Italo Svevo ZENO'S CONSCIENCE (1923)


Imagine a ‘Pride & Prejudice’ where Austen was just as scathing towards Elizabeth Bennet’s quest for romantic security (read ‘Wealth’) and where she had her Lizzie chase Lydia’s Wickham at weekends. Such is ‘Zeno’s Conscience’. Full disclosure, I used to live only a few doors up from Italo Svevo’s lodgings in London, Charlton, and I remember buying ‘Zeno’s Conscience’ with a vague superstitious hope that I’d tap into the psycho-geography of his genius. Unfortunately, I also wanted to give up smoking and this wasn’t helped by the cover shot of the Penguin edition with its photograph of four stubbed-out cigarettes, each one burned down to resemble the proportions of the human hand. I put the novel back on the shelf, and besides, I was twenty-four, it wasn’t racy enough. There was no sleaze in nicotine, and back then stories of sexual misconduct had to be more explicit to get my goat. Fifteen years later I resume my reading and I wished I’d stuck with it. It’s like Joyce’s Leopold Bloom got a sequel in a picaresque novel, and behind all the situational irony there’s just enough realism to feel like you can still learn from him. As novelist, Svevo is unlike anyone in terms of his keen eye for perceiving the self-interest which lurks on the periphery of would-be moral actions or our attempts at excusing a relapse. The story itself is framed as a kind of therapeutic diary designed to help the Zeno, the protagonist, recover from his twin addictions to nicotine and betrayal. We are informed that Zeno’s therapy must have terminated somewhere along the line, given that the psychoanalyist who presents us with the tell-all diary only does so in an act of revenge against his client. In the account, Zeno’s crimes so quickly escalate into a torrential flow that it demands all Svevo’s craft to make his central protagonist retain our sympathies. Here is a protagonist that cheats, exploits, cajoules and physically impositions women, who takes schadenfreude to new heights, and who marries only through force of circumstance; in fact, Zeno has little talent for anything much except pathological lying—and, weirdly, being honest. And there’s Svevo’s paradox. Zeno is made both honest and deceitful at the same time. Just as Joyce takes Homer for his model to tell the story of the everyman in Dublin, Svevo did the same thing for Trieste and Eleatic philosophy, and reveals the duplicities of our everyday social interactions, which are both kind and cruel, altruistic and selfish. Svevo is strongest when talking about the inevitable splitting which occurs when we are in love. Had Svevo read Kierkegaard’s Either/Or? Who among us is still with our first love? Svevo’s Zeno is capable of finding great love for the one who constantly moves away from him, and can only appreciate the one he’s with through reasoned contemplation. A kind of Heisenbergian romance, but without all the hard sums. What else, did I say it was funny? It is a novel which can make a grown man chortle, and it just about keeps on the right side of silly. Is it misogynistic? Undoubtedly, but he largely gets away with it because as a caricature, Zeno can display tendencies which should lie dormant. A little-known novel in the Anglosphere that many could enjoy, the superb finale to ‘Zeno’s Conscience’ contains some moving cosmological reflections which wouldn’t be out of place in a kinder, gentler Schopenhauer. Svevo, the missing link between the high modernists of Proust and Joyce. And I haven’t given up smoking again.

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