success to Zeno’s failure (in business, in art, in sex). Guido will prove ultimately the less solid and resilient of the two, a gambler and a weakling. But this does not stop Zeno from hating him, and even from fantasizing about killing him.

Into this grouping of two couples—Zeno and Augusta, Ada and Guido—enter mistresses (Carla for Zeno, Carmen for Guido) and children and unfortunate business ventures. Montale rightly said that “La Coscienza di Zeno is a strange book, stagnant and yet continually in motion.” It is a novel without plot, in spite of its events; an intricate portrait of Zeno and his relationships rather than a progressive narrative; scrupulously true in spite of, or because of, its innumerable and repeated falsehoods.

SVEVO’S LANGUAGE IS the practical businessman’s Italian of Trieste, as distinct from elegant Tuscan as Zeno is from Guido. This accounts at least in part for the lack of enthusiasm with which Svevo’s work was initially met in Italy. According to William Weaver, “from the beginning of his career critics have insisted that his Italian is clumsy. ‘The Italian of a bookkeeper’ is a recurrent jibe.” Renato Poggioli called it “the least literary and even the least literate, certainly the least polished, Italian ever used by a man of letters in our time.”

An embrace of this clumsiness, an effort to render the infelicities of the Italian, is one of the strengths of Weaver’s new translation. Beryl de Zoete’s version, called Confessions of Zeno, has been the only available one in English until now, and it is also fine; but where Svevo is ragged, de Zoete’s tendency is to smooth the prose, whereas Weaver is pleasingly unafraid of the cumbersome or colloquial. Weaver’s translation is the fresher for this, and clear also. Its unadorned style highlights the fact that Zeno’s Trieste could be anywhere, anytime: there is virtually no physical description of place, and very little physical description whatsoever, in this book; and very little to tie it to the period in which it is set. This is one reason why the novel is no less powerful today than it was seventy-five years ago.

The struggle for a public that dogged Svevo’s life has continued after his death: Zeno’s Conscience is acclaimed as a classic, but it is not typically known or read in the way of, say, Buddenbrooks or Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Rather like the late W.G. Sebald, Svevo came to public attention late in life, and barely had time to enjoy his success before being killed in an automobile accident in 1928. Born in Trieste in 1861 to a German Jewish father and an Italian Jewish mother, Ettore Schmitz was educated in Germany but felt his allegiance to be with the Italian irredentists in his hometown. He adopted the pen name Italo Svevo (Italus the Swabian) to reflect both his Italian and his German heritage.

He wanted always to be a writer, but found himself pressured by family and financial necessity to take work in a bank. His brother Elio was his confidant and support, and believed absolutely in his literary talents: “No historian admired Napoleon as much as I admired Ettore,” Elio wrote in his diary, before his early death of nephritis at the age of twenty-three, in 1886. Without his brother’s support, Ettore continued to pursue his literary ambitions and, while still working in business, published his first novel, Una Vita, at his own expense, in 1892. (It is available in English as A Life, translated by Archibald Colquhoun and recently re-issued by Pushkin Press.)

The dark and meticulously observed account of a humble bank clerk with literary aspirations, Una Vita gained some favorable local reviews and sank without a trace. In truth, the book is long and plodding, with moments of psychological understanding and agonizing truth but without the compelling voice of Zeno or the structural elegance and compactness of Senilità, Svevo’s second novel. A work of apprenticeship, it is of interest largely in relation to Svevo’s succeeding novels, for his oeuvre reads rather like a palimpsest, repeatedly addressing the same questions and presenting the same patterns. Alfonso Nitti, the hapless protagonist of Una Vita, pursues his boss’s daughter in a manner not unlike Zeno at the Malfentis; just as Emilio Brentani, the hero of Senilità, has a close and complicated friendship with a sculptor, Stefano Balli, which echoes in Zeno’s relationship to Guido.

Senilità is being issued in English in a new translation by Beth Archer Brombert, re-titled Emilio’s Carnival. (This was the title that Svevo envisioned for the novel; the English title of Beryl de Zoete’s earlier translation, suggested by James Joyce, is As a Man Grows Older.) Like Alfonso Nitti in Una Vita and Mario Samigli in Svevo’s delightful late work “The Hoax,” Emilio Brentani is a modest businessman with literary aspirations and fantasies of greatness. In his mid-thirties he falls in love, for the first time, with a young woman named Angiolina, who is in fact something of a trollop, but whom Emilio insists on seeing as a paragon of beauty and virtue: “He had a certain literary prejudice against the name Angiolina. He called her Lina; but when this abbreviation did not please him he turned her name into French and called her Ang&egrane;le; or, if he wanted her to be more tender still, he changed it to Ange.”

Just like Ada in Zeno, this Angel is a fiction—the untruthful fantasy of a narcissistic soul. So bound up is Emilio with this fantasy life that he fails to notice the disintegration of his sister Amalia, whose unrequited love for Balli runs alongside Emilio’s passion. Amalia’s love is so repressed, however, that she can indulge it only while dreaming, and Emilio overhears her speaking to her beloved while she sleeps. The cost of this thwarted love will be Amalia’s life.

In this novel, the despair that subsumes Alfonso Nitti is passed on to Amalia rather than to her brother, while Emilio persists in his amiable but pernicious delusions to the point where, after Amalia’s death, he conflates his sister and Angiolina, making of the latter a beauty with moral virtue. Emilio’s Carnival is a novel about lies: the lies that Angiolina tells Emilio, but more reprehensibly the lies that he cheerfully and persistently tells himself. Zeno, too, is an account of hypocrisy and dishonesty, even if Zeno is a more self-knowing self-deluder than Emilio. Indeed, all three of Svevo’s novels are about delusion and lying, although the tenor of each tale is markedly different.

By the time Svevo published Senilità, again at his own expense, in 1898, he had fallen in love with and married his cousin Livia Veneziana, whose parents owned a military paint factory. According to Livia’s highly readable and poignant memoir of her husband’s life, “No Italian paper mentioned the novel at all, apart from the Independente in a supplement. Shaken by public silence and indifference, Ettore wrote: ‘I don’t understand this incomprehension. It means that people don’t understand.... Write one must; what one needn’t do is publish.’” And so Ettore Schmitz went to work in his in-laws’ business, and Italo Svevo was not publicly heard from for twenty-four years. In 1906, however, Schmitz sought English lessons from an unknown Irishman then living in Trieste, the young James Joyce; and a friendship was formed that eventually proved life-changing for the older man. Joyce read and admired both Una Vita and Senilità, and particularly praised the latter. In turn, he showed his work to Schmitz, and perhaps drew upon his friend in the shaping of Leopold Bloom. Certainly Livia’s name and mane of blonde hair inspired Anna Livia Plurabelle.

Schmitz continued to write fables in secret—not unlike Mario Samigli, the aging businessman in “The Hoax”; and not unlike Zeno himself. Of Samigli, Svevo observes, with the wry and deprecating humor typical of all his work, “He often wrote fables on the disillusion which follows every human activity. It was as if he sought to console himself for the poverty of his own life by saying: ‘I am all right. I cannot fail, because I attempt nothing.’” Livia’s memoir recalls her husband’s years in business, when—touchingly or foolishly, depending on your point of view—he placed his bourgeois duty to his family above his desire to create art. The man who emerges from her pages is wry, self-deprecating, and resigned: a comic nihilist.

BUT SVEVO FINALLY could not resist what he called his “literary demon,” and immediately after World War I he started work on what was to become La Coscienza di Zeno. A first draft was written in a matter of weeks in 1919, but the novel took three years and many drafts to complete. “He was surprised by the force of inspiration, which gave him no peace,” writes Livia. The book was published—once again, at his own expense—in 1923. Without Joyce’s intervention, it seems entirely possible that Zeno’s Conscience would have disappeared without a trace, in the manner of its predecessors; but with the assistance of his now-celebrated supporter Svevo found himself not only published but feted across Europe. In these last years, Svevo told an acquaintance: “Until last year I was the ... least ambitious man in the world.... Now I am overcome by ambition. I have become eager for praise. I now live only to manage my own glory. I went to Paris ... and all I could see was Italo Svevo....The ville lumiere ... seemed to exist only as a function of my glory.”

Svevo makes mock of this old man’s youthful zeal for fame in “The Hoax,” in which Mario Samigli, now sixty, has a practical joke played upon him by a friend, who pretends to him that the long-forgotten novel of his youth is to be published in German. Samigli believes that “he had simply got what he deserved, surely the most natural thing in the world. The only extraordinary thing was that it had not happened before. The history of literature was full of celebrated men who had not been famous quite from birth. At a given moment would appear among them the really great critic (white beard, heavy brow, penetrating eye) or maybe an intelligent businessman ... and immediately they rose to fame.” And this naive fantasy is followed by an astute satirical observation: “For one does not win fame merely by deserving it. The inert mass of the people must be influenced first by one or more powerful minds who choose for them what they shall read. It seems rather absurd, but there is no way out of it. Even if the critic understands nothing but his own job, and the publisher (the businessman) does not even understand that, the result is the same. Once the two get together, even a quite undeserving author is made for the time being.”

This capacity to indulge naïveté and yet clearly to see through that indulgence is central to Svevo as a writer: he sympathizes powerfully with the importance of fantasy in the little man’s dreary existence, having himself lived so long upon the mere fantasy of literary success; and yet he is also aware of its dangers. Samigli may be a cheerful fool, but Svevo’s other protagonists are, in their narcissistic preoccupation, dangerous to themselves and to others—indeed, lethal. Alfonso Nitti commits suicide; Emilio Brentani is indirectly responsible for the death of his sister; and Zeno, in spite of all his protestations, is implicated in the suicide of his brother-in-law, partner, and rival, Guido Speier. Lies and delusion may be essential for happiness, Svevo seems to say, but, like smoking, they can have nasty consequences.

In Zeno in particular, Svevo goes still further: if the novel begins by asserting that “disease is a conviction, and I was born with that conviction,” the last pages of Zeno’s manuscript see him cured of his imaginary illnesses—not by medicine, but by the presence of death in life, by World War I. Having pursued good health without success throughout his life, Zeno finds that his imaginary malady evaporates when the world around him is engulfed in death and destruction. “I do not feel healthy comparatively. I am healthy, absolutely,” he insists. “Sorrow and love—life, in other words—cannot be considered a sickness because they hurt.” With uncanny pre-atomic prescience, he goes on to predict the apocalypse, the world’s end at the hands of “an ordinary man” who invents “an incomparable explosive”: “And another man, also ordinary, but a bit sicker than others, will steal this explosive and will climb up at the center of the earth, to set it on the spot where it can have the maximum effect. There will be an enormous explosion that no one will hear, and the earth, once again a nebula, will wander through the heavens, freed of parasites and sickness.”

Thus ends Zeno’s account, a narrative shaped from the fantasy of his birth to the fantasy of his death, from his first introduction to disease to its last banishment from the earth. It is both comedy and horror that that banishment will entail the end of the earth itself; it is also simply life. As Zeno aptly observes to Guido in the midst of their financial troubles, a discovery he makes to his surprise: “Life is neither ugly nor beautiful, but it’s original!”

The arc of Svevo’s own life was that of a black comedy that he himself might have written: a man’s progress from youthful literary aspiration through failure and despair to late, unanticipated literary success, only then to find himself brutally punished for that success by the hand of fate. Svevo anticipated such absurdity: from a very young age, he knew better than most what life is really like. He deserves to be read in order that we might better understand our weak and desirous selves, laughing and suffering at once. Senilità is a fine tale, in its precise and tightly structured portrait of a weak man and the toll of his fantasy life upon the reality of others; but Zeno’s Conscience is a masterpiece, a novel overflowing with human truth in all its murkiness, laughter and terror, a book as striking and relevant today as it was when it was first published, and a book that is in every good way—its originality included—like life.

This article originally ran in the March 25, 2002 issue of the magazine.