Did James Joyce call Leopold Bloom the man who had called himself Italo Svevo?
Screening: Le Parole di Mio Padre/My Father’s Words (2001), directed by Francesca Comencini and based on Zeno’s Conscience. Post-screening discussion: Andrea Malaguti, director of Undergraduate Studies and associate professor at Columbia, about Svevo and his relationship with Joyce.
Join us in celebrating Bloomsday on an evening devoted to the work of Italian writer Italo Svevo (born Ettore Schmitz in 1861 in Trieste). The Bloomsday connection unfolded when an impoverished James Joyce, living in Trieste, became Svevo’s English tutor, encouraged his writing, and enthusiastically promoted his work, even arranging for the French publication of Zeno’s Conscience, considered by many to be one of the great novels of the last century.
Italo Svevo (1861-1928), whose given name was Ettore Schmitz, was born in Trieste into a Jewish family of Italian and German descent-as his pseudonym reflects. Svevo published two novels in the 1890s, A Life and As a Man Grows Older, but after they were dismissed by critics and ignored by the public, he abandoned literature and went to work in his father-in-law’s paint business. He returned to writing only after the young man whom he had hired to tutor him in English, James Joyce, asked to see his novels and expressed admiration for them. With Joyce’s support, he published The Confessions of Zeno in 1923 to international acclaim. Svevo had finished a new book (The Tale of the Good Old Man and of the Lovely Young Girl) and was at work on another when he was killed in a car crash in 1928. (from The New York Review of Books)
Humor in Hopelessness
‘Zeno’s Conscience’ takes a wry look at life’s paradoxes
by Joseph Epstein (Wall Street Journal, March 13, 2010)
The best book on quitting smoking was written by neither a physician nor an ex-smoker but by a middle-age businessman in Trieste who was finally unable to break the habit himself. His name was Ettore Schmitz, changed for publishing purposes to Italo Svevo—standing for the Italian Swabian—and the book, a novel, is called “Zeno’s Conscience” (or, in an earlier translation, “The Confessions of Zeno.”) The work of a pessimista bonario, or good-natured pessimist, it is a comic masterpiece, ranking with “Don Quixote,” “Tristram Shandy” and perhaps four or five other comic novels in world literature.
Svevo’s subject is the weakness of the will, or abulia, and how a dreamy nature has little chance up against the temptations set out by the amazing and obdurate reality of life. In “Zeno’s Conscience,” Zeno Cosini, an unexceptional Trieste businessman, pits his will against the enslaving habit of smoking, the complexities of courtship, the delights of philandery, the discipline required by business, and loses every time, yet cannot quite be said to go down in defeat.
Now recognized as a great book, “Zeno’s Conscience,” Svevo’s third and final novel, completed when he was 61, was published at the author’s own expense, as were his two earlier novels. In Italy the book was greeted by tepid and dismissive reviews. “Zeno’s Conscience” caught on owing to the odd coincidence that James Joyce, 20 years younger than Svevo and then working for Berlitz in Trieste, happened in 1905 to have been hired to give English lessons to Svevo and his wife, who were going to live in England to run a branch of the family’s marine paint business. (Some have said that Joyce’s character Leopold Bloom in “Ulysses” is partially based on the Jewish Svevo.) Joyce read the novel in 1923 and suggested his former pupil send copies to T.S. Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, Gilbert Seldes, Valery Larbaud and Bernard Cremieux (the latter two French writers had a special interest in Italian literature).
The suggestion was the making of the novel. The two Frenchmen ran a special issue of Le Navire d’Argent devoted to “Zeno’s Conscience,” while in Italy Eugenio Montale wrote an essay in praise of the novel. Svevo’s reputation was made, at least among the cognescenti. He luxuriated in his succès d’estime, until his death in an automobile accident five years later—with his last breath he is said to have asked for a cigarette—but it was only posthumously that his novel attained its status as a modernist masterwork.
What is modernist about the novel is the passivity of its hero and Svevo’s method of telling his story through the introspection of a charming neurotic. “Zeno’s Confessions,” in fact, takes the form of an autobiography written at the bidding of a psychoanalyst to whom Cosini has gone for help with his smoking problem. One of the best things about smoking, Cosini has come to understand, is that the last cigarette, the one before quitting, is always the best, knowledge of which encourages endless quitting if only for the pleasure of yet another final cigarette. Cosini, we learn, has been quitting smoking with some regularity since he was 20. In the same paradoxical way, Cosini discovers that having a mistress, for all its complications, improves his marriage, turning him into a more attentive husband and father.
Not for nothing is Cosini named Zeno. Zeno of Elea (born c. 490 B.C.) was the man who invented Zeno’s paradoxes (“Achilles and the tortoise” and others). Extended examples of the paradoxes that dominate Cosini’s life make up the substance of the novel. He proposes marriage to three different sisters, all within an hour, and is accepted only by his third choice, who turns out to make the best wife of all. Through negligence he forgets to sell a stock, whose price rises impressively. Cosini is a serious hypochondriac, yet healthy people all around him die. But, then, the hypochondriac suffers more than the person who is genuinely sick, he notes, for the man with imaginary illnesses can never hope to find a cure.
In reading Zeno Cosini’s account of his life, we perceive that we are in the company of a man with a philosophical turn of mind and a taste for oblique but never less than interesting generalizations, many based on his chiefly rocky experience with women: “A woman believes herself entitled to everything from her first lover,” Cosini notes. “That’s how women are,” he reflects. “Every day that dawns brings them a new interpretation of the past. Their lives cannot be very monotonous.” He holds that all unloved women “complained of great wrongs and small with the same fervor.” As for Freud’s great question—”What do women want?”—Zeno provides the best if still highly qualified answer yet: “For men it was difficult to understand what women wanted because at times women themselves didn’t know.”
Svevo was at first stimulated by the ideas he found in reading Freud, and “Zeno’s Conscience” is the way he put these ideas to the test. In the end, they all fail, for Freudianism is at least as useless in answering the riddle of life as any other philosophy or guide. In the novel, Zeno’s psychoanalyst, after reading his autobiography, declares him—surprise! surprise!—a victim of the Oedipus Complex, that common cold of psychoanalysis. Zeno quits his therapy and goes back to his cigarettes. He forgives his analyst for failing to realize that “unlike other sicknesses, life is always fatal. It doesn’t tolerate therapies. It would be like stopping the holes that we have in our bodies, believing them wounds. We would die of strangulation the moment we were treated.”
What finally qualifies “Zeno’s Conscience” as a masterpiece, which is to say a timeless work, is its author’s refusal to accept clichés, abstractions, pseudoscientific explanations about the meaning of life or expert instruction on how to live. Life, as played out in “Zeno’s Conscience,” remains a riddle with no solution in sight. Like H.L. Mencken, George Santayana and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, good-natured pessimists all, Italo Svevo, far from getting grim or glum about the situation, laughs at our hopelessness and enjoys the show, and so, while reading his splendid novel, will you.
—Mr. Epstein’s latest book, “The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff and Other Stories,” will be published this summer by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.