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A New Look at the Italian Who Inspired ‘Ulysses’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ZENO’S CONSCIENCE

By Italo Svevo

Translated from the Italian by William Weaver

Everyman’s Library

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Alfred A. Knopf: 438 pp., $20

EMILIO’S CARNIVAL OR SENILITA

By Italo Svevo

Translated from the Italian by Beth Archer Brombert

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Yale University Press

$30, 244 Pages

For 100 years, the works of Italo Svevo have sat on a shelf in a corner of the James Joyce industry. Novelist and modernist, Svevo--the nom de plume for Ettore Schmitz--earned this distinction for his writing and for the influence he had on Joyce in creating one of the great characters of world literature: Leopold Bloom.

In 1906, the 45-year-old Schmitz was a struggling writer in a state of resignation. His youthful dreams of writing had produced two novels, “Una Vita” (A Life) and “Senilita,” that had provoked scant comment from Italian critics. There was little point in his continuing to earn an artist’s subsistence as a bank clerk in his native Trieste with a wife, Livia, and a young daughter to support. So Schmitz joined his wife’s family business--manufacturing paint for submarines. To the surprise of all, Schmitz proved an adept businessman. Entrusted with the care of the English branch of the firm, Schmitz needed to improve his English. Enter a young, impoverished Irish writer living in Trieste hawking English lessons.

In 1906, James Joyce had only a book of poems, “Chamber Music,” to his name. The stories of “Dubliners” had yet to find a publisher but served as ready lesson material for his small flock of students. And so it was that Schmitz, having read Joyce’s “The Dead” on assignment, returned the favor by showing Joyce his two novels.

Their friendship continued, and 17 years later, in 1924, he sent Joyce, then living in Paris, the manuscript of his masterpiece, “La Coscienza di Zeno” (“Zeno’s Conscience”), where it quickly received publication and praise, under the bi-national name of Italo Svevo (“Svevo” being the Italian word for “Schwabian” or “German” in a Trieste that straddled the empire of Austro-Hungary to the north and Italy to the south). In the meantime, the Jewish businessman Schmitz-Svevo and his Catholic wife, Livia, had found their way into Joyce’s two great doorstops: Svevo providing part of the model for Bloom in “Ulysses,” Livia giving her name and her reddish-brown tresses to Anna Livia Plurabelle of “Finnegans Wake.”

For most of the 20th century, in fact, the fictional Leopold Bloom overshadowed his inspiration. “Zeno’s Conscience,” Svevo’s masterpiece known as “The Confessions of Zeno” in its 70-year-old English translation, survived as a curiosity at best. The new century, however, has brought English readers a fresh translation by the dean of Italian literary translators, William Weaver, and a preface by Elizabeth Hardwick, as well as a translation of “Senilita” (as “Emilio’s Carnival”) by Beth Archer Brombert with an introduction by Victor Brombert. Weaver sets Svevo in historical context and Victor Brombert makes a strong case for Svevo’s position in the letters of modernism. But the greatest reward is the novels, two masterpieces of irony and self-delusion.

His earlier novel, “Senilita,” about a young man named Emilio--insurance clerk by day, writer by night--who makes a fool of himself over a sensuous blond named Angiolina. Although he is barely 30, Emilio allows himself to be led around by the nose. Meanwhile, he remains blind to the fading of his lonely sister, Amalia, who dies with all the drama of a Verdi heroine. Yet Svevo shows himself as too much of an ironist to let Trieste wallow in Traviata-land. Amalia dies from an addiction to ether. Even her last breath is not what it seems. “It seemed to come out of meek despondency; it seemed intentional, a humble protest. What it was, in fact, was the lament of matter, already left behind and breaking up, that emits sounds learned during the long travail of conscious suffering.”

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Zeno is much older than Emilio. Although independently wealthy, he is a businessman much like Svevo himself, a man with an insatiable appetite for psychosomatic illness, self-delusion and cigarettes. Determined to quit smoking, Zeno joins the new craze for psychoanalysis. At the advice of his doctor, he writes a memoir of his life, detailing the innumerable “last cigarettes” he has smoked in his quest for better health, the last meetings with his mistress in his quest for better sleep.

At times hilarious, at times painful, Zeno reveals himself as a Dudley Moore-like character in need of a business manager to keep him from squandering his fortune. He is a romantic fool who enters the home of his future father-in-law determined to marry one of his four daughters and marries his fourth choice. Yet there is a childlike quality to Zeno that endears him to his homely wife, Augusta, and makes him much the best man in the novel. As he wanders off at the end, with World War I and Freud breaking around him, he dreams of a bomb to end all bombs. “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.”

Only a smoker would look forward to an apocalypse to save him from his habit. On Svevo’s deathbed, Weaver reports, the author asked one of his visitors for a smoke. “It was refused. Svevo replied: ‘That really would have been the last cigarette.’” Svevo died that afternoon. His former student was kinder. Although he prevaricated when asked for a preface for a new edition of “Zeno” after Svevo’s death, Joyce contributed a mock advertisement--a picture of two well-dressed women conversing at a table displaying the book:

“Ethel: Does Cyril spend too much on cigarettes?

“Doris: Far too much.

“Ethel: So did Percy ... till I gave him ‘Zeno.’”


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