The Last Cigarette
In the context of modern culture ‘ordinary people’ are not seen as individuals but as representative embodiments of the right sort of social attitudes. Modernism also saw them in the mass, and disliked or ignored it: D.H. Lawrence, like Wyndham Lewis, made a principle out of such generalised contempt. As an ordinary person one would perhaps rather be despised by Modernism than recruited into the socialist pantheon, for there are at least two great writers, usually counted as Modernists, in whose work ordinariness achieves a highly individual and idiosyncratic literary status – James Joyce and Italo Svevo.
Vol. 11 No. 15 · 17 August 1989
John Bayley’s review of Livia Veneziani’s Memoir of Italo Svevo (LRB, 27 July) was a reminder of how slow the British public can be in recognising foreign literature. Svevo’s masterpiece’, The Confessions of Zeno, although it had immediate success in Italy and, only a little later, in France, had to wait much longer in this country. The English translation, published by Putnam in 1930, must have been one of the few books raved over by Arnold Bennett that flopped. When I worked at Putnam in 1945 I naively assumed that Penguin New Writing, Horizon and the other wartime publications had paved the way for it, and Beryl de Zoete’s translation, one of the few that has stood the test of time, was republished in 1948. Paeans of praise once again but paltry sales. It was only some forty years after its original publication that the English edition ‘took off’ in a Penguin edition and it is gratifying that, albeit late in the day, it has now been reprinted many times.
All admirers of Svevo must be grateful to John Bayley for this further recognition of a great comic novel and, no less, for repeating Svevo’s dying words after being refused his ‘last cigarette’ – a theme of the compulsive smoker in The Confessions of Zeno. What an enviable end for a comic writer – to die making his best joke!