Last reviewed: June 2018
December 19, 1861
Trieste, Austrian Empire (now in Italy)
September 13, 1928
Motta di Livenza, Italy
Italo Svevo (SVAY-voh) is an important author whose works have never quite achieved popular success. He was born Aron Hector Schmitz, in Trieste, in what was then Austria, in 1861, the fifth child of Jewish parents Francesco and Allegra Moravia Schmitz. The household was affluent, and Svevo, called Ettore Schmitz in those years, had a happy childhood. His father, more through diligence than astuteness, had become a prosperous businessman, a feat of which he was intensely proud. Hoping that his sons would follow in his footsteps, in 1873 he sent Ettore and his brother Adolfo to business school in Germany, where Ettore displayed utter indifference to commerce, preferring philosophy and literature. Several years later, however, he found himself forced into the business world when his father’s business dealings suddenly failed, and Francesco, who had taken such pride in being self-made, spiraled into depression and senility. This event left a great mark on Svevo, who as a writer was to imbue his characters with a sort of self-induced senility. As a result of this catastrophe, Svevo went to work as a bank clerk to help support the family, and this job provided the inspiration for his first novel, A Life. Published in 1892 at his own expense, the book recounted, with the ironic character analysis that would be Svevo’s stock-in-trade, the day-to-day existence of a daydreaming bank clerk. Six years later, he published a second novel, As a Man Grows Older, which describes a man’s attempts to aggrandize his unremarkable love affair. Both books were ignored. Italo Svevo.
Svevo’s marriage to his cousin Livia Veneziani in 1895 eventually afforded him a position in his father-in-law’s very successful paint manufacturing company. Daydreaming and writing seemed inextricably bound for Svevo, so when he went to work for Livia’s parents, he swore to abandon writing in order to concentrate on his job and, amazingly, kept his vow for more than two decades, indulging his creative desire only to the extent of producing an occasional article or short story for his own amusement.
During these years, however, at least one person provided encouragement. Svevo had engaged an English tutor, a struggling Irish writer named James Joyce, to whom he gave copies of his books. To Svevo’s surprise, Joyce responded enthusiastically, yet the books remained in oblivion until the paint factory temporarily closed during World War I and, twenty years after the publication of his last novel, Svevo’s thoughts again returned to serious literature. He began to compose what is today generally acknowledged as his masterpiece, Confessions of Zeno, which he had published, again at his own expense, in 1923. This third book fell as flat as its predecessors had, and Svevo, who had entertained great hopes for it, became very depressed. His depression was soon alleviated. Joyce, now a well-respected writer, admired the novel and was able to get it reviewed by several prominent European critics who were almost unanimous in their praise. To say that Svevo became the toast of Europe would be an exaggeration; however, he was feted by the Parisian literary society, and he returned to Italy to find himself something of a mentor to a new generation of Italian writers. After so many years of public indifference, he enjoyed his newfound recognition tremendously. He died as the result of an automobile crash two years later, in 1928.
It seems natural that Svevo, with his interest in character analysis, would be intrigued by psychology, and Confessions of Zeno is one of the first significant novels to incorporate Freudian analysis. Zeno’s “confessions” begin when a psychoanalyst suggests that Zeno write his memoirs in order to understand his compulsive cigarette smoking. The ensuing memoirs reflect Zeno’s daydreams, delusions, neuroses, and rationalizations, and the reader is thrust into the position of playing Zeno’s therapist, trying to sort out the truth.
Svevo’s novels are not primarily plotted works so much as slices of life designed to shed light upon the main character’s unconscious motivations. His protagonists are willing victims of what Svevo called “senility”—habitual daydreaming leading to an inability to respond lucidly and directly to real life. Some of Svevo’s early critics thought that his characters were weak and contemptible, implying that they did not represent the average person; yet the Svevian hero has emerged a successful portrait precisely because Svevo managed to depict a universal human tendency. Unlike his “healthy” characters, who take life in stride, Svevo’s heroes seem to regard life as an immense project requiring much cerebral management. Even the smallest detail is absorbed and made self-conscious. When a man in a café tells Zeno how many muscles are used in the simple act of walking, Zeno finds, when he rises to leave, that he has acquired a slight limp. Emilio Brentano, in As a Man Grows Older, cannot relax and enjoy his love affair because he is too busy neurotically trying to “improve” his dull but beautiful mistress. Far from being contemptible, Svevo’s heroes actually elicit the empathy of the reader, who is given to understand that all this neurosis and anxiety merely add up to a strange kind of joie de vivre.
Svevo’s early detractors criticized not only the insignificance of his heroes but the insignificance of his prose style as well. Accustomed to beautiful prose, Italian critics regarded Svevo’s style as mundane and lacking in poetry. Most modern critics, while admitting Svevo’s style lacks distinction, do not perceive this as a major failing (some find that it actually complements his subject matter) and cite as Svevo’s strengths his irony, his accuracy and integrity of perception, and his originality. As a result of the recognition of Confessions of Zeno as a major literary contribution, Svevo’s first two books were resurrected and reevaluated. Today, As a Man Grows Older is regarded as a brilliant but somewhat lesser novel than Confessions of Zeno, while A Life is viewed as a flawed but exceedingly innovative first attempt. Two volumes of short stories, Short Sentimental Journey, and Other Stories and The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl, and Other Stories, as well as a collection of essays, were published posthumously and were well received. However, Svevo has never reached the popular appeal it would seem he deserves, considering that many critics regard two of his books as literary milestones. In Italy he is very well known, and more sporadically so in the rest of Europe, but in the United States he remains virtually unknown.