Monday, December 19, 2011

Italo Svevo (December 19, 1861)

Italo Svevo was the pen name of a Jewish businessman and novelist from Trieste named Ettore Schmitz. When we were in Ireland an Irish/English friend, discussing Leopold Bloom, wondered if James Joyce knew any Irish Jews. I said I didn’t know, but he did know Italo Svevo in Trieste. Svevo first employed Joyce as an English tutor, but became his friend.

Svevo's most famous novel is The Confessions of Zeno. When first published, it received little recognition, but is now admired for its early use of psychoanalysis and Freudian thought in fiction. Joyce's influence helped to make it better known and respected. I read it long ago.

From an article in the Guardian about the story of Svevo:
"What gives the story its piquancy is the way Svevo's very acquiescence in his apparent destiny as a businessman brought about his rebirth as a writer. With the expansion of his father-in-law's firm, he began travelling to London on business. Feeling the need to improve his English, he hired a young Irishman in Trieste to tutor him. James Joyce at this point was 25 and more or less unknown, but his words of praise to his middle-aged pupil, who had diffidently handed him his two long-forgotten novels, were enough to regalvanise Svevo's literary ambitions. And many years later, when The Confessions of Zeno was completed, it was Joyce - now famous - who engineered the triumphant French publication that finally brought Svevo the recognition he deserved; a wonderfully old-fashioned ending for a story involving two such uncompromising modernists.

"Zeno, like his creator, is a compulsive renouncer - most comically of cigarettes, but of other pleasures, too. The secret of the happiness he derives from his various relationships lies in the way he is constantly giving up (in his mind at least) one for another. In the charmingly devious byways of his psyche, the problem of the transitoriness of pleasure is resolved by incorporating the idea of its destruction into the experience of the pleasure itself. Enjoyment and valediction are miraculously suspended there together, at least for a period."

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