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.
Growing older, a bit despondent, never feeling quite well – these are the symptoms of Svevan man which we all recognise, and from which we suffer ourselves. The Svevan ordinary man belongs to no recognisable social category. Neither has he any traditional literary status: he is not a ‘little man’; there is no one quite like him in Jane Austen or in Trollope, Flaubert or Proust. Neither is there anyone quite like Leopold Bloom. Not surprising, in a way, because Bloom was himself another writer: not Joyce but Svevo – or rather Joyce in addition to Svevo. It is of course possible to exaggerate the inspiration that Svevo’s friendship and personality supplied for Ulysses, but it was certainly and pervasively present.
Joyce and Svevo created a new type: not aggressively international or cosmopolitan but devoid of any defining national characteristics, even Jewish ones. Bloom is unique, so he is also everyone. When the youthful James Joyce met Ettore Schmitz, then aged 46, in Trieste, there was immediately born the relationship of Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. Schmitz was Jewish by birth, German in education and upbringing, Italian in sympathy and by temperament. He had always longed to be a writer, but his early efforts, published at his own expense, earned him no recognition. His own tycoon father had failed in business, impoverishing a large family, and the youthful Ettore had to find work in a bank. He had fallen in love with and married his cousin, the golden-haired Livia Veneziani, who was 12 years younger than himself; and in middle age he had become a leading executive in his father-in-law’s firm, manufacturing a very special kind of marine paint for the keels of the world’s liners and battleships.
Ettore had perfect German and reasonable French; at home he and his family spoke Triestine dialect, while his ambition had always been to live in Florence and become a native speaker of lingua Toscana, the true Italian. His command of English was not good, although he and his wife visited London two or three times a year, residing in a quiet suburban road near Charlton, where a factory for the paint business had been set up. They even visited Ireland on several occasions – on one of them Ettore had a commission to paint the keel of Lord Muskerry’s yacht – and were ravished by its landscapes. Ettore always took his violin with him to London. ‘When I got off the train they would look at me with respect at the station. Albert Hall, Wigmore Hall, or the Queen’s Hall? Whereas the car would take me to the furthest and coolest of the suburbs, where I delighted the natives with my playing.’ That claim might have raised a smile with another low-keyed novelist. One of Jane Austen’s young female characters has to be warned by her father that her playing had delighted the company for long enough.
It was his lack of fluent English that induced Ettore to call on the services of the young language teacher who had recently settled in Trieste, and after a spell at the Berlitz School had found it more profitable to give private tuition to the families of the prosperous bourgeois. Joyce and Schmitz took to each other at once, conversing in the Triestine dialect which Joyce already spoke far more fluently than Schmitz did English. In the course of one of their dialogues Schmitz confided that he had himself written two novels, stillborn and forgotten, and Joyce asked to see them. They were Una Vita, Schmitz’s first attempt at a novel, and the first he had published under the name of Italo Svevo, and Senilita. The former, completed long before, in 1889, had been offered to publishers with the title Un Inetto, ‘An Inept Person’, a title which might have done for a story by Chekhov but which had no appeal for a hard-headed Milanese firm. The hero, Alfonso Nitti (a wonderful but coincidental affiliation with ‘nitty gritty’, which might have appealed to Joyce), is a bank clerk, and indeed inept; but the book itself has a depressing charm and is my favourite among Svevo’s works.
It had of course been published at the author’s own expense, as had Senilita. Schmitz the middle-aged businessman must have felt a forlorn affection for the pair, but had no confidence in their wider appeal. Self-confidence was Joyce’s speciality, however. Whatever he wrote was quite sure of its reception, like a king in disguise: the details of his own life had the same mesmeric authority for early readers as the scraps from books read by Eliot have for readers of The Waste Land. Some of this confidence he was able to impart to his new friend Schmitz, particularly in relation to Senilita, about which Joyce was enthusiastic. He could soon declaim whole passages by heart. His suggested English title, though – As a man grows older – is too Irish by half: it lacks the mournful precision of the Italian original, as well as the mild joke embedded in it, for the point about old age – the Italian has a gentler sense than ‘senility’ – is that it can come on at any time.
In terms of its lack of confidence – the most attractive aspect of his work from an aesthetic point of view – Svevo is far closer to another Jewish fantasist from an obscure town in southern Poland, Bruno Shulz, than he is to Proust, with whom his French admirers were soon freely comparing him, or than he is to Joyce himself. Shulz came from a lowlier background but had the same kind of humour as Svevo and the same age-in-the-womb tendencies. Cinnamon Shops, titled in America The Street of Crocodiles, is a kind of provincial cousin of the already provincial early Svevo. Shulz too, like Svevo, acquired sudden fame and recognition, both rejoicing in it with all the simplicity of modest men to whom it came quite unexpectedly; and Svevo’s peculiar mode of investigative consciousness – ‘the consciousness of Zeno’ – would have been fascinated by the way in which Shulz had composed his domestic fantasy as a series of postscripts or afterthoughts in letters he wrote to a kindly but rather imperious intellectual female acquaintance.
When Joyce went to Paris he caused his friend’s novels to become known among avant-garde French writers; it was Valéry Larbaud and Benjamin Crémieux who enthusiastically took upon themselves the task of translating and publicising Svevo. Joyce’s praise had encouraged his Triestine Bloom, immured and idle in his big house by the harbour during the First World War, to embark on the work which became his masterpiece, La Coscienza di Zeno. As he wrote it, he managed to guard the firm’s cherished secret paint formulas against the wartime depredations of the Austrian authorities – Schmitz was a loyal Irredentist and patriotic Italian – and even to succour dripping sailors from the sunken warship Wien, torpedoed in Trieste harbour by Italian motor-boats from nearby Venice. The war over, his book, thanks to the practical admiration of Larbaud and Crémieux, was eventually caught up and carried to success on the wave of Modernism. Svevo’s legend became as eminent in Parisian circles as that of Joyce himself. The Irish maestro urgently requested his old friend’s help in 1921, when he had mislaid some important material for the Circe episode under his brother Stanislaus’s bed in a Trieste backstreet. In this ‘oilcloth briefcase fastened with a rubber-band the colour of a nun’s belly and measuring 95cm by 70cm’ had been deposited ‘the written symbols of the flashes which sometimes flickered languidly across my soul’, and they were needed ‘for the last part of my literary work entitled Ulysses, or On the Greek Sea’. We do not know whether Ettore Schmitz was able to comply with this request, but he was a man of infinite dependability, the legacy of perpetual old age, so it seems likely that the preservation of the Circe episode was owed at least partly to him. In return Joyce was to suggest that copies of La Coscienza di Zeno should be sent ‘to Mr T.S. Eliot and Mr F.M. Ford’.
‘The Confessions of Zeno’ is probably the only way to translate the title, but it misses the intertwined senses of ‘consciousness’ and ‘conscience’, the bourgeois conscience of Ettore Schmitz and the unique consciousness of Italo Svevo. That consciousness is not on display in his wife’s memoir, and this is all to the good. The charm of Livia Veneziani Svevo’s account of their married life is that although she describes his literary dreams and failures and final success with respect and affection, she sees and feels him only as her husband, to be looked up to but looked after. Ettore Schmitz was clearly a very lovable man, on whom her maternal care was not wasted. The domesticity of his being was all-embracing, but it probably included a mistress or two, about whom his wife naturally says nothing, as well as those close masculine friendships which meant so much to a bourgeois struggling to become an artist. Hard to imagine Nora Barnacle writing in this way, indeed in any way, about Joyce, whose domestic vision in Dubliners, Ulysses or Finnegans Wake is always seen from the standpoint of a complete solitariness.
A quarter-Jewish herself, Mme Schmitz says nothing about her husband’s Jewishness, nor is it really relevant either to her view of things or to Svevo himself as an artist. She was a Catholic and he was perfectly prepared to become one himself, only drawing the line at having to learn the catechism before baptism: a compliant priest saw the point and was prepared to oblige. Daughter Letizia, their only child, married a young Italian with a gallant record in the First War and had three sons, two of whom died with the Italian Army in Russia in 1943, while the youngest was killed fighting with the Partisans in the liberation of Trieste. Svevo himself had died in 1928, in his sixties, as a result of a car crash which had affected his weak heart. A life-long heavy smoker, one of whose key themes as a novelist was the impossibility of giving up smoking, he dangled before Zeno’s consciousness the seductive image of l’ultima cigaretta. As he lay dying, he asked for one, which his doctor had to refuse. ‘Pity’, he said, ‘that really would have been the last cigarette.’