Here is a characteristic piece of comedy from the Book of Scottish Anecdote (seventh edition, 1888). A gentleman upbraids his servant: is it true, he asks him, that you have had the audacity to spread around the idea that your master is stingy? No, no, replies the servant, you won’t find me doing that kind of thing: ‘I aye keep my thoughts to mysel’.’
Comic contradiction tends to reproduce itself at several levels of possibility at once, and that is the case here. First, the servant, thinking that he is absolving himself of the crime of talking disrespectfully about his master, fails to realise that he is simultaneously convicting himself of the crime of thinking disrespectfully about his master. And second, by replying thus to his master, he is not keeping his thoughts to himself but unwittingly sharing them.
Misunderstandings between people are funny because they suggest the great vanity of the self. In that Scottish anecdote, two sealed egoisms talk past each other: the master, thinking of himself, asks the servant if he has been tarnishing his reputation; the servant, also thinking of himself, replies with information about his own mental processes. If this is part of the reason the anecdote raises a smile, comedy would seem to be functioning here at its moral, corrective level, scuffing the shine on vanity and entrapping the diabolical self. This is the rather severe, Bergsonian idea of comedy as cleanser.
But comedy forgives, too. If the spectacle of the vanity of the self makes us laugh, it makes us cry by the same token, because we are saddened by the great illusions of freedom that the self hoards. The Scottish anecdote is too small to generate pathos, but it holds in potential the comic-pathetic idea of a man condemning himself while he thinks he is freeing himself. Don Quixote may be the grandest treatment of the comic illusion of freedom; Part One of Cervantes’s novel ends with Quixote beautifully defending the mission of knight-errancy: ‘I can say that ever since I became a knight-errant I have been courageous, polite, generous, well-bred, magnanimous, courteous, gentle, patient and long-suffering.’ This is not a wholly outrageous self-characterisation. The pain of the passage is that in order to have been some of these things (and he has hardly been gentle), Don Quixote has not been himself: he has been mad. Imagining himself free, he is literally and figuratively imprisoned: as he declaims his virtues, he is being taken, for his own protection, in a caged cart back to his village by a kindly priest and barber.
The great modern novel of the comic-pathetic illusion of freedom is Confessions of Zeno (to give it its familiar English title), which first appeared in 1923. Italo Svevo’s novel belongs recognisably to the comic tradition of Don Quixote and The Good Soldier Svejk, a comedy defined by Schopenhauer (a great influence on Svevo) as residing in the incongruity between our concepts and objective reality. Both Quixote and Zeno are fantasists, the former antique, religious and chivalric, the latter modern, secular and bourgeois. Quixote wants to serve the world, to set it to rights, and fails in the task; Zeno wants only to serve himself, and largely succeeds, though not by trying. Quixote wills, and fails magnificently; Zeno waits, and succeeds farcically.
Confessions of Zeno moves between moral correction and tragic pathos, between the bracing spectacle of vanity and the sad prospect of an imprisoned self acting as if it were free. This prospect is made more acute by the way Svevo writes his novel: it is told in the first person, by Zeno Cosini, a Trieste businessman now in his late fifties, who has been asked by his psychoanalyst to write an account of his early life. Zeno is a hypochondriacal, neurotic, delightful, solipsistic, self-examining and self-serving bourgeois, a true blossom of the mal du siècle. The novel we are reading is supposed to constitute his memories. The middle-aged Zeno recalls his student days; his lamentable and very funny attempts to give up smoking (which he considers the key to his insomnia, his fevers, his muscle pains); his father’s death (in which the old man raises his hand and collapses at the very same moment, thus accidentally striking Zeno on the cheek as he dies); his farcical attempt to marry one of the many Malfenti sisters (naturally he marries the one he at first found ugliest); and his adventures in business (Zeno is a terrible businessman who accidentally does very well).
Zeno’s narration is as fantastic as his mind, and he is therefore a highly unreliable narrator, just as Quixote would be were he telling his own tale. In most novels, unreliable narrators tend to become a little predictable, because they have to be reliably unreliable. Their unreliability is manipulated by the author: indeed, without the writer’s reliability we would not be able to ‘read’ the narrator’s unreliability. It is true that, after a few pages, we learn to discount Zeno’s claims for himself; we learn to believe almost the opposite of what he tells us. This offers us, in part, the comic prospect of the patient ‘resisting’ our diagnosis: we, the readers, become Zeno’s analysts. So the more Zeno tells us he is strong, the more weak he seems. The more he tells us that he will give up smoking, or his mistress, the less likely we are to trust him. The more he fixates on an organic cause for his many illnesses, the more we take him to be an obvious example of a malade imaginaire.
Unreliable narration is almost entrepreneurially efficient: once the novelist has set up his stall, he can franchise out his technique in chapter after chapter. When Zeno tells us that he has mixed feelings about his aged colleague Olivi, he says: ‘He has always worked for me, and he still does; but I don’t really like him, for I always think he has prevented my doing the work he does himself.’ Though the novel is only 17 pages old, we are fairly sure this is untrue, that Zeno could never competently do the work he blames Olivi for denying him. Again we know what to expect – or, rather, what not to expect – when Zeno tells us about his courtship of his wife-to-be, and the insane manner in which he goes about asking three of the four Malfenti sisters, Ada, Alberta and Augusta to marry him. The first sister he meets, Augusta, he finds ugly: unlike Zeno, we know in advance that this is the woman he will eventually marry, because we have divined the comic principle of Zeno’s life, whereby the outcome is almost always the opposite of the ambition.
But Zeno would be easy to read were he merely reliably unreliable: he would be a hypocrite and a fool. (He is a hypocrite, but only fitfully.) Svevo wonderfully modifies the technique of unreliable narration, in two ways, and it is this that deepens the novel’s comedy. First, Zeno is really trying to be truthful about himself, and sometimes he succeeds. He does see his memoirs as confessions of a kind. His description of the chaos of his courtship contains this accurate self-observation: ‘For all my efforts I achieved the result of that marksman who hit the bullseye, but of the target next to his.’ He tells us, in this passage, of the way he tries to woo Ada, whom he selects for her beauty and her seriousness. ‘So I set out to win Ada and I continued my efforts to make her laugh at me, at my expense, forgetting that I had chosen her because of her seriousness. I am a bit eccentric, but to her I must have seemed downright unbalanced.’
Second, Zeno imagines that by writing his memoirs he has been detachedly analysing, and thereby curing, himself. One of the great jokes of Svevo’s novel is that Zeno thinks he is psychoanalysing himself while busily resisting formal psychoanalysis. It is as if Augustine had written his confessions while palpably not believing in Christ. Near the end of the book, Zeno’s analyst, who has supposedly read the pages we have just read, tells him that he has suffered from the Oedipus complex. Not true, Zeno says: he respected his mother and loved his father. Besides, ‘the surest proof that I never had the disease is that I’ve not been cured of it.’ This absurd defence is consistent with the novel’s mode of comedy, which is rigorously founded on the idea of logical contradiction and inversion: the idea that life is a disease cured only by death (and certainly not by psychoanalysis); the idea that Zeno can only give up smoking (temporarily) while not thinking of giving up smoking. Or, most movingly and funnily, the idea of going to one’s doctor to get a certificate of mental health. When his father tells him that he thinks his son is mad, Zeno triumphantly informs him that, on the contrary, he has a certificate from the doctor attesting to his sanity. To which Zeno’s father replies, in a sad voice and with tears in his eyes: ‘Ah, then you really are mad!’
So Zeno’s unreliable narration is not like, say, Humbert Humbert’s. Humbert proposes his self-justification, Zeno his self-comprehension. Most unreliable narrators imagine themselves to be right when they are actually wrong. But very few imagine themselves, as Zeno does, to be analysing their wrongness from a position that they imagine to be right but which is actually wrong. Svevo bends confession back on itself and makes his readers sleuths after equity, hungry for a moral and psychic justice which is just out of reach.
The entire novel must be read in the light of the comic paradox whereby Zeno thinks he is analysing himself while at the same time being certain that psychoanalysis lacks the means to analyse him. And given this paradox, what are his confessions for? Why has he written them? It begins to seem that they have been written as Zeno’s description of his own imagined freedom. Yet we, the readers, can see that the man who wrote them is still imprisoned. Zeno thinks that if he confesses to once harbouring a murderous impulse towards his brother-in-law, then he has absolved himself of the charge that he truly hates his brother-in-law. But we can see that he hated him right from the beginning, and hates him still. Similarly, everyone has always found Zeno’s struggles to give up smoking funny – brilliantly funny. He confesses that as a young man he spent his days endlessly making resolutions to give it up; as a student he had to change his lodgings and have the walls of his room repapered at his own expense because he had covered them with the dates of his ‘last cigarettes’. Last cigarettes have a taste all of their own, he says. ‘The others have their importance because, in lighting them, you are proclaiming your freedom, while the future of strength and health remains, only moving off a bit.’ But what is pathetic is not just that Zeno, as we suspect, will never give up smoking, but his earnest belief that giving up would do anything for his mental well-being, and have anything at all to do with ‘freedom’. Zeno continually assumes that he can control the terms of his freedom – which we can see are merely the terms of his imprisonment.
The man who wrote this marvellous and original book was born Ettore Schmitz, in Trieste, in 1861. His pseudonym, Italo Svevo, or Italus the Swabian, was adopted as a way of acknowledging his mixed heritage: Italian by language (Trieste dialect was spoken at home), Austrian by citizenship (Trieste was a city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and German (in fact, German-Jewish) by ancestry. The family was large and prosperous: there were 16 children, of whom eight survived. Whenever a new child was born, his businessman father, Francesco Schmitz, would exclaim: ‘Today my capital has been increased by a million!’ But Francesco’s capital was soon indeed figurative: he suffered a massive loss in 1880, and in that same year, the dreamy and artistically ambitious Ettore was forced, for the family’s sake, to take a job in the correspondence department of the Trieste branch of the Union Bank of Vienna. He stayed there for 18 years, until he was rescued by his wife’s family firm, manufacturers of an anti-corrosive marine paint.
In her delightful memoir of their life together, Svevo’s wife, Livia Veneziani Svevo, recalls a man who sounds not unlike Zeno Cosini. Svevo was large-headed, deep-browed (he went bald early), dark, with kind, extruding eyes. He was charming, insomniac and neurotic, prey to psychosomatic twinges and spasms. During their courtship, Livia says, Svevo anxiously warned her: ‘Remember that a single ill-chosen word would be the end of everything.’ Like Zeno, he was an incessant smoker, and spent his days in a cloud of ‘last cigarettes’ and collapsing resolutions. Numerologically superstitious, he often decided to smoke his last cigarette at seven minutes past four, the time at which his mother had died. ‘Perhaps by smoking,’ Livia writes, ‘he tried to quieten the “frogs”, which was what he called the insistent doubts that tormented him.’ Zeno is teased for his absent-mindedness by his competitor and future brother-in-law, Guido Speier; by his wife’s account, Svevo was astoundingly absent-minded, quite capable of putting on two sets of cufflinks and not noticing until the strange weight at his wrists alerted him. She tells a story in which her husband left the house with 150 lire to buy something needed at the Veneziani factory, and returned hours later without the object, but with a box of sweets and 160 lire in his wallet.
Svevo’s temperament has affinities with Chekhov’s: a gentle voyeurism which perhaps masked an intense sensitivity to human and animal suffering; an unwillingness to act or think like an ‘intellectual’, combined with an aversion to the high-flown, the poetic (‘Why so many words for such few ideas?’ Svevo said of poetry); a hostility to religion; and an eye for the subtly comic. He was devoted to Witze, witty paradoxes and contradictions. When Joyce told him reprovingly that he never used coarse language but only wrote it, Svevo commented: ‘It would appear then that his works are not ones that could be read in his own presence.’ Confessions of Zeno is full of such Witze, large and small: Zeno’s mistress is pursuing a singing career despite her terrible voice; Zeno lectures Guido on playing the violin despite his own thin talents; there is the concept of the last cigarette and the certificate of sanity. The Witz can be found even in something as small as Zeno’s description of his baldness (one of my favourite details): ‘a great part of my own head had been usurped by my forehead.’ The most celebrated Witz occurred as Svevo lay on his deathbed. Seeing his nephew smoking, he feebly asked for a cigarette, was refused, and then murmured: ‘Now that really would have been the last cigarette.’
Svevo’s hostility to the perceived lack of ideas in poetry is significant, because he is one of the most thoroughly philosophical of modern novelists. He could recite many passages of Schopenhauer from memory. Clearly, the idea, central to Confessions of Zeno, of life as a sickness, is indebted to Schopenhauer (to whom Freud in turn admitted his debts); but Svevo, I suspect, was also enthralled by the jaunty paradoxical wit of Schopenhauer, who, for example, writes in The World as Will and Representation that walking is just a constantly prevented falling, just as the life of our body is a constantly prevented dying. Schopenhauer, who kept poodles, liked to say that he abused his dog with the epithet ‘man’ only when it was especially badly behaved; Svevo, who loved cats and dogs, wrote animal fables all his life. The gist of them was that animals can never fathom the mysterious wickedness of humans.
Svevo’s first two novels, Una Vita and Senilità , are much more conventional than Confessions of Zeno (which was written 25 years after Senilità ). Obviously ‘naturalistic’ where Zeno is obviously Modernist, they both concern men who get involved in unsuitable relationships with women. These heroes, Alfonso Nitti in Una Vita and Emilio Brentano in Senilità , are ruined by their relationships in ways they do not really understand. A self-deluding capacity to dignify the helpless drift of their lives by thinking of themselves as purposeful and free is something they share with Frédéric Moreau, the hero of L’Education sentimentale. But Frédéric, who is essentially unintrospective, is somewhat empty; he is waiting to be filled by romance and history, and indeed by the romance of history. By contrast, Alfonso and Emilio fill themselves only with neurotic introspection. Like Zeno, they are obsessive self-brokers, continually doing smoky deals with their consciences that allow them to think they have done good when they have really done harm. Like Zeno, they have a nasty tendency to feel calm at precisely the moment they ought to be feeling concerned.
In Svevo’s first two novels, this tendency is not obviously comic; in Zeno it is as comic as it is pathetic. Near the end of Senilità , Emilio has to watch his sister die. He is largely oblivious to the fact that he has caused her decline, and even excuses himself from her deathbed to have a final meeting with his mistress at the quayside. At the water’s edge, it is stormy, but ‘it seemed to Emilio that this turmoil reflected his own. This gave him an even greater sense of calm.’ He watches the fishermen, and reflects
that the inertia of his destiny was the cause of his misfortune. If, just once in his life, it had been his duty to untie or retie a rope; if the fate of a fishing boat, however small, had been entrusted to him, to his care, his energy; if he had been obliged to prevail over the howling of the wind and the sea with his own voice, he should be less weak, less unhappy.
Emilio’s strategy, of weakly wishing that destiny had made him strong, is typical of the senilità , the early senility or moral feebleness, that binds all Svevo’s heroes together. In an introduction to Beth Archer Brombert’s splendid and lucid new translation of Senilità (now given Svevo’s first title, Emilio’s Carnival), her husband, Victor Brombert, defines that imprisonment as ‘a special sensibility (some people are indeed born old); or better still, a special kind of inertia, the inertia of the dreamer, a modern version of acedia, or ironic ennui’.
Una Vita was published in 1892, and wanly noticed; Senilità , published in 1898, sank into oblivion. Trieste, a mixed and marginal city, was not considered by the Italian literary world a likely mother of literary greatness; and Svevo’s Italian, a curious, prosaic, sometimes clumsy businessman’s language, was faulted where it was noticed at all. Trieste did not consider itself an artistic place either, and Svevo, who was thought of by most locals as an industrialist rather than a writer, reckoned that he gave away most of the copies of Senilità (which, like all his books, he published at his own expense). Deeply hurt by this reception, by the impounding of his deepest ambitions, Svevo essentially garaged his writing for twenty years.
‘Write one must; what one needn’t do is publish,’ he was fond of saying. By 1902, he was writing that ‘the ridiculous, damnable thing called literature has now been quite definitely cut out of my life.’ He took up the violin (never playing very well, though possibly better than Zeno), and said that it ‘saved him from literature’. Over these years, he assumed greater responsibility at the Veneziani firm, overseeing the building of a factory in South-East London, in Charlton. From 1903 until the outbreak of war, Svevo spent a month or two every year in a rented house in Charlton – one of those comic dissymmetries worthy of Schopenhauer in Wimbledon and Kropotkin in Brighton. Typically, he made no attempt to befriend writers or intellectuals in London – and besides, his English was poor – preferring the inky, subaltern routines of ‘mournful/Ever weeping’ Charlton: the Sunday papers, library books, bottled beer and a place in a local string quartet.
It was Svevo’s poor English which brought him his friendship with Joyce, who had arrived in Trieste in 1904 as an English teacher for the Berlitz school. Joyce was working as a private tutor when Svevo contacted him in 1907. Joyce, who spoke Triestine dialect at home, was an unorthodox teacher of English; he once asked Svevo, as an English exercise, to write a review of the first chapters of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Svevo was initially secretive about his two ignored novels, but eventually admitted to having been a writer himself, and gave his teacher his books. Joyce, in a famous tale, returned from his reading of Senilità proclaiming Svevo a fine novelist, the equal in places of Anatole France, and claiming that he could recite by heart the novel’s last pages.
Svevo and Joyce kept only a flickering friendship alive after Joyce’s departure from Trieste at the outbreak of war. But Svevo would call on that friendship in 1923, after Confessions of Zeno had been published to the now familiar roaring silence. He wrote to Joyce, asking if he might be able to do something on Zeno’s behalf. Joyce suggested, in France, Valéry Larbaud and Benjamin Crémieux, men of letters with an interest in Italian writing. Svevo duly sent copies to them, and Joyce busied himself at the kind of high cultural bustle that he was now very good at. Thanks to Joyce, it was French literary culture that first took Svevo’s greatest novel seriously (‘Italy’s Proust’ was the warming if largely inaccurate refrain), followed by a blushing Italian literary establishment. Beryl de Zoete’s translation into English appeared in 1930, and has, rather mysteriously, been the only standard version until now, as the American translator William Weaver arrives with an excellent new rendering.
Weaver’s is not merely a modern repointing of De Zoete, but a fresh imagining, which differs in important respects from its predecessor, and in almost every one improvedly (though I prefer De Zoete’s English ‘mad’, which occurs a fair amount in the novel, to the American ‘crazy’). The most obvious change appears in the new title, Zeno’s Conscience, where Weaver returns some of the meaning of the Italian La coscienza di Zeno, which can mean both ‘Zeno’s consciousness’ and his ‘conscience’. In a lively introduction, Weaver says that the old compromise word, ‘confessions’, not only confusingly flutters the laurels of Augustine and Rousseau, but has an inappropriately Catholic resonance.
On rereading Svevo’s novel, I am not sure, however, that a religious resonance should be avoided. Because Svevo is well known to have disliked organised religion, and because his novel is framed by the procedures of psychoanalysis, Confessions of Zeno is generally read only in a secular light: here is the great comic document of modern stasis and neurotic introspection. Yet Svevo’s anti-religiousness, like that of Schopenhauer and Hamsun, is marked by what it has rejected. One might go further and dare the thought that Svevo’s vision is fundamentally religious. He represents, in a way, the logical fusion of Augustine’s religiously pessimistic view of life – ‘we must conclude that the whole human race is being punished,’ Augustine writes – and Schopenhauer’s atheistically pessimistic view of life. Svevo’s wife repeatedly describes him as a melancholy man, sensitive to life’s brevity and pain. He saw quite a lot of it: his brother Elio died in 1886, at the age of 23, from nephritis; his sister Noemi died in childbirth; another sister Ortensia died of peritonitis; yet another sister Natalia gave birth to two deaf children; and in 1918, just before he started writing Zeno, Alfonso, his brother-in-law, died of heart disease. All these many misfortunes, Livia writes, ‘had helped to make Ettore pessimistic, almost resigned to the harshest blows of fate. He always expected the worst, and was prepared to meet suffering at any moment, almost as if in the deepest part of his being he had foreseen the appalling suffering the Second World War was to bring his beloved daughter.’ (Svevo’s daughter lost all three sons during the war; his house was destroyed by a bomb.)
At one point in the novel, Zeno tries to impress Ada by letting her know how much he has grieved over his father’s death. He goes on to suggest that if he had children he would try to make them love him less, so as to spare them suffering at his passing. Alberta says: ‘The surest method would be to kill them’ – an excellent Svevian Witz. Ada then says that she thinks it wrong to spend one’s life only in preparation for death, to which Zeno forcefully replies: ‘I held my ground and asserted that death was the true organiser of life. I thought always of death, and therefore I had only one sorrow: the certainty of having to die.’
Living only in preparation for death: but not wanting to die. What is this but an essentially religious vision, without the consolation of religion? Again and again, Svevo returns us first of all to the pure death-diligence of the ancients (and Zeno’s name alone should do that), and then to the great medieval and Renaissance philosophers and writers. His novel reverberates with a grave religious wit, not unlike that of Sir Thomas Browne, who wrote that ‘the long habit of living indisposeth us for dying,’ and very close to the 17th-century divine Jeremy Taylor, who tells us in Holy Living that balding is merely man’s early preparation for death. Svevo would have loved that.
When Joyce returned to Trieste from Zurich in 1919, Svevo asked him about his experience of psychoanalysis. Joyce apparently replied: ‘Psychoanalysis? Well if we need it, let us stick to confession.’ John Gatt-Rutter, whose biography of Svevo came out in 1988, tells us that Svevo was dumbfounded by Joyce’s response. But perhaps he was stimulated by it, for the novel he would go on to write expresses a rather similar sentiment. Renato Poggioli once wrote that in Zeno Svevo psychoanalyses psychoanalysis itself. But one might equally say that he forces it to confess itself. The idea of life as a disease, after all, is the logical conclusion of psychoanalysis’s famous difficulty with how and when to end a patient’s treatment; if the patient’s sessions have to continue for years and years, for as long as life itself, then life is indeed a long sickness. This might be seen as the unwanted religious or metaphysical implication of psychoanalysis’s resistance to religion, its determination to be a therapy rather than a faith. In that sense, Zeno does not merely psychoanalyse psychoanalysis, but sees it as another religion, and hence merely a modern fraudulence.
Repeatedly, Zeno finds himself exaggerating and parodying religious attitudes. He craves and defiles innocence, a word that recurs throughout the book. He briefly manages to stop smoking for several hours, but ‘my mouth was cleansed and I felt an innocent taste such as a newborn infant must know, and a desire for a cigarette came over me.’ He longs to tell his father, who has just died, that he is ‘innocent’, that it wasn’t he who killed him. One night he feels ‘innocent’ because he comes home earlier than normal from his mistress to his wife: ‘I felt very innocent in not having been unfaithful to the extent of staying away from home all night.’ He parodies the process of confession and expiation: he confesses to his wife that he has not been feeling love for his baby daughter, and then ‘fell asleep again with a quiet conscience . . . in fact I was now completely free.’
Read in this light, Confessions of Zeno is a darker book than it has sometimes seemed. P.N. Furbank, who wrote so intelligently about Svevo in Italo Svevo: The Man and the Writer (1966), suggests that Joyce and Svevo ‘not only celebrated the bourgeois as hero, they cheerfully identified themselves with him’. But Svevo, a writer in a businessman’s suit for so many years, was in some ways not a cheerful bourgeois, and Zeno enacts a hypocritical parody of the bourgeois life, of which the hypocrisy of religious ailments and cleansings is one aspect. Zeno’s clearest fictional allies are the heroes of Knut Hamsun, who deliberately pervert religious categories of sin and punishment, in an attempt to seize a control they can never possess. Hamsun is the wilder writer, for his demented characters invent the sins for which they feel they need to be punished; they invent their corruption. Zeno’s sins are real enough: it is his innocence that he invents, his innocence that is his fond fantasy. Hamsun, the atheist former Lutheran, is obsessed with sin; Svevo, the atheist Jew who converted to nominal Catholicism only in order to marry his wife, is consumed by confession.
Svevo had four brief years of fame as the great new Italian novelist, the creator of Zeno Cosini. He called this time ‘the miracle of Lazarus’. He died in 1928, after a car accident. On his deathbed, he was asked if he wanted to pray. ‘When you haven’t prayed all your life, there’s no point at the last minute.’ Gloriously and impressively, at the last moment of his life, Italo Svevo was not like Zeno Cosini at all.