Zeno’s Conscience, by Italo Svevo
1923, 437 pp. Translation by William Weaver, 2001.
The legend of Italo Svevo is one of the great Cinderella stories of modern literature. Svevo’s real name was Ettore Schmitz, and he was principally a successful businessman in Trieste. He also had an interest in fiction and wrote two novels, published at his own expense in 1892 and 1898, to absolutely no acclaim whatsoever. They received decent reviews, but nobody read them. Discouraged by being totally ignored by the reading public, Svevo gave up on literature for decades and devoted himself to business instead. Some years later he enrolled in English classes taught by an eccentric, down-on-his-luck Irishman named James Joyce. Joyce showed Svevo some of the stories that would later go into Dubliners, and Svevo mentioned, in an embarrassed and self-deprecating way, that he also used to write stories. He gave Joyce his two novels, and Joyce loved them. He encouraged Svevo to resume writing, and by the time Svevo finished Zeno’s Conscience in 1923, Joyce had published Ulysses, was living in Paris, and was well on his way to being the most notorious author in the world. He used his formidable skills of literary promotion to get Svevo an audience and some notoriety, and soon Svevo was proclaimed, somewhat inaccurately, the Italian Proust. Svevo’s last years were happy and successful; he died in a car accident in 1928, but his novel was quickly translated into English and immediately joined the pantheon of the great Modernists.
So much for the reputation and the preliminary throat-clearing, on to the book. Zeno’s Conscience purports to be the manuscript written by one Zeno Cosini, aging and neurotic Triestine businessman, as part of his psychoanalysis. The first section details his absurd, futile, lifelong attempts to quit smoking; the second his relationship with his father; the third his courtship of the beautiful but distant Ada and eventual marriage to her less beautiful sister Augusta as well as his infidelity with a silly, annoying singer named Carla; the fourth section deals with his business relationship with Guido, his former rival for Ada’s hand; and the last is a sort of summing-up and attack on psychoanalysis in general. Zeno is endlessly self-deceiving, and in general the book consists of one situation after another which calls to mind that old line from Hamlet: “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”
So when Zeno has wild, psychosomatic pains which he assures us are not due to guilt over his infidelity, we understand that he is protesting too much. Every time he declares that he does not hate Guido, who succeeded in marrying Ada where he failed, we understand that he is protesting too much. When he is at pains to tell us how much he loved his father, respects his doctor, or loves his mistress’s singing, we understand that he is protesting too much. But Zeno knows that there is something wrong with him, and he is attempting to analyze it—the trouble is that he is analyzing it from an entirely incorrect position. He is excellent at finding scapegoats for his problems, always returning to the poison which his chain-smoking puts in his veins. But we very quickly understand that the problem is not Zeno’s smoking, or his mystery pains, or his brother-in-law. The problem is Zeno.
A second theme is the farcical way in which Zeno’s best efforts always turn out in the opposite result from what he intended. He begins by courting Ada, who he only succeeds in annoying, then moves to Alberta, who isn’t interested, and eventually ends up with Augusta, who initially found least attractive. He tries to succeed in business and makes ridiculous blunders. He is amused and a bit pleased to find that his psychiatrist thinks he has an Oedpius complex: “Spellbound, I lay there and listened. It was a sickness that elevated me to the highest noble company. An illustrious sickness, whose ancestors dated back to the mythological era!” And so forth. But at the same time, usually his efforts are directed towards ends which we know would be bad for him, so when things turn out exactly the opposite, it is to his benefit. Guido functions as a foil: he too is unfaithful to his wife and inept in business, but Zeno manages, through no genius of his own, to appear faithful and competent, while Guido ends in disgrace and failure.
All of this is very good, and Zeno, despite all his flaws, is a likable figure. The first two sections, which are the most openly absurd and farcical, are quite good, as is the last one, which brings all the threads of the book together and adds a satisfying sense of perspective. These sections are also rather short: the middle two sections are about 150 pages each, and do tend to sag in the middle. Once the reader gets used to the two themes listed above, we still get to watch Zeno enact them over and over at quite some length. I enjoyed the book and Zeno’s company, but I must admit I felt it went on a bit too long.
Svevo’s Italian was roundly criticized when the book came out for being bland “bookkeeper’s Italian.” I cannot speak to that, except to mention that both Svevo and Zeno actually were bookkeepers, so that’s a perfectly sound stylistic choice. As with all translations by William Weaver, the prose is first-rate, and a new edition of this book is clearly worth the praise lavished on it during its appearance.
Having declared myself an implacable opponent of shallow narcissism in literature, I find myself constantly obliged during my reading of Modernist literature, to revise my opinion. It is true that Zeno Cosini and Italo Svevo have a great deal in common: a time, place, vocation, and smoking problem. But I would argue that this book is not at all narcissist, for the very obvious reason that Zeno Cosini is a ridiculous figure, endlessly self-absorbed and self-deluded. No one who is actually a narcissist would be able to present a character who is such a narcissist. Svevo knows what a narcissist Zeno is, and he finds it hilarious. But he does not make Zeno a noxious figure: Zeno is lovable and forgivable, but weak and flawed, just like the rest of us. As a portrait of a character and a self-deceiving mind, Zeno’s Conscience is absolutely in the first rank. As a novel, though, it sags structurally in the middle between a very strong opening, ending, and the thematic bridges which connect them.