MEMOIR OF ITALO SVEVO By Livia Veneziani Svevo Translated from the Italian by Isabel Quigly The Marlboro Press. 178 pp. $28.95
IN 1907 a Triestine businessman named Ettore Schmitz, whose company manufactured paint for ship's hulls, decided to perfect his broken English by taking private language lessons. For his teacher he chose a young Irishman, a lanky would-be writer whom he described as "very shortsighted." He "wears strong glasses that make his eyes look enlarged . . . and they gaze with a look of ceaseless curiosity matched with supreme coldness."
James Joyce -- who else could it be? -- quickly grew fond of both his 46-year-old pupil and his wife Livia (whose name and blonde tresses were later borrowed for Anna Livia Plurabelle in Finnegans Wake); he even read aloud to them from the manuscript of "The Dead." One day Schmitz confessed that he too, in his youth, had been a writer and presented his new friend with copies of two novels: A Life (Una Vita, 1892) and As a Man Grows Older (Senilita, 1898), the second published under the pen-name Italo Svevo. Joyce read the books and, according to this lovely memoir, announced "that some pages of As a Man Grows Older could not have been better done by the great masters of the French novel." After leaving Trieste for Paris and his never-doubted destiny, Joyce would always speak of Svevo as "the only modern Italian novelist who interested him."
From this chance encounter the urge to write was slowly rekindled in this hypochondriacal, cigarette-addicted Austro-Italian-Jewish paint manufacturer. Some 15 years later Svevo brought out a third and last book, his comic masterpiece of psychological fiction, Confessions of Zeno (La coscienza di Zeno, 1923). For many readers it is the greatest Italian novel of the century, a proto Portnoy's Complaint, but subtler, gentler. Svevo himself died in a car accident five years after it was published, but lived just long enough to see his earlier work revived and to hear his praises sung by the avant-garde young, among them the poet Eugenio Montale.
This reminiscence of her husband by Livia Veneziani Svevo first appeared in Italy in 1950; the Marlboro Press's beautifully presented translation comes with both an important preface by P.N. Furbank, who wrote a groundbreaking study of Svevo, and, as an appendix, the complete text of a 1927 talk on Joyce by his old pupil. Clearly this is a book that any fan of Confessions of Zeno will want to read.
I say fan because Svevo inspires intense affection. This is largely due to the appeal of his alter ego, the bumbling, health-obsessed, psychologically sensitive Zeno Cosini. (His surname recalls the presocratic philosopher best known for his logical paradoxes, including the one about a footrace against a tortoise that Achilles can never win.) Zeno's life consists of a stream of broken resolutions to stop smoking, a neverending flow of self-analysis, a repeated yearning for a good night's sleep, a vast medicine chest of pills for his real and imaginary illnesses, and a knack for somehow coming out all right in the end. He also has a way with words: "Accountants are by nature a race of animals much inclined to irony"; "Life lacks the monotony of museums." An early critic once described Zeno as Charlie Chaplin in Trieste; another called his creator the Italian Proust. Neither is quite right, but Confessions of Zeno somehow manages to blend both in a series of slapstick meditations and mishaps that seem uncannily faithful to the way people actually think and feel and worry. Especially worry.
At one point, for instance, Zeno commits himself to a high-security hospital to cure his need for cigarettes, but as the door clangs shut, he notices -- or rather thinks he notices -- the doctor in charge glancing admiringly at his wife. Aha! Almost certainly he has been tricked into entering this clinic so that the guilty couple can more safely indulge their illicit passion. To escape his locked cell Zeno must bribe and half-seduce his nurse, only to run home and discover -- as he knew deep in his heart -- that his plain and stolid wife is completely innocent.
In a subsequent chapter we learn that Zeno only proposed to Augusta after being refused by her two beautiful sisters. All three proposals took place, moreover, on a single evening of romantic cross-purposes, starting with a caress received by the wrong sister during a seance in the dark. As always happens for Zeno, the unwanted Augusta turns out to be a perfect wife, while his first choice, Ada, loses her looks and makes an unhappy marriage with the shallow but grossly vital Guido.
Pleasingly, the novel relates, among other matters, the eventual, unlikely triumph of the hypochondriacal over the healthy. (Zeno, looking in a mirror: "I saw that I was very pale, which for me is sufficient grounds for becoming paler still.") When Zeno keeps a mistress -- an impoverished singing student -- the unsuspecting Augusta finds her conscience-nipped husband all the more affectionate at home; when Guido quietly takes up with the secretary at his office, Ada immediately grows suspicious. Guido's whole life goes gradually downhill, ending in a phony suicide attempt that inadvertently succeeds. Afterwards Zeno works furiously to recoup his late brother-in-law's financial losses, surprisingly succeeds -- and then joins the wrong funeral procession and misses poor Guido's burial. But what else would you expect from an obsessive who, upon learning that there are 54 muscles employed in walking, immediately finds it impossible to control his legs and limps along painfully for days afterward?
Confessions of Zeno is nearly always in print, as it should be, but Svevo's earlier classic, As a Man Grows Older, is regrettably somewhat more elusive. P.N. Furbank has called it "one of the solidest masterpieces of 19th-century fiction," but I think it's even better than solid. The middle-aged Emilio Brentani falls for a beautiful working-class girl named Angiolina; their relationship is amorous but chaste; he hopes to become her lover but first wants to form and educate her. Meanwhile, Emilio's dowdy sister nurses an unspoken passion for his best friend, a handsome sculptor and ladies man named Balli. Svevo gradually leads this foursome through most of love's mysteries from the nearly sacred to the definitely profane. If you like Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier or the novels of Jean Rhys, this is a book for you.
Svevo's oeuvre is small enough that it is worth reading entire, including the stories in Short Sentimental Journey and the fragments collected posthumously as Further Confessions of Zeno. "This Indolence of Mine," for instance, relates the 67-year-old Zeno's disastrous final love affair, with a tobacconist, undertaken like his marriage for hygienic reasons: He calculates that Death will leave him alone if he continues to act like a randy young man.
When Svevo himself lay dying, he asked his physician-nephew for a cigarette and was refused. He then mumbled, a la Zeno, "That would have been the last cigarette." For his funeral he requested that it be "without any ostentation of any kind, even of simplicity." Who can resist such a charming, all-too-human human being? Any reader of this memoir or his fiction will understand why scholars have long suspected that Svevo is a model, almost the model, for Joyce's great everyman, Leopold Bloom.
As an introduction to this appealing author, one whose personality seems to match pretty closely that of his major characters, this concise Memoir cannot be bettered: It is affectionate, informative and a pleasure to read. Michael Dirda is a writer and editor for Book World.