The only time in my life – so far – when I was taken to see a psychiatrist, I was 11. I remember little about the occasion. My mother and I sat facing a large man behind a large desk. I can’t see his face now, only the grey light reflected on his glasses, the lenses of which were perfectly flat, like stage glasses. He asked my mother questions but I don’t think he spoke to me at all. There was no couch. I was perched in an enormous armchair. A succession of specialists had been investigating some mysterious ailments, prodding and dosing me but reaching no specific conclusion. The psychiatrist was, I presume, the last resort, to see if it was ‘all in the mind’, as they used to say.
The memory came back to me as soon as I began Italo Svevo’s wonderfully funny novel Zeno’s Conscience (known in an earlier translation as The Confessions of Zeno). The preface is in the form of a rather tetchy report by a psychoanalyst who has been consulted by Zeno Corsini. The analyst says that he must apologize for having suggested that ‘my patient write his autobiography, students of psychology will frown on this new departure. But he was an old man . . . he seemed so curious about himself.’ His patient has terminated the analysis, so the analyst is publishing his patient’s notes ‘in revenge, and I hope he is displeased’.
Zeno is not that old; 57 in 1913 when he first consults the analyst. But he has always been a hypochondriac and has felt older than his years for a long time. Psychoanalysis is simply the latest thing he has taken up. (He has even bought a book on the subject, commenting ‘It’s not hard to understand, but it’s very boring.’) It fails him, but he does embark at the analyst’s behest on an account of his life as a younger man, producing what Paul Bailey has called a ‘profoundly comic study of a man whose greatest strength is his inability to act strongly’. Zeno is a marvellously comic character because he is an ordinary man who believes himself capable of great things if only circumstances would not constantly conspire to thwart him.
The novel is divided into six long sections, each dealing with some facet of Zeno’s life or character, beginning in the 1880s and ending at the outbreak of the First World War, though the narrative goes back and forth in time as he rakes over his life. The first, ‘Smoke’, deals with Zeno’s endlessly repeated attempts to give up smoking, from stealing h
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