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Anna Trench illustration - William Palmer on Italo Svevo, Zeno’s Conscience

May Roses in Winter

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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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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 his father’s cigars and making himself sick to forever lighting a last cigarette as a test of his resolve to stop. Each time he thinks, ‘It’s bad for me, so I will never smoke again. But first I want to have one last cigarette.’ Almost every significant event in his life is marked by one of these small beacons. He bets a friend that he can give up and loses his money. Admitted to a clinic so that he can kick his habit in isolation, he almost immediately bribes his nurse into supplying him with cigarettes. Nothing can alter his resolve to stop smoking but, as he says, ‘having such a decision on your mind leaves you no time for anything else’. Lighting up means that he can get on with life once more. Even the tragicomic occasion of his father’s death produces the diary entry: ‘15.4.90. My father dies. L.C.’ The next section is a touching portrait of father and son. With the arrogance of youth faced by age, Zeno upsets his father with his flippant attitude to religion. Looking back, Zeno realizes that this was no more than part of the inevitable tension between father and son. But he leaves it too late to mend their relationship entirely. His love for his father is quite evident when the old man is dying, but he actually dies while poor Zeno has been left alone to watch over him, and Zeno once more tortures himself with the thought that he is at fault, that he did not show his love when it mattered. Poor Zeno is always a little too late in getting the point. There is plenty of love, misplaced and displaced, in the third section, ‘The Story of My Marriage’. It is typical of Zeno that he should meet and tremendously admire his future father-in-law, Giovanni Malfenti, before feeling obliged to choose a wife from among Giovanni’s four daughters. The four daughters are Ada, Augusta, Alberta and Anna. Zeno promptly falls in love with the most beautiful, Ada, and, at last, after many elaborate and increasingly ludicrous manoeuvres, aided by what he sees as his subtle emotional finesse, he succeeds in both losing Ada to a rival and becoming accidentally engaged to and then marrying one of her sisters. The whole story of his courtship is a farcical masterpiece that would have made a perfect short comic opera for Puccini. Rather surprisingly, the marriage turns out happily, partly due to the forbearance of his new wife and partly to Zeno’s endless capacity to see himself always in a good light: ‘I discovered I had not been a blind fool manipulated by others, but a very clever man.’ This very clever man has other things to worry about: the irritating reluctance of his father-in-law and his business partners to give him responsibility for anything important or to act on his advice. Indeed, he later goes into partnership with Guido Speier, the man to whom he lost Ada, and one who has an even worse business brain than Zeno. But for now, recently married, life for Zeno is pretty slow. His hypochondria constantly throws up new pains and ailments to torture him, but it cannot be counted a full-time occupation. With little to do, he grows bored. He reads. He plays the violin badly. He whiles away hours in the city’s elegant cafés. Almost inevitably, as an ‘adventure’, he considers taking a mistress. He chooses a young woman, Carla, an unsuccessful singer to whom he has given some financial help to further her career. Being Zeno, he suffers agonies of guilt at the very outset. Sitting at the breakfast table, facing Augusta, he thinks of Carla:

Between me and Augusta lay my adventure, like a great, grim shadow, which to me seemed impossible for her not to see . . . As I absently pretended to eat, I sought solace in an iron resolution: ‘I will never see her again,’ I thought, ‘and if, out of concern, I have to see her, it will be the last time.’

It is the last cigarette all over again. When Carla succumbs to his advances, his thoughts turn immediately to his wife. Lying beside Carla,
My passion for Augusta was reborn completely . . . hurrying home, I even had the courage to blame it all on the social order . . . Where could there be any room for remorse in me, when, with so much joy and so much affection, I was speeding to my legitimate wife. For a long time I had not felt so pure . . .
Seldom has a male writer produced a truer picture of the man who can be at the same time both an unfaithful husband and an untrue lover. In fact, precisely because Zeno’s autobiography is such a very revealing portrayal of the male sex it ought to be read by all women. The only excuse for withholding it might be that it gives far too much away about the male psyche, its destructive ambition and endless capacity for self-delusion, its emotional susceptibility and sometimes unconscious cruelty, its deep silliness and only occasional nobility. At the end of the book, the older Zeno has given up the course of psychoanalysis he thought might finally cure him. Of what? His smoking? Infidelity? His inability to succeed in business? His hypochondria? What he does recover from analysis are sweet memories of his childhood. These of course are immediately misinterpreted by his psychoanalyst as evidence of a Freudian Oedipus complex. Zeno says, in calm rebuttal:

I close my eyes and I see immediately, pure and childish and ingenuous, my love for my mother, my respect and great fondness for my father . . . I had always cherished the hope of being able to relive one day of innocence and naïveté. For months and months that hope supported and animated me. Didn’t it mean producing through vital memory, in full winter the roses of May?

And what of the man who produced this wonderfully funny and melancholy portrait? Italo Svevo was born Ettore Schmidt in 1861, a native of Trieste, that anomalous city: Italian, but part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until the First World War, whose natives spoke a dialect incomprehensible to most other Italians. In 1905, Svevo needed to learn English to go on a business trip to London. In one of the most unlikely and curious of meetings he took as a tutor a young Irishman living in the city. This was the then unknown and penniless James Joyce. In between learning beginner’s English, Svevo talked to Joyce about literature: he revealed that he had published two novels at his own expense and Joyce came to admire his work greatly. When La coscienza di Zeno was published in 1923 Joyce worked hard and successfully to get it noticed. To judge by a caricature Joyce drew of his friend, Svevo also served as one of the models for Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. Svevo was a businessman, not a professional writer. Like Zeno, he had married into the family firm, which manufactured a type of marine paint repellent to barnacles. In business he was more successful than poor Zeno. And in his literary career? Well there is a residual snobbery in the literary world against anyone in ‘trade’. Novelists of the literary variety are inclined to think that their own fretful personalities are typical of humanity at large. They conceive most of their characters in their own or their friends’ image and cannot believe that an outwardly ordinary man, especially a businessman, could write a major modern novel. Svevo may have sold paint for a living, but he was also a consummate literary artist. Nobody else could have written Zeno, or any book remotely like it. By all accounts Svevo, whatever his private thoughts, was a kind and thoughtful man. After his death in a car accident in 1928 his widow Livia wrote a warm memoir of their life together. Svevo sounds superficially very like his hero – an inveterate smoker, a hypochondriac, fond of dogs and cats. But, of course, dear Zeno could never have summoned up the energy to write a book. Still it is his tale, and it is less like reading a novel than almost any other I know. It is more like listening to a warm and all too fallible friend’s amiable conversation, in which he gives away far more than he realizes.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 55 © William Palmer 2017


About the contributor

William Palmer gave up smoking thirty-seven years ago and took up writing novels. His most recent is The Devil Is White, published in 2013.

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