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||Italo Svevo (1861-1928) - pseud. of Ettore Schmitz|
Italian novelist, dramatist, and short story writer, whose best-known novel is The Confessions of Zeno (1923). Svevo published the work at the age of 62 at his own expense. The novel, dealing with the self-revelations of a nicotine addict, is considered one of the greatest examples of European experimental modernist writing. Svevo was killed in an automobile accident. Further Confessions of Zeno (1969) appeared posthumously.
"Vedere la mia infanzia? Piú di dieci lustri me ne separano e i miei occhi presbiti forse potrebbero arrivarci se la luce che ancora ne riverbera non fosse tagliata da ostacoli d'ogni genere, vere alte montagne: i miei anni e qualche mia ora." (from La conscienza di Zeno)
Italo Svevo was born in Trieste into a well-to-do Jewish
family. He was one of the seven sons of Francesco and Allegra Schmitz.
Svevo's mother, Allegra Moravia, came from an Italian Jewish family of
Trieste; his father was of German descent, the son of an Austrian
customs official. Svevo attended the Brüssel Institute near Würzburg in
Germany. There he became interested in literature and read German
classics, Schiller, Goethe, Schopenhauer, and great Russian writers of
After returning to Trieste Svevo enrolled in the Instituto Superiore Revoltella. In 1880 his father, who ran a glassware business, went bankrupt and also collapsed physically. Svevo was forced to abandon his studies, but he already planned to become a writer. At the age of nineteen he started to work in the local branch of the Viennese Union Bank as a correspondence clerk. This period in his life lasted nearly twenty years and inspired his novel, Una vita (1893, A Life).
In 1898, after the death of his parents, Svevo married his
cousin Livia Veneziani. She was a devoted Roman Catholic and under her
influence he converted to Catholicism. Livia's family were prosperous
manufacturers of marine paint and Svevo joined the firm. He traveled
much, set up a branch of the firm in England, and eventually took over
the management of the business after the death of his father-in-law. As
a novelist Svevo made his debut with Una vita, which he
published at his own expense, and using for the first time his
pseudonym. The name, "Italus the Swabian," reflected his mixed ancestry
and cultural background. In the story a young man, Alfonso Nitti, comes
to Trieste to work as a clerk in a bank. Nitti spends his time in
daydreams, has an affair with Annetta, his employer's daughter, and
escapes from her to his mother, eventually becoming a suicide victim. Una
vita went unnoticed. When his second novel, Senilità
(1898), also failed, he stopped publishing for the next 25 years. The
original edition was published at Svevo's expense by Vrin in Trieste.
"This incomprehension baffles me," he admitted. "It demonstrates that
they just don't follow me." However, he still wrote fables, short
stories, plays, a diary, and became a successful businessman. "Write
one must; what one needn't do is publish," Svevo liked to say according
to his wife. ('Italo Svevo's unreliable comedy,' in The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel by James Wood, 2005, p. 91)
Very important for Svevo's artistic development was his
friendship with the painter Umberto Veruda (1868-1904). "They were
always to be seen together," recalled Silvio Benco, "passing remarks on
women in the streets, or frequenting fashionable drawing-rooms (which
they were both fond of); Svevo always very correct and bourgeois, with
a look of a clerk à la mode,
his twinkling eyes set flat in his huge, yellowish, Buddhist
philosopher's head; Veruda immensely tall and spectacular, wearing
fantastic clothes with imperturbable gravity. (Italo Svevo: The Man and the Writer
by Philip Nicholas Furbank, 1966, p. 32) Svevo's unnoticeable
literary pursuits took a new turn in 1907
when he met the young, relatively unknown writer James
who was working as an English teacher in Trieste at the
Berlitz School. Svevo needed a private tutor for the English language
and became the pupil of Joyce, whose works he reviewed. Both writers
were polymaths; Joyce had mastered the local Trieste dialect of
Italian within months of his arrival in the city. Svevo's wife
Livia, with her reddish-blond hair, inspired the figure of Anne Livia
Plurabelle in Joyce's Finnegan's
Wake. Joyce called his pupil Signor Schmitz.
The novella Una burla riuscita (1929), about self-deception and passion for writing, was the first of Svevo's works published in English. Joyce praised Senilità, in which the protagonist, Emilio Brentani, suffers in his thirties from a premature sense of senility. Moreover, many Svevo's admirers preferred this novel over The Confessions of Zeno. Emilio falls hopelessly in love with the young Angiolina, a tall blonde, "with big blue eyes abd s supple, graceful body, an expressive face and transparent skin glowing with health." The 1927 edition of Senilità, published by Morreale, was considerably edited. Its English title, As a Man Grows Older, was suggested by Joyce. Their friendship lasted until the end of Svevo's life. Impressed by the the theories of Jung and Freud, Svevo even started to translate Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams with his nephew, a doctor.
In The Confessions of Zeno Svevo's interest in Freud
was seen in his first-person narrator, Zeno Cosini, who writes his
autobiography for his psychoanalyst, Doctor S, to find the origin of
his smoking habit. The ambiguous Italian word of the title,
"coscienza", means either conscience or consciousness. Svevo had begun
to write the book in 1919, and it came out in 1923. Critics and readers
ignored it, as they had done with Svevo's previous novels. Upon the
recommendation of Joyce, it was translated and published by Valery
Larbaud and Benjamin Crémieux in France, where it was hailed as a
Eugenio Montale wrote about Svevo in his article in L'esame (1925), and persuaded him to republish Senilità and La Conscienza di Zeno. The Austrian / American literary theorist and critic René Wellek later stated that Montale grossly overrated Svevo, "if he is evaluated in a European context. But as an Italian novelist he has permanent appeal as a psychoanalytical psychologist and as a portrayer of the inhabitants of Austrian and later Italian Trieste and their often uncertain national allegiance." (from A History of Modern Criticism, vol. 8, 1992)
Montale's article did not end the debate about Svevo, but only fuelled more. His critics held the opinion that the book was written in terrible Italian, and his protagonist was unheroic and commonplace. Svevo's supporters appreciated his humor, and his effective use of interior monologue. Zeno's father dies, he smokes again his last cigarrette, he lies to his doctor, is plagued by a number of psychosomatic diseases, and has his doubts about self-analysis, saying: "after practising it assiduously for six whole months I find I am worse than before." He realizes that there is no cure for life, except a catastrophe: "There will be a tremendous explosion, but no one will hear it and the earth will return to its nebulous state and go wandering through the sky, free at last from parasites and disease."
During the last years of his life, Svevo lectured on his own work, and started to compose a sequel to The Confessions of Zeno. In September 1928 he had a car accident at Motta di Livenza. He died a few days later, on September 13, 1928, from the shock and a heart condition, from which he had suffered for many years. A lifelong heavy smoker, Svevo refused a cigarette on his death bed.
For further reading: Italo Svevo: The Man and the Writer by P.N. Furbank (1966); Essays on Italo Svevo, ed. by Thomas F. Stanley (1969); Italo Svevo: A Critical Introduction by Brian Moloney (1974); La sintassi del desiderio: struttura e forme del romanzo sveviano by Teresa de Laurentis (1976); 'Italo Svevo' by Eugenio Montale in Montale: Selected Essays (1978); Italo Svevo, the Writer from Tireste by Charles Russell (1978); Italo Svevo by Naomi Lebowitz (1978); Italo Svevo: A Double Life by John Gatt-Rutter (1988); Memoir of Italo Svevo by Livia Veneziani Svevo (1990); In the Shadow of the Mammoth: Italo Svevo and the Emergence of Modernism by Giuliana Minghelli (2002); 'Italo Svevo's unreliable comedy,' in The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel by James Wood (2005); Giraffes in the Garden of Italian Literature: Modernist Embodiment in Italo Svevo, Federigo Tozzi and Carlo Emilio Gadda by Deborah Amberson (2012; James Joyce and Italo Svevo: the Story of a Friendship by Stanley Price (2016)