Memoir of Italo Svevo

svevoBy Livia Veneziani Svevo

A very interesting record of Svevo’s life by his wife Livia. She writes well herself and the collection of papers that she adds to the Svevo canon are illuminating. There’s correspondence between Svevo and Joyce and Larbaud as well as more minor literary figures. The strangest letters are from those who didn’t like his novels. There was an Italian critic who recognised that Svevo had talent but told him to stop writing about those minute details no one cares about – precisely the strength of Svevo’s writing. Livia’s narrative also cements the realisation that much of the central character in all his novels came from Svevo (or Ettore) himself and that his comic genius was so perspicuous as he was laughing at his own foibles. From this biography we can see that Svevo the serious young man became Svevo the old and amusing man. The real twist of the biography, if you can call it that, was that he was in his sixties until he had any success and only because he was championed by Larbaud and Joyce. Svevo had given up on writing or rather ‘publishing’ years earlier when his first two novels as a young man were universally ignored. He still wrote but threw himself into his business affairs as a priority (he made submarine paint). If it wasn’t for Joyce he would have remained unknown and maybe never have written his masterpiece of a novel ‘Zeno’ as an old man. This all begs the question. How many amazing geniuses have we missed? We nearly missed Kafka and Kennedy Toole. What if Kennedy Toole had been picked up by a publisher and imbued with confidence – think what he could have written. I also imagine what other works of brilliance Svevo could have created. There are hints here in his correspondence along with the narrative from Livia.

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A Perfect Hoax

hoaxBy Italo Svevo

Another great book by Svevo. I am not sure if this counts as one of his novels because it is quite short. It was written after Zeno I believe and it is different to what had written previously. It is still concerned with provincial life and creativity within this state but you empathise more completely with the main character for a change. The little parables the old writer creates are amusing and worthwhile and while there is an ironic touch from the narrator it doesn’t get in the way. I also liked the article at the end written by someone who worked in a bookshop Svevo used to frequent. Apparently when Svevo was on his deathbed and he knew he was dying on the day after his car accident he asked for a last cigarette (something his character Zeno and Svevo himself was always proclaiming – which it never was). When this was denied he said that obviously he had really had his last cigarette. He then went on to say (while smiling) that dying is actually very easy, much easier that writing a novel you know.

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Italo Svevo’s London Writings

svev1By Italo Svevo.

This book really is only of interest if you like Svevo. I like Svevo and these collections of letters and articles were amusing and insightful. In ‘Confessions of Zeno’ one of the characters says to Zeno late in life that he has become an amusing man. After reading these I believe that this same comment must have been levelled at Svevo. He has his melancholy moments though, particularly when he is separated from his wife in the early letters. Later she would mostly join him on his trips to London and their being apart would have been less. It is also very illuminating to see an intelligent outsiders view of London and ‘the English’ at the turn of last century. Svevo can’t get to grips with the Cockney but the freedom of life in England seemed greater than in Trieste which is probably why he and his wife spent so many years on and off at 67 Church Lane in Charlton. The last article is possibly the most enjoyable. It was for a lecture that he never gave (deciding to talk about his friend James Joyce instead) giving a humorous and candid overview of English life. Definitely worth my time reading.

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Zeno’s Conscience


By Italo Svevo

I decided to re-read this book because I am going to Trieste shortly, which is where Svevo lived most of his life. I couldn’t remember much about the story possibly because there are not many major plot movements to stick in the memory. Events happen to Zeno and the other characters but there is much navel gazing along the way coutesy of Zeno. It took me a while to work out that the irritation I felt with the novel was completely by design. Near the end you suddenly understand. I’m not going to spoil it but I will link to this Wikipedia article about Zeno’s namesake. Svevo is a masterful ironist and by the novels end all the irritation has dissipated. The control and design with which he wrote the novel must have been the culmination of a lifetime of thought (this was his last major work of three with the other two written twenty years earlier). Someone once told me that Svevo is a man’s writer in the same way that de Beauvoir is a woman’s. I’m not sure I agree but I can see their point – both are concerned with their male and female view of the world. Zeno’s Conscience is not for everyone but it is an important book and both interesting and entertaining.

Soundtrack: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – The Mercy Seat.

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