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Author Topic: [112] Zeno's Conscience--Italo Svevo  (Read 8473 times)
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Robert Skipper
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« on: March 31, 2011, 06:43:12 PM »

*Cough* *Cough* No, really I'm fine.
March 31, 2011

While many books in the Decade Project fall into natural categories--adventures, romances, bildungsromans, epics--some do not.  How, for instance, could one label Zeno's Conscience, by Italo Svevo?  A confession?  Too ironic.  A comedy?  Too vexing.  A send-up of Freudian psychology?  Too steeped in it.  I suppose one could call it the memoirs of a cranky, but amiable, sufferer from terminal modernity--not exactly a standard category, I'll admit.  Perhaps one could just relegate it to that catch-all category, "experimental."  But wherever it goes, I think I would also want to include Ulysses and Lolita.

Svevo wrote Zeno's Conscience in the form of mostly undated memoirs kept by one Zeno Cosini at the request of his psychoanalyst (who published it out of vengeance for Zeno's quitting treatment).  In it, Zeno recounts several meaningful events or segments of his life, including the death of his father, his courtship and marriage, a love affair, and his business dealings.  The theme of "sickness versus health" runs throughout, as Zeno's obsession with his supposed illness appears on almost every page.  But one can't say he has a simple aversion to illness.  "Health doesn't analyze itself," he proclaims at one point, "nor does it look at itself in the mirror.  Only we sick people know something about ourselves." (p. 163). But now one must wonder if "knowing something about ourselves" counts for Zeno as a minus or as a plus.

Zeno reminds me of the character that might have emerged had Nabokov been Judaeo-Austrio-Italian, and had written Notes from Underground.  We have in Zeno a comfortably well off heir who dabbles in the business world out of boredom and out of the duty to fulfill his gender role.  He deliberately pokes fun at himself, but only on condition that you the reader appreciate the fact and admire him for his self-deprecating honesty.  But all the time that he displays his sincerity, he slyly undercuts those around him and whines about his illness.  At times, when he exhibits his bourgeois and often offensive opinions without explanation or justification, I couldn't help wondering if the irony belonged to Cosini, to Svevo, or to none-of-the-above.

One must wonder how many levels of irony we must dig through to find the "true" story here.  "Italo Svevo" served as a pen name for a well-to-do Jewish businessman and author, Aron Ettore Schmitz.  So we have Zeno as the narrator, and the implied author also has a name: Svevo.  Could we also distinguish Svevo the author from Schmitz the businessman?  In 1923, Schmitz published this book in Italian (or maybe in the Triestine dialect? or in Tuscan with a Triestine accent?) with his own money.  It had no success in Italy; however, a friend of his, one James Joyce, had it translated into French and it succeeded quite well among French critics.  Once the French praised it, Italians "discovered" it, and in 1925 it saw a second Italian edition.  It appeared posthumously in English, in 1930.  Richard Ellmann argues energetically (in James Joyce) that while Joyce modeled Stephen Dedalus after himself he modeled Leopold Bloom after Schmitz.  So, when Zeno says something odd, like "Disease is a conviction, and I was born with that conviction" (p. 14), we must laugh, but perhaps uneasily, since we can't readily determine whose sense of humor we have fallen in with.   

The novel starts off with an incident that I found hard to place in the context of the rest of the book: his self-commitment to a smoking clinic to cure himself of his addiction to tobacco.  After getting locked in for the night, without smokes, of course, he begins to wonder if his wife has talked him into this in order to have an affair.  So he contrives an escape plan.  In that section of the novel, he has a wife and child, so the succeeding sections, detailing his courtship (not of his wife-to-be) and his early married life, take the reader back in time.  The final section has dates (the only one that does) which place it between 3 May 1915 and 24 March 1916, that is, at the beginning of Italy's active and disastrous participation in WWI.

One soon learns not to trust Zeno's version of anything.  He projects odd, improbable motivations onto others while shamelessly rationalizing and excusing his own behavior.  His fanciful efforts at justifying his actions, though, seem little more than desperate props for his delusion of free will.  He attempts to manipulate people by playing on their psychologies, but those efforts generally backfire, due to his total lack of insight into the human psyche--particularly the female psyche.  But underneath his own blindness to the workings of the unconscious the narration plays out Freudian themes as though scripted by another.

Zeno believes he "suffers" from an addiction to nicotine.  While he claims this as his disease, he also worries about various migratory pains and undiagnosed illnesses throughout.  But he finds the nicotine impossible to quit--or rather impossible not to quit.  You might say he has an addiction, not to cigarettes, but to last cigarettes--an addiction to quitting. "I believe the taste of a cigarette is more intense when it's your last.  The others, too, have a special taste of their own, but less intense.  The last one gains flavor from the feeling of victory over oneself and the hope of an imminent future of strength and health.  The others have their importance because, in lighting them, you are proclaiming your freedom..." (p. 12)

I suppose I would call this novel comic--as have many others--but the humor of this novel tastes of the dark and sardonic, never lapsing into unreflective zaniness.  Zeno cannot forget himself.  Perhaps one should expect a self-absorbed protagonist in a novel presented as an unwilling memoir, published by a miffed psychoanalyst as vengeance against a hypochondriac who quit treatment.  This psychoanalyst, Doctor. S, opens, and undermines, the book with a note saying, in part, "If he only knew the countless surprises he might enjoy from discussing the many truths and the many lies he has assembled here..."

Zeno often reminds us and others that he has a bad habit of making jokes.  But why does he tell us this, and why mention it so often?  It seems to me that he calls his behavior a joke only after he has offended or upset someone.  His father called him insane at one point.  "As a joke" he went to his doctor and got an official document certifying his sanity.  A joke?  Maybe.  But no one laughed.  The "gag" would come in handy again, because more people than his father would think him insane.  To whom did he really aim the telling of his supposed joke?  His analyst?  Perhaps the humor lies in the fact that it lacked humor, and that Zeno thought others dull for not relishing it as he did.

Throughout the life Zeno recounts for us, he never simply does something.  All his actions come complete with heavy doses of interpretation, rationalizations, or hindsight.  And yet all of it seems so aimless.  For almost a hundred pages he courts Ada, who eventually rejects him.  According to Zeno, "I looked at Ada with only one desire: to fall in love with her, for that was necessary if I was to marry her.  I prepared to do this with the same energy I always devote to my hygienic practices." (p. 74)  But when Ada rejects him, he proposes to one of her sisters, who also rejects him.  Finally, all on the same day, he proposes to a third sister, Augusta, who accepts.  He discovers, to his complete surprise, that he loves Augusta completely.  Thus begins the story of his affair with Carla.

I find it hard to give a simple evaluation of this work.  It's humor doesn't have what one might call a Western insouciance.  It reminds me of some comic Czech and Polish films.  East European humor skirts the edges of my comfort zone.  So this tonality might come from the very nature of Trieste.  Svevo set the entirety of Zeno's Conscience in Trieste, where he lived all his life.  During the time of the story, Trieste belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its population consisted in a mix of several cultures: Italian, Slovene, and Croatian.  Schmitz died in 1928, but after WWII, the area became the Free Territory of Trieste (1947-1954) until its neighbors, Italy and Yugoslavia, occupied and divvied it up.  Only in 1975 did the borders finally settle down when the Treaty of Osimo gave Trieste and areas to the north to Italy and areas to the south to Yugoslavia.  Those southern areas now belong to Slovenia and Croatia.  In Svevo's time, the town had mixed allegiances, a mingling of diverse cultures, a unique language, and an uncertain future.  What better setting for a novel about the sickness called "modernity"?  The novel concludes, with eerie prescience, as follows:

        "Any effort to give us health is vain....  [Here, Zeno describes how, in animals, the body evolves in response to survival needs.]
        "But bespectacled man, on the contrary, invents devices outside of his body... Devices are bought, sold, and stolen, and man becomes increasingly shrewd and weaker....  [He then describes the evolution of devices.]  Under the law established by the possessor of the greatest number of devices, sickness and the sick will flourish.
        "Perhaps, through an unheard-of catastrophe produced by devices, we will return to health.  When poison gases no longer suffice, an ordinary man, in the secrecy of a room in this world, will invent an incomparable explosive, compared to which the explosives currently in existence will be considered harmless toys.  And another man, also ordinary, but a bit sicker than others, will steal this explosive and will climb up at the center of the earth, to set it on the spot where it can have the maximum effect.  There will be an enormous explosion that no one will hear, and the earth, once again a nebula, will wander through the heavens, freed of parasites and sickness.  (pp. 436-7).

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