(1861 - 1927)
Rio, 2 de Março de 2002
consciência de Ítalo Svevo
A consciência de Zeno , de Ítalo Svevo. Tradução de Ivo Barroso. Editora Nova Fronteira, 411 páginas. R$ 32
Publicado em 1923, “A consciência de Zeno”, de Ítalo Svevo, na opinião da maioria dos críticos — começando por Larbaud, que o endeusou e muito concorreu para a sua divulgação — é um dos mais importantes romances do século XX, comparável a “Em busca do tempo perdido”, de Proust, com o qual tem certas afinidades. O escritor italiano nascido em Trieste foi o primeiro a usar na ficção as técnicas de investigação psicanalítica como processo narrativo.
Ítalo Svevo —- pseudónimo de Ettore Schmitz —- conhecia as teorias de Freud, sabia tudo o que se passava no mundo intelectual, tinha uma sensibilidade doentia, ganhava bom dinheiro como sócio do sogro numa casa de negócios e publicara dois livros que ninguém lera (“Uma vida”, 1892, e “Senilidade”, 1898) e terminaram servindo como papel de embrulho numa loja de miudezas.
Ele vivia deprimido, alternando o desejo de se matar com a vontade de esmurrar os comerciantes e armadores de navios que o ridicularizavam por causa das suas fracassadas actividades intelectuais.
A sorte de Ítalo Svevo foi ter conhecido, em 1907, James Joyce, tão desconhecido quanto ele, que admirava seus trabalhos e o estimulou bastante. Em troca, Svevo o contratou para lhe dar aulas de inglês, a única coisa que Joyce mais ou menos sabia fazer para ganhar dinheiro. Diziam os amigos de Svevo que ele tinha bons conhecimentos da língua e a falava com fluência. Aquela fora apenas a maneira delicada que encontrara para ajudar financeiramente Joyce, sem melindrá-lo. Os dois ficaram amigos, tomavam grandes porres, e Joyce em geral seguia os palpites que ele dava, com relação à feitura de “Ulisses”, então em andamento.
Divide-se “A consciência de Zeno” em prefácio, preâmbulo e seis partes: “O fumo”, “A morte de meu pai”, “A história de meu casamento”, “A mulher e a amante”, “História de uma sociedade comercial” e “Psicanálise”. Por sugestão do médico que o atendia nas crises, que se agravavam quando ele tentava deixar de fumar, a personagem Zeno — um comerciante de vida pacatamente burguesa — resolveu escrever uma autobiografia, na esperança de que isso o ajudasse a viver melhor. Ocorreu o contrário. E ele passou a sobreviver na fronteira entre o tédio e o desespero.·
As relações de Zeno com o pai são esmiuçadas de forma cruel, e a descrição dos últimos dias e da morte do velho é um dos pontos altos do romance, pelo rigor no detalhamento das circunstâncias da agonia e pela impiedade na recriação das cenas de dor e incompreensão afetiva. A presunção, a ignorância e a calculada frieza dos médicos, quando se vêem diante da impotência dos seus recursos de cura, são tratadas com ironia ímpar.
A descrição de personagens é um dos pontos fortes do romancista Svevo, que nesse aspecto pode, sem favor, ser comparado a Balzac. O míope Dr. Coprosich, por exemplo, tira os óculos quando alguém lhe faz uma pergunta, e mira para o lado ou por cima do seu interlocutor, lembrando os olhos sem cor das estátuas. Quando tem que dizer seja a tolice que for, volta a pôr os óculos no nariz. E seu olhar se aburguesa, como se ele estivesse medindo cuidadosamente as palavras, dando ao interlocutor a impressão de que jamais diria algo sem importância.
Zeno sabe que é um homem fraco, incapaz de resistir a pressões. Se alguém quisesse, poderia facilmente induzi-lo a fazer qualquer coisa, até mesmo a estudar astronomia. Para evitar que isso aconteça, ele está sempre em guarda. E chega cansado ao fim do dia, questiona tudo o que passou desde a hora em que saiu da cama, apresenta argumentos pró e contra, sofre com as dúvidas que nunca teve (mas faz questão de fingir que existiram e o fizeram sofrer), custa a dormir e tem freqüentes pesadelos.
Quanto às mulheres, Zeno não se sente atraído por elas como um todo. Para frui-las, na sua imaginação, ele as fragmenta. Em todas aprecia os pezinhos bem calçados; em muitas, o colo delicado ou portentoso; e sempre os seios pequenos, pequenininhos. Fica indignado quando o médico lhe diz que essas partes formam uma mulher inteira. E se retira, irritado, do consultório, berrando que jamais voltará, quando o médico afirma que o amor saudável é aquele que se resume numa mulher apenas, íntegra, inclusive de carácter e inteligência.
marco da ficção do nosso tempo
Consciente de que cria raízes onde quer que se detenha, e sofrendo muito por causa disso, Zeno vive um drama ao frequentar a casa de um amigo, comerciante como ele, que tem quatro filhas solteiras, com nomes começando pela letra A.
Apaixona-se pela mais bonita. É rejeitado. Corteja a mais nova, que não se interessa por ele. A caçula é uma meninota. Joga-se então em cima da mais feia, estrábica e gordinha, deixa claro que não lhe tem amor algum, mas como acha que está na hora de se casar gostaria que ela o aceitasse como companheiro pelo resto dos dias.
Para alegria da família, que quase perdera as esperanças de arranjar-lhe um marido, por causa da sua feiura, a moça se entusiasma e aceita a proposta, felicíssima, gratíssima, e diz que jamais se esquecerá de que ele, mesmo sem amá-la, decidiu se casar com ela. E Zeno, infeliz, apático, desarvorado, abraça-a, cheio de compaixão, e a leva mesmo ao altar. Como sempre, ele acreditara mais nas frases que dissera do que naquilo que elas significavam.·
Livro é marcado por interpretações irónicas
Passada a lua-de-mel, Zeno conclui que o casamento é mais simples do que o noivado. Uma vez casados, homem e mulher não discutem mais o amor e, quando eventualmente sentem necessidade de falar sobre isso, a animalidade logo intervém para refazer o silêncio. Às vezes a animalidade se torna tão conveniente que complica e falsifica as coisas. Ao se inclinarem um sobre o outro, eles fazem inutilmente um esforço inaudito, tentando ressuscitar uma luz que não existe mais. Fechados os olhos para o descanso do prazer, os dois voltam a ser o que eram, partícipes acomodados da tediosa vida conjugal. Zeno conclui que isso é ótimo e que nada pode haver no mundo de mais gostoso do que essa apatia matrimonial. Se tivesse de nascer de novo, ele de bom grado se casaria outra vez com a mesma mulher. Jamais, porém, voltaria a namorar com ela.·
A narrativa de “A consciência de Zeno” se desenvolve na primeira pessoa, com observações mordazes sobre o que acontece, em texto fluente, lembrança puxando lembrança, e gerando interpretações em geral irônicas: um homem velho reavaliando sem pieguice o seu passado e fazendo um balanço de emoções que raramente sentiu, mas gostaria de ter vivido, e por isso sofre e se lamenta e se enternece e se engrandece.
Autor escreveu óptimo estudo sobre o “Ulisses” de Joyce
Na recriação desses sentimentos e vivências que não existiram, afirma-se a categoria indiscutível do grande romancista que é Ítalo Svevo. Em momento algum ele perde o fio da meada e “A consciência de Zeno” se impõe como obra bem estruturada, cheia de nuances, marco da ficção do nosso tempo.
Ao morrer, em 30 de setembro de 1928, num acidente de automóvel, Ítalo Svevo — que nasceu em 19 de dezembro de 1861, em Trieste — deixou inéditos dois volumes de contos, que vieram a ser publicados em 1930 e 1949; uma colectânea de ensaios, editada em 1954; um livro com peças de teatro, lançado em 1960, e cartas a Eugenio Montale, reunidas em volume, em 1966. Trabalhava, então, num romance que viria a ser a continuação de “A consciência de Zeno”.
Em 1927, Ítalo Svevo fez uma conferência em Milão, para um grupo de amigos, sobre “Ulisses”, e deu discretas informações a respeito de sua amizade com Joyce. Essa conferência, traduzida por Stanislaus Joyce, foi publicada artesanalmente num volume de formato pequeno, de apenas 56 páginas, pela City Light Books, com letras graúdas, ótimas de ler. Apesar de sua reduzida dimensão, é um dos melhores estudos já escritos sobre o clássico romance de James Joyce.
ESDRAS DO NASCIMENTO é autor de “Lição da noite”
“La coscienza di Zeno” integral
“Corto viaggio sentimentale” integral
Outras obras de Italo Svevo
Italo Svevo Web Site
Appunti e Ricerche
Appunti e Ricerche
Italo Svevo e l'anima ebraica
Italo Svevo: l'Ottocento sul lettino di Freud
Ernesto Livorni - Italo Svevo: "Faccio meglio di restare nell'ombra"
Alessandra Mantovani - L'anniversario mancato: sentimento del tempo nella Coscienza di Zeno
ITALO SVEVO - Mio padre lo ricordo così
I Kafka e gli Svevo, ovvero capitoli nella letteratura della Monarchia di Király Martina (1994)
The rediscovered novels of Italo Svevo, Italy's first modernist.
by JOAN ACOCELLA
In 1907, Ettore Schmitz, a Triestine businessman, found himself in need of a language tutor. Every year he spent a couple of months in England—his company had a branch there—and it pained him that his English was so bad. Friends recommended a certain James Joyce, who had landed in Trieste two years earlier and was making his living as an English teacher. Joyce was twenty-five, poor and unkempt, a frequenter of taverns, a borrower of rent money. He had not yet published a book, but he was full of confidence. He thought he was a genius. Schmitz, by contrast, was in his mid-forties, and though he was a comfortably settled bourgeois, a partner in a marine-paint company, this was due to his having married the daughter of the firm's owner. Before that, he had worked as a bank clerk. He was a genial, witty man, but self-effacing, passive.
In the course of their tutorials, Joyce told Schmitz that he was a writer. He showed him the proofs of "Chamber Music," which was about to come out, and he gave him a few stories to read from a projected collection, "Dubliners." Eventually, Schmitz confessed that he, too, was a literary man, in a small way. Years before, under the pen name of Italo Svevo, he had written two novels, "Una Vita" and "Senilità" (they were later given the English titles "A Life" and "As a Man Grows Older"), and though the books were nothing, Schmitz said—published at his own expense, barely reviewed—perhaps Signor Joyce would be so kind as to accept copies of them? When Joyce returned for the next lesson, he declared that Schmitz was a marvelous writer, unjustly neglected, and that the great French realists could not have matched certain paragraphs of "As a Man Grows Older"—paragraphs that Joyce then recited from memory to the dazzled paint manufacturer.
There were no grammar lessons that day. Schmitz poured out his heart to Joyce, told him of his literary labors, his hopes, his disappointments. When the time was up, he could not bear to part with this fine man, and walked him almost all the way home, bending his ear some more. Nevertheless, he took no encouragement from Joyce's praise. After the failure of his second novel, ten years earlier, he had sworn off writing. (Once, when a business acquaintance asked him if it was true that he had published two novels, he said no—that was his brother Adolfo.) In 1915, Joyce left Trieste and moved to Zurich, then to Paris, but the two men remained in Christmas-card contact. Schmitz published nothing. The years passed.
Then came the First World War. Trieste was in an odd position. It was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—indeed, the empire's major seaport—yet historically it was Italian, and full of irredentists, ethnic Italians devoted to their homeland's reclaiming of its former territories. At the start of the war, many members of Schmitz's heavily irredentist family fled to Italy. His home, formerly crammed with relatives and servants, emptied out. At the same time, the Austro-Hungarian authorities closed down the paint factory. Schmitz and his wife, Livia, were stuck in the house with nothing to do, whereupon Schmitz broke his vow and started writing again. When the war stopped, he didn't, and in 1922, in a lather of energy—smoking like crazy, and barely coming down for meals—he completed a new novel, "Confessions of Zeno" ("La Coscienza di Zeno"). It was published the following year, again at his own expense, and it had the same reception as its predecessors.
Schmitz was terribly disappointed, but he had one last thought. He sent the book to his old English teacher. Joyce was a different man now, a famous artist ("Ulysses" was published in 1922) and an expert literary publicist. He wrote back saying that Schmitz should immediately send "Confessions of Zeno," on his recommendation, to Ford Madox Ford and T. S. Eliot in London, Gilbert Seldes in New York, and Valéry Larbaud and Benjamin Crémieux in Paris—an A-list of the literary arbiters of the day. Schmitz did as he was told, and two of these arrows hit the mark. In 1926, Le Navire d'Argent, a Paris journal devoted to modern literature, published excerpts from "As a Man Grows Older" and "Confessions of Zeno," translated by Crémieux and Larbaud, together with an enthusiastic essay on Schmitz by Crémieux. Suddenly, Italo Svevo was the sensation of Paris literary circles. The news made its way back to Italy, where the poet Eugenio Montale, alerted by the French, had just published a long essay in which he described Svevo's work as "the poem of our complex modern madness" and claimed that it was only because of the debased condition of Italian letters that he had been ignored. Soon Svevo's work was being translated into other languages. Dinners were given in his honor. When he entered literary cafés, people clapped him on the back and asked him to sit at their table.
"No writer ever so enjoyed his fame," a friend of Svevo's wrote. Svevo acted as if he had won the lottery. He confessed to a journalist that on a recent trip to Paris, the birthplace of his celebrity, he could not see the ville lumière. All he could see was himself: "Italo Svevo among the treasures of the Louvre. . . Italo Svevo at Versailles." Hailed as the author of Italy's first modernist novel—"the Italian Proust," a French newspaper called him—he now took a look at modernist novels. He read Proust, or said he did. He struggled through "Ulysses," even gave a lecture on it. He discovered Kafka's work, and was bowled over by it. In 1928, he embarked on a new novel, a sequel to "Confessions of Zeno." At the same time, he began having health problems. He went to a spa, to take a cure, with Livia and their little grandson Paolo. On the way home, in a driving rain, the chauffeur crashed the car into a tree. Everyone survived except Svevo. His heart stopped the next day.
He had been famous for two years, but, even in Italy, his fame was unstable. During his lifetime, it was the younger writers who lionized him; the established critics were not pleased to be told by the French that they had failed to recognize a prophet in their own land, and they defended their former position. Also, nobody knew how to place Svevo. In the words of his best biographer, P. N. Furbank, "Attempts have been made to claim him for a variety of sectional interests—for Triestine regionalism, Italian irredentism, and 'eternal-Jewishness' " (he was Jewish), but he always fell short of the required commitment. Furthermore, his best novel, "Confessions of Zeno," was a comic novel, and comedy was not something that people in the nineteen-twenties associated with profundity.
Those who wished to dismiss him had something substantial to point to: his graceless Italian. Svevo's native language was the Triestine dialect; his second language, the language of his schooling, was German. (Hence his pen name, Italo Svevo: Swabian Italian.) Standard, Florentine Italian was a foreign tongue to him. That's what he had to write in if he wanted a readership beyond Trieste, but he did not do it beautifully or even, on occasion, grammatically. "The Italian of a bookkeeper," critics said. There is an answer to this. Svevo's characters were bookkeepers. The world of his fiction was Trieste, an unpoetic commercial city, home of bankers and traders and manufacturers, of which he was one. As Montale put it, "The smell of the warehouse and cellar, the almost Goldonian chatter of the Tergesteo"—the stock exchange—"are they not the sure presence of a style?" They are to us, raised on Twain and Dreiser and Hemingway. But the critics of Svevo's time were raised on d'Annunzio, and to them Svevo's language was simply unliterary.
It wasn't just in Italy, though, that Svevo was treated as second best. His work was never installed, as it should have been, in the pantheon of the modernist novel. I know people who have read "The Man Without Qualities," both volumes, and "Remembrance of Things Past," all seven volumes, who have never opened a book by Svevo.
They now have a chance to correct that oversight. Svevo is undergoing a publishing revival. "A Life," in a perfectly decent 1963 translation by Archibald Colquhoun (Pushkin Press; $18), has just been reprinted. As for "Senilità" and "La Coscienza di Zeno," they were first translated into English in the thirties, by Beryl de Zoete, a dance scholar who fell in love with Svevo's work and offered her services to his widow. De Zoete's versions, entitled "As a Man Grows Older" and "Confessions of Zeno," are solid—they are what we have known for seventy years as Svevo—and they are still in print or, in the case of "As a Man Grows Older," back in print ($12.95), in New York Review of Books' excellent "classics" series. But they are old, older than Svevo in a way: fussy, Constance Garnett-ish. For years they have cried out for competition, and competition has now come. Beth Archer Brombert has produced a version of "Senilità," called "Emilio's Carnival" (Yale; $14.95)—Svevo's working title—that is faithful in a way that de Zoete was not. Brombert's language is very plain, and when she comes up against a knot in Svevo's prose she does not try to untie it. (De Zoete did.) We have to puzzle through it, just like the Italians. The same rules seem to have guided the distinguished translator William Weaver in his new version of "La Coscienza di Zeno"—"Zeno's Conscience" (Everyman; $20). I do not like his title. The Italian coscienza, like its French cognate, means both "conscience" and "consciousness." There is no good way to translate it, and de Zoete's throwing up of hands, with "Confessions of Zeno," was probably the best solution. But the title is the only thing wrong with Weaver's book. Its appearance is an event in modern publishing. In it—for the first time, I believe, in English—we get the true, dark music, the pewter tints, of Svevo's great last novel.
Svevo had a happy childhood and a miserable young manhood. The sixth of eight children, he was born in Trieste in 1861 to an adoring mother and a gruff, decent father, a successful glassware merchant. As a child, he was mad for literature, but his father didn't want to hear about that. At the age of twelve, he was shipped off to a commercial school in Germany, where he managed to read a lot of Shakespeare and Schiller after lights-out. At seventeen, he returned to Trieste, and soon, presumably at his father's strong suggestion, he went to work as a correspondence clerk—basically, he translated letters—in a local bank. There he remained for almost twenty years, bored out of his mind. He spent his nights in the dusty reading room of the public library, submitting call slips to a bizarre attendant who, according to the poet Umberto Saba, Svevo's friend, "waited beside a window from which he eventually jumped to his death."
Svevo was now a convert to French realism: Balzac, Flaubert, Daudet, Zola above all. "Zola was his god," his wife later wrote. (As part of the Svevo boom, her lovely, genteel biography, "Memoir of Italo Svevo," has just been reprinted by Marlboro Press, at $15.95.) The laws of life seemed to him harsh, and those authors agreed. He tried to write—mostly plays, mostly unfinished—but, according to the diary of his brother Elio, the person closest to him, he burned almost everything he produced. When Svevo was twenty-five, Elio died, followed by two of their sisters. Meanwhile, the father's business had declined precipitously, and the old man wandered around the house like a ghost, some days refusing to eat or speak. Svevo lived in a permanent, low-level melancholy. "My real strength always lay in hoping," he wrote on his twenty-eighth birthday. "I'm even losing my talent for that."
Two years earlier, he had begun his first novel, "A Life," and it was a mirror of his own life. It tells the story of Alfonso Nitti, a clerk in a Triestine bank, who spends his evenings in the public library, dreaming of writing books. Alfonso seduces a rich girl whom he does not love. (See "The Red and the Black.") His aged mother dies—a protracted business of bedsores and smells and people making off with the furniture. (See "Nana," "Le Père Goriot.") Alfonso cannot seem to do anything; he is too self-conscious, too busy watching himself. Some of this is very smartly done, worthy of its French models, but the qualities at the heart of the story actually have little to do with French realism. There is too much grave, personal sorrow— the book throbs like a wound—to be processed by that cold machinery. Also, Svevo simply did not have enough certainty to join the ranks of Balzac and Zola. His world was not theirs, the world of causes—social, historical, economic—but something almost causeless, the mal du siècle, in its turn-of-the-century form: the crippling of action by thought, the erasure of the present by the future (fantasy) and the past (remorse). Like Joyce and Proust soon afterward, he had discovered the subject of the twentieth-century novel, the self-imprisonment of the mind, but he didn't know how to write anything but a nineteenth-century novel.
Nor, for a while, did he find out. After the failure of "Una Vita," something happened that changed Svevo's life. At his mother's deathbed, a second cousin of his, Livia Veneziani, seeing his distress, brought him a glass of marsala. He had never noticed Livia before. Now he did. She was blond and kind and rich. Over her parents' objections—he was poor and neurotic and thirteen years her senior—they married in 1896 and had a baby, Letizia ("Happiness"), the following year.
"I will love you forever," Svevo wrote to Livia, "as far as the fin de siècle will allow." It allowed only so much. He drove her crazy with his jealousy and hypochondria. Nor could she understand his weird ideas. He gave her Schopenhauer to read, and August Bebel's "Women and Socialism." She looked at him as if he were insane. Also, why did he have to be Jewish? Anti-Semitism wasn't much of an issue in Trieste at that time, and Livia herself was one-quarter Jewish. Nevertheless, she was emphatically Catholic, a convent girl. After giving birth to Letizia, she fell ill and was terrified by the thought that she would die with the sin of having married a Jew on her conscience. Svevo gallantly went out and got himself baptized, though he refused to take religious instruction and never, later, described himself as anything but Jewish. (After his death, Livia returned the favor. In the late thirties, the "race office" in Rome balked at registering her as an Aryan—a problem she was told she could solve with a large bribe. Indignant, she declared herself a Jew. As a result, she had to flee Trieste in 1943. She spent the remaining war years in Treviso province, in great danger.) Yet, whatever their occasional bewilderment with each other, they were a happy couple. "My blonde," he called her, "my one great, great hope, of true, solid happiness." He might be "ill"—assailed by doubts and fears—but that was all right as long as he could orbit her "health." When he was downcast, she comforted him. When he took Letizia to the fair and came back alone—he was almost pathologically absent-minded—she went and got the child. In return, he became a regular person, a family man.
According to Svevo, Joyce used to say that a novelist had only one book in him; if he produced more, they were the same book, in a new key. No one demonstrates this principle better than Svevo. Emboldened by his happy marriage, he wrote a second novel, "Senilità." As the title tells us, it was once again about illness, but it breathed an utterly new assurance. Where "Una Vita" wandered about a lot, "Senilità" has one subject, the love affair between its hero, Emilio Brentani, a clerk in an insurance company (who once wrote a novel), and a high-class tart named Angiolina. With no introductory fuss, we meet the two of them on the first page, walking down the street, as Emilio, pedantically discoursing on his feelings for Angiolina, begins winding himself in a knot of obsession, jealousy, and contempt that will bind him to her for the rest of the book, and as she, tapping her pretty parasol in the gravel, looks at him to judge how she should play this game. The novel is perfectly realistic and, again, partly autobiographical. (Svevo had had such a girlfriend. She later became a circus performer.) As in Proust's tale of Swann and Odette, the love affair is a metaphor. Emilio is the mind; Angiolina is the world. Or, to put it in Svevo's terms, Emilio is "sickness," and Angiolina is "health." Neither comes off well, but the business of the novel is the portrayal of Emilio's feelings, fantastically mixed, with each new impulse undermined by its opposite. In other words, this is the same story as "Una Vita," but it is far more concentrated, subtle, and disturbing. As Emilio suffers over Angiolina, his spinster sister, Amalia, by way of participating, falls equally in love with a friend of his who barely notices her. In bed at night, Emilio hears through the walls the love cries she utters in her dreams.
"Senilità" is also far more confident in its tone, which is steadily distanced. At the end, Emilio, having lost both Angiolina and Amalia—Amalia dies, Angiolina runs off with a bank teller—lives on rather comfortably. In his mind, he combines the two women into one, whom he worships: "He saw her before him as on an altar. . . . She represented everything noble that he had thought and observed during that period." The irony is both soft and lethal. There was nothing noble in his relations with either of those women.
Furbank calls "Senilità" "one of the solidest masterpieces of nineteenth-century fiction." I think that it is a fine piece of work, but also that Svevo still had somewhere else to go. The novel's irony is heavy; it protests too much. (Whatever his comments on the fin de siècle, Svevo may still have hoped, with his marriage, to throw off his "illness.") And there are many things in the novel that grate against that tone. One small example: Angiolina has a younger sister, a scrawny little thing whose name we are never given. When we first encounter her, early in the narrative, she is ten years old. She opens the door for Emilio and, seeing a stranger, raises her hand "to close the edges of her jacket across her chest—the buttons were missing." At the end of the book, Emilio calls on Angiolina's family again. He is received by the mother, but she promptly exits, and then the sister, maybe twelve now, enters the room and curtsies. Emilio tells her what he meant to tell her mother, that he will never come again. She protests, and covers his face with "kisses that were anything but childish." Clearly the mother is thinking that if she can no longer offer Angiolina's services (Emilio helped support the family), perhaps the sister's will do. Emilio is disgusted and gets up to go. But first he leans down and pats the head of the little girl, "whom he did not want to leave disheartened." He remembers that she is a child. This is not the stuff of which Zolaesque novels are made. Likewise, throughout the book there are notes of sweetness and drollery which suggest that a different novel, one more forgiving of "sickness" and of life itself, is fighting to get out. It got out—in "La Coscienza di Zeno"—but not for twenty-five years.
We will never know what happened to Svevo in those years to lead him out of realism and into modernism. Perhaps it was just age and self-acceptance, or perhaps it was the war. But one thing that we know made a difference—not as a cause but as a trigger—was Freud. During his idle war years, Svevo became interested in the sage of Vienna; he even made a stab at translating him. Some critics believe that "La Coscienza di Zeno" is a Freudian book—that to Svevo, as to a psychoanalyst, the hero, Zeno, is "sick," his reasoning is self-delusion, and if he would just confront the true causes of his behavior he would be cured. It is hard to understand how anyone coming up against the desperate comedy and muted tragedy of "Zeno" could imagine that any of this had "causes," or could be cured. It doesn't look like an illness; it looks like life, and art. According to Furbank, Svevo thought psychoanalysis was worthless as a treatment. (His crazy brother-in-law Bruno was analyzed by Freud and came back two years later crazier than ever.) What interested him in Freud was the theory of defense mechanisms: rationalization, displacement, the whole arsenal of self-justification. This is what he himself had been analyzing for years, in "Una Vita" and "Senilità," and in his own life.
More than confirming his ideas, Freud suggested to Svevo a new kind of novelistic structure. Before, Svevo had given us his heroes' mental processes in standard third-person narrative. Emilio felt this, Emilio felt that, sometimes at tedious length. But what if, instead of observing the modern mind from the outside—its immersion in thought, its paralysis of will, its tangled motives, its confusion of time planes—what if the novelist were to record this from the inside, let the hero tell his own story, in a way that reflected as faithfully as possible the movements of his psyche? In other words, what if the novel, instead of describing a cat's cradle, became a cat's cradle? And so, jumping the gun on "Portnoy's Complaint" by almost fifty years, Svevo made "La Coscienza di Zeno" the hero's confessions to his psychoanalyst.
The book opens with a preface by the psychoanalyst, Dr. S., who informs us that the following material is a testimonial by his patient Zeno Cosini. Zeno, whose father believed him incompetent to manage his inheritance and therefore put an accountant in charge, is a man with little to do. He entered psychoanalysis to find out why that little was being done so badly. Dr. S. got him to write up his memories, but then, just as the doctor was about to dig in to this delicious material—so full of truths and lies, he says—Zeno suspended treatment. Dr. S. is publishing the manuscript in revenge.
There follows the manuscript, Zeno's account of crucial episodes in his life: his efforts to stop smoking; the death of his father; his love for a beautiful girl named Ada Malfenti and his marriage to her homely sister Augusta; his affair with a singer named Carla; and his business partnership with Guido Speier, the man who won Ada. All this happens in five chapters. Then comes the final chapter, again written by Zeno, but a year later, after the beginning of the First World War. In it, he announces that everything he wrote for Dr. S. was a tissue of lies. He is no longer neurotic; he has been cured, by the war. He needs to get the manuscript back and rewrite it, this time accurately.
And so the modernist novel was born in Italy. Chronological time is gone. As in Joyce and Proust, the past is folded into the present. Also gone, as in the work of Svevo's colleagues, is truth. If we want Zeno's real story, we can choose among the conflicting accounts of three witnesses: Dr. S., the earlier Zeno, and the later Zeno. Even within the individual narratives, every story casts doubt on itself. Zeno's confession begins with a comedy, the story of his going to a sanatorium in order to stop smoking. But, without ever ceasing to be comic, the tale gently tips over into pathos. A nurse, Giovanna, assigned to supervise Zeno's detoxification, ends up giving him a handful of cigarettes because she is old and lonely and the wily Zeno has convinced her that when he is primed with nicotine no woman is safe in his presence. He smokes them all and then escapes from the sanatorium.
In the next chapter, "My Father's Death," the logic is the opposite. The story is scathing—Zeno's account of how insensitive he was to his dying father—but it is also very funny, and it has a real tragic grandeur. At one point, the father, unable to get comfortable in bed, moves to an armchair and gazes out the window at the starry sky:
I tried to identify the exact point of the sky at which he was staring. He looked up, his trunk erect, with the effort of someone peering through an aperture too high for him. It seemed to me he was looking at the Pleiades. Perhaps in his whole life he had never looked so long at something so far off. Suddenly he turned to me and, still erect, he said: "Look! Look!" with an air of severe admonition. He went back immediately to staring at the sky, then he faced me once more: "You see? You see?"
The father is trying, before he dies, to pass on to his feckless son some important truth that he has discovered. But the very discovery, as Zeno points out, was "the first symptom of a cerebral hemorrhage." The father has found the meaning of life, and it is death.
Svevo took his psychoanalytic model seriously. Often we see the defenses working quite openly, yet they operate with a truth that is not just psychological but literary. When Zeno falls in love with Ada Malfenti, he never notices that she is utterly wrong for him. He is a nut; she is a serious girl. She can't stand him. Finally, one night, he proposes to her:
I have forgotten the many scornful words she addressed to me, but not her beautiful, noble, and healthy face flushed with outrage, its lines made sharper as if chiseled by her indignation. This I never afterwards forgot, and when I think of my love and my youth, I see again the beautiful and noble and healthy face of Ada at the moment when she dismissed me definitively from her destiny.
A psychoanalytic mechanism, repression, has become a literary mechanism, omission, and Ada's words, however deleted, are burned on our brains.
Elsewhere, the situation is more mixed, unsettlingly so. Once Zeno is happily married, Augusta, who knew of his love for Ada, has a moment's vestigial jealousy, and imagines that Zeno is still pining for her sister. By this time, Ada is ill with goiter—her beauty is destroyed—and Zeno, thinking to reassure Augusta, cruelly puffs out his cheeks and bugs out his eyes in imitation of Ada's ruined face. Augusta laughs and is immediately ashamed, but that is nothing compared with what takes place in Zeno's mind. Painfully, even as he is mocking Ada's face, he feels as though he were kissing her. Later, he says, "When I was alone, I repeated that effort several times, with desire and repulsion." Nothing like this, nothing so psychologically exact and so morally confounding, had ever been recorded in the Italian novel—indeed, in the European novel.
With Svevo's shift from realism to modernism came an enormous gain in charity. In "Una Vita" and "Senilità" the mistress is a bitch; the death in the family is a nightmare; the hero can barely endure his self-contempt. In "Zeno" the mistress, Carla, is a sweet girl, with shining braids; the father's death is leavened with comedy; and the hero's shame is seen with a wise eye. Before Zeno beds Carla, he has a dream about her, in which he is kissing her white neck, then eating it. But her neck never bleeds; it remains whole. Furthermore, Augusta is there, and Zeno says to her, "I won't eat it all; I'll leave a piece for you, too." This is a psychological truth, a negotiation between desire and guilt, but it is also a moral truth. Everyone gets a bite; no one is hurt. Augusta never finds out about the affair, and it is Carla who eventually breaks it off. She dumps Zeno and marries her singing teacher.
In his later years, the years surrounding "Zeno," Svevo had a few things to say about Mother Nature. She was not on our side, he claimed, but neither was she against us. She just had a lot on her mind, and we reaped the benefits of her inattention. "Mother Nature," he wrote, "created sexual pleasure to guarantee reproduction. If, having obtained that, she allows the capacity for pleasure to go on existing, she does so only out of absentmindedness, just as certain insects go on wearing their mating colors after the mating season is over. Running a business of that size, you can't attend to every detail." And so it is in "Zeno." Zeno loses Ada but gets a better woman, Augusta. He is defeated by Guido, but then he has the satisfaction—and the pain, he protests, the pain!—of seeing Guido defeat himself, indeed commit suicide, by accident. Guido takes Veronal, but he meant to be rescued. He was only trying to pressure Ada into investing some money in his business. But the doctor arrives too late. Zeno, standing over Guido's corpse, sees on his face "a great stupefaction at being dead without having wanted to be"—a perfect Svevianism.
But there are perfect Svevianisms on every page of Svevo. Why does Carla drop Zeno? Well, Carla asks to see his wife, and he agrees, but at the last minute, for some reason—ask Dr. S.—he arranges for Carla, waiting on a street corner, to see Ada rather than Augusta. Unfortunately, as Zeno does not realize, Ada knows her husband is having an affair, and she is heartbroken—a fact that the good-hearted Carla understands instantly. If Zeno had allowed Carla to see Augusta—happy, dumpy, unaware of her husband's derelictions—everything would have been O.K. But no, Carla sees Ada, and believes herself to be the cause of that poor woman's grief, and tells Zeno to go back to her. Zeno cannot bring himself to confess his ruse, so that's the end of his relationship with Carla of the shining braids. This is something that could have been imagined only by Svevo. He is a thorny item, a one-masterpiece master, but a master nevertheless.
London Review of Books From Volume 24 Number 01 | cover date 3 January 2002
Zeno's Conscience by Italo Svevo. ed. William Weaver | Everyman, 437pp., £12.99, 29 November 2001
Memoir of Italo Svevo by Livia Veneziani Svevo. ed. Isabel Quigly | Northwestern, 178pp., US $15.95,
Emilio's Carnival by Italo Svevo. ed. Beth Archer Brombert | Yale, 233pp., £22.5,
Here is a characteristic piece of comedy from the Book of Scottish Anecdote (seventh edition, 1888). A gentleman upbraids his servant: is it true, he asks him, that you have had the audacity to spread around the idea that your master is stingy? No, no, replies the servant, you won't find me doing that kind of thing: 'I aye keep my thoughts to mysel'.'
Comic contradiction tends to reproduce itself at several levels of possibility at once, and that is the case here. First, the servant, thinking that he is absolving himself of the crime of talking disrespectfully about his master, fails to realise that he is simultaneously convicting himself of the crime of thinking disrespectfully about his master. And second, by replying thus to his master, he is not keeping his thoughts to himself but unwittingly sharing them.
Misunderstandings between people are funny because they suggest the great vanity of the self. In that Scottish anecdote, two sealed egoisms talk past each other: the master, thinking of himself, asks the servant if he has been tarnishing his reputation; the servant, also thinking of himself, replies with information about his own mental processes. If this is part of the reason the anecdote raises a smile, comedy would seem to be functioning here at its moral, corrective level, scuffing the shine on vanity and entrapping the diabolical self. This is the rather severe, Bergsonian idea of comedy as cleanser.
But comedy forgives, too. If the spectacle of the vanity of the self makes us laugh, it makes us cry by the same token, because we are saddened by the great illusions of freedom that the self hoards. The Scottish anecdote is too small to generate pathos, but it holds in potential the comic-pathetic idea of a man condemning himself while he thinks he is freeing himself. Don Quixote may be the grandest treatment of the comic illusion of freedom; Part One of Cervantes's novel ends with Quixote beautifully defending the mission of knight-errancy: 'I can say that ever since I became a knight-errant I have been courageous, polite, generous, well-bred, magnanimous, courteous, gentle, patient and long-suffering.' This is not a wholly outrageous self-characterisation. The pain of the passage is that in order to have been some of these things (and he has hardly been gentle), Don Quixote has not been himself: he has been mad. Imagining himself free, he is literally and figuratively imprisoned: as he declaims his virtues, he is being taken, for his own protection, in a caged cart back to his village by a kindly priest and barber.
The great modern novel of the comic-pathetic illusion of freedom is Confessions of Zeno (to give it its familiar English title), which first appeared in 1923. Italo Svevo's novel belongs recognisably to the comic tradition of Don Quixote and The Good Soldier Svejk, a comedy defined by Schopenhauer (a great influence on Svevo) as residing in the incongruity between our concepts and objective reality. Both Quixote and Zeno are fantasists, the former antique, religious and chivalric, the latter modern, secular and bourgeois. Quixote wants to serve the world, to set it to rights, and fails in the task; Zeno wants only to serve himself, and largely succeeds, though not by trying. Quixote wills, and fails magnificently; Zeno waits, and succeeds farcically.
Confessions of Zeno moves between moral correction and tragic pathos, between the bracing spectacle of vanity and the sad prospect of an imprisoned self acting as if it were free. This prospect is made more acute by the way Svevo writes his novel: it is told in the first person, by Zeno Cosini, a Trieste businessman now in his late fifties, who has been asked by his psychoanalyst to write an account of his early life. Zeno is a hypochondriacal, neurotic, delightful, solipsistic, self-examining and self-serving bourgeois, a true blossom of the mal du siècle. The novel we are reading is supposed to constitute his memories. The middle-aged Zeno recalls his student days; his lamentable and very funny attempts to give up smoking (which he considers the key to his insomnia, his fevers, his muscle pains); his father's death (in which the old man raises his hand and collapses at the very same moment, thus accidentally striking Zeno on the cheek as he dies); his farcical attempt to marry one of the many Malfenti sisters (naturally he marries the one he at first found ugliest); and his adventures in business (Zeno is a terrible businessman who accidentally does very well).
Zeno's narration is as fantastic as his mind, and he is therefore a highly unreliable narrator, just as Quixote would be were he telling his own tale. In most novels, unreliable narrators tend to become a little predictable, because they have to be reliably unreliable. Their unreliability is manipulated by the author: indeed, without the writer's reliability we would not be able to 'read' the narrator's unreliability. It is true that, after a few pages, we learn to discount Zeno's claims for himself; we learn to believe almost the opposite of what he tells us. This offers us, in part, the comic prospect of the patient 'resisting' our diagnosis: we, the readers, become Zeno's analysts. So the more Zeno tells us he is strong, the more weak he seems. The more he tells us that he will give up smoking, or his mistress, the less likely we are to trust him. The more he fixates on an organic cause for his many illnesses, the more we take him to be an obvious example of a malade imaginaire.
Unreliable narration is almost entrepreneurially efficient: once the novelist has set up his stall, he can franchise out his technique in chapter after chapter. When Zeno tells us that he has mixed feelings about his aged colleague Olivi, he says: 'He has always worked for me, and he still does; but I don't really like him, for I always think he has prevented my doing the work he does himself.' Though the novel is only 17 pages old, we are fairly sure this is untrue, that Zeno could never competently do the work he blames Olivi for denying him. Again we know what to expect - or, rather, what not to expect - when Zeno tells us about his courtship of his wife-to-be, and the insane manner in which he goes about asking three of the four Malfenti sisters, Ada, Alberta and Augusta to marry him. The first sister he meets, Augusta, he finds ugly: unlike Zeno, we know in advance that this is the woman he will eventually marry, because we have divined the comic principle of Zeno's life, whereby the outcome is almost always the opposite of the ambition.
But Zeno would be easy to read were he merely reliably unreliable: he would be a hypocrite and a fool. (He is a hypocrite, but only fitfully.) Svevo wonderfully modifies the technique of unreliable narration, in two ways, and it is this that deepens the novel's comedy. First, Zeno is really trying to be truthful about himself, and sometimes he succeeds. He does see his memoirs as confessions of a kind. His description of the chaos of his courtship contains this accurate self-observation: 'For all my efforts I achieved the result of that marksman who hit the bullseye, but of the target next to his.' He tells us, in this passage, of the way he tries to woo Ada, whom he selects for her beauty and her seriousness. 'So I set out to win Ada and I continued my efforts to make her laugh at me, at my expense, forgetting that I had chosen her because of her seriousness. I am a bit eccentric, but to her I must have seemed downright unbalanced.'
Second, Zeno imagines that by writing his memoirs he has been detachedly analysing, and thereby curing, himself. One of the great jokes of Svevo's novel is that Zeno thinks he is psychoanalysing himself while busily resisting formal psychoanalysis. It is as if Augustine had written his confessions while palpably not believing in Christ. Near the end of the book, Zeno's analyst, who has supposedly read the pages we have just read, tells him that he has suffered from the Oedipus complex. Not true, Zeno says: he respected his mother and loved his father. Besides, 'the surest proof that I never had the disease is that I've not been cured of it.' This absurd defence is consistent with the novel's mode of comedy, which is rigorously founded on the idea of logical contradiction and inversion: the idea that life is a disease cured only by death (and certainly not by psychoanalysis); the idea that Zeno can only give up smoking (temporarily) while not thinking of giving up smoking. Or, most movingly and funnily, the idea of going to one's doctor to get a certificate of mental health. When his father tells him that he thinks his son is mad, Zeno triumphantly informs him that, on the contrary, he has a certificate from the doctor attesting to his sanity. To which Zeno's father replies, in a sad voice and with tears in his eyes: 'Ah, then you really are mad!'
So Zeno's unreliable narration is not like, say, Humbert Humbert's. Humbert proposes his self-justification, Zeno his self-comprehension. Most unreliable narrators imagine themselves to be right when they are actually wrong. But very few imagine themselves, as Zeno does, to be analysing their wrongness from a position that they imagine to be right but which is actually wrong. Svevo bends confession back on itself and makes his readers sleuths after equity, hungry for a moral and psychic justice which is just out of reach.
The entire novel must be read in the light of the comic paradox whereby Zeno thinks he is analysing himself while at the same time being certain that psychoanalysis lacks the means to analyse him. And given this paradox, what are his confessions for? Why has he written them? It begins to seem that they have been written as Zeno's description of his own imagined freedom. Yet we, the readers, can see that the man who wrote them is still imprisoned. Zeno thinks that if he confesses to once harbouring a murderous impulse towards his brother-in-law, then he has absolved himself of the charge that he truly hates his brother-in-law. But we can see that he hated him right from the beginning, and hates him still. Similarly, everyone has always found Zeno's struggles to give up smoking funny - brilliantly funny. He confesses that as a young man he spent his days endlessly making resolutions to give it up; as a student he had to change his lodgings and have the walls of his room repapered at his own expense because he had covered them with the dates of his 'last cigarettes'. Last cigarettes have a taste all of their own, he says. 'The others have their importance because, in lighting them, you are proclaiming your freedom, while the future of strength and health remains, only moving off a bit.' But what is pathetic is not just that Zeno, as we suspect, will never give up smoking, but his earnest belief that giving up would do anything for his mental well-being, and have anything at all to do with 'freedom'. Zeno continually assumes that he can control the terms of his freedom - which we can see are merely the terms of his imprisonment.
The man who wrote this marvellous and original book was born Ettore Schmitz, in Trieste, in 1861. His pseudonym, Italo Svevo, or Italus the Swabian, was adopted as a way of acknowledging his mixed heritage: Italian by language (Trieste dialect was spoken at home), Austrian by citizenship (Trieste was a city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and German (in fact, German-Jewish) by ancestry. The family was large and prosperous: there were 16 children, of whom eight survived. Whenever a new child was born, his businessman father, Francesco Schmitz, would exclaim: 'Today my capital has been increased by a million!' But Francesco's capital was soon indeed figurative: he suffered a massive loss in 1880, and in that same year, the dreamy and artistically ambitious Ettore was forced, for the family's sake, to take a job in the correspondence department of the Trieste branch of the Union Bank of Vienna. He stayed there for 18 years, until he was rescued by his wife's family firm, manufacturers of an anti-corrosive marine paint.
In her delightful memoir of their life together, Svevo's wife, Livia Veneziani Svevo, recalls a man who sounds not unlike Zeno Cosini. Svevo was large-headed, deep-browed (he went bald early), dark, with kind, extruding eyes. He was charming, insomniac and neurotic, prey to psychosomatic twinges and spasms. During their courtship, Livia says, Svevo anxiously warned her: 'Remember that a single ill-chosen word would be the end of everything.' Like Zeno, he was an incessant smoker, and spent his days in a cloud of 'last cigarettes' and collapsing resolutions. Numerologically superstitious, he often decided to smoke his last cigarette at seven minutes past four, the time at which his mother had died. 'Perhaps by smoking,' Livia writes, 'he tried to quieten the "frogs", which was what he called the insistent doubts that tormented him.' Zeno is teased for his absent-mindedness by his competitor and future brother-in-law, Guido Speier; by his wife's account, Svevo was astoundingly absent-minded, quite capable of putting on two sets of cufflinks and not noticing until the strange weight at his wrists alerted him. She tells a story in which her husband left the house with 150 lire to buy something needed at the Veneziani factory, and returned hours later without the object, but with a box of sweets and 160 lire in his wallet.
Svevo's temperament has affinities with Chekhov's: a gentle voyeurism which perhaps masked an intense sensitivity to human and animal suffering; an unwillingness to act or think like an 'intellectual', combined with an aversion to the high-flown, the poetic ('Why so many words for such few ideas?' Svevo said of poetry); a hostility to religion; and an eye for the subtly comic. He was devoted to Witze, witty paradoxes and contradictions. When Joyce told him reprovingly that he never used coarse language but only wrote it, Svevo commented: 'It would appear then that his works are not ones that could be read in his own presence.' Confessions of Zeno is full of such Witze, large and small: Zeno's mistress is pursuing a singing career despite her terrible voice; Zeno lectures Guido on playing the violin despite his own thin talents; there is the concept of the last cigarette and the certificate of sanity. The Witz can be found even in something as small as Zeno's description of his baldness (one of my favourite details): 'a great part of my own head had been usurped by my forehead.' The most celebrated Witz occurred as Svevo lay on his deathbed. Seeing his nephew smoking, he feebly asked for a cigarette, was refused, and then murmured: 'Now that really would have been the last cigarette.'
Svevo's hostility to the perceived lack of ideas in poetry is significant, because he is one of the most thoroughly philosophical of modern novelists. He could recite many passages of Schopenhauer from memory. Clearly, the idea, central to Confessions of Zeno, of life as a sickness, is indebted to Schopenhauer (to whom Freud in turn admitted his debts); but Svevo, I suspect, was also enthralled by the jaunty paradoxical wit of Schopenhauer, who, for example, writes in The World as Will and Representation that walking is just a constantly prevented falling, just as the life of our body is a constantly prevented dying. Schopenhauer, who kept poodles, liked to say that he abused his dog with the epithet 'man' only when it was especially badly behaved; Svevo, who loved cats and dogs, wrote animal fables all his life. The gist of them was that animals can never fathom the mysterious wickedness of humans.
Svevo's first two novels, Una Vita and Senilità , are much more conventional than Confessions of Zeno (which was written 25 years after Senilità ). Obviously 'naturalistic' where Zeno is obviously Modernist, they both concern men who get involved in unsuitable relationships with women. These heroes, Alfonso Nitti in Una Vita and Emilio Brentano in Senilità , are ruined by their relationships in ways they do not really understand. A self-deluding capacity to dignify the helpless drift of their lives by thinking of themselves as purposeful and free is something they share with Frédéric Moreau, the hero of L'Education sentimentale. But Frédéric, who is essentially unintrospective, is somewhat empty; he is waiting to be filled by romance and history, and indeed by the romance of history. By contrast, Alfonso and Emilio fill themselves only with neurotic introspection. Like Zeno, they are obsessive self-brokers, continually doing smoky deals with their consciences that allow them to think they have done good when they have really done harm. Like Zeno, they have a nasty tendency to feel calm at precisely the moment they ought to be feeling concerned.
In Svevo's first two novels, this tendency is not obviously comic; in Zeno it is as comic as it is pathetic. Near the end of Senilità , Emilio has to watch his sister die. He is largely oblivious to the fact that he has caused her decline, and even excuses himself from her deathbed to have a final meeting with his mistress at the quayside. At the water's edge, it is stormy, but 'it seemed to Emilio that this turmoil reflected his own. This gave him an even greater sense of calm.' He watches the fishermen, and reflects
that the inertia of his destiny was the cause of his misfortune. If, just once in his life, it had been his duty to untie or retie a rope; if the fate of a fishing boat, however small, had been entrusted to him, to his care, his energy; if he had been obliged to prevail over the howling of the wind and the sea with his own voice, he should be less weak, less unhappy.
Emilio's strategy, of weakly wishing that destiny had made him strong, is typical of the senilità , the early senility or moral feebleness, that binds all Svevo's heroes together. In an introduction to Beth Archer Brombert's splendid and lucid new translation of Senilità (now given Svevo's first title, Emilio's Carnival), her husband, Victor Brombert, defines that imprisonment as 'a special sensibility (some people are indeed born old); or better still, a special kind of inertia, the inertia of the dreamer, a modern version of acedia, or ironic ennui'.
Una Vita was published in 1892, and wanly noticed; Senilità , published in 1898, sank into oblivion. Trieste, a mixed and marginal city, was not considered by the Italian literary world a likely mother of literary greatness; and Svevo's Italian, a curious, prosaic, sometimes clumsy businessman's language, was faulted where it was noticed at all. Trieste did not consider itself an artistic place either, and Svevo, who was thought of by most locals as an industrialist rather than a writer, reckoned that he gave away most of the copies of Senilità (which, like all his books, he published at his own expense). Deeply hurt by this reception, by the impounding of his deepest ambitions, Svevo essentially garaged his writing for twenty years.
'Write one must; what one needn't do is publish,' he was fond of saying. By 1902, he was writing that 'the ridiculous, damnable thing called literature has now been quite definitely cut out of my life.' He took up the violin (never playing very well, though possibly better than Zeno), and said that it 'saved him from literature'. Over these years, he assumed greater responsibility at the Veneziani firm, overseeing the building of a factory in South-East London, in Charlton. From 1903 until the outbreak of war, Svevo spent a month or two every year in a rented house in Charlton - one of those comic dissymmetries worthy of Schopenhauer in Wimbledon and Kropotkin in Brighton. Typically, he made no attempt to befriend writers or intellectuals in London - and besides, his English was poor - preferring the inky, subaltern routines of 'mournful/Ever weeping' Charlton: the Sunday papers, library books, bottled beer and a place in a local string quartet.
It was Svevo's poor English which brought him his friendship with Joyce, who had arrived in Trieste in 1904 as an English teacher for the Berlitz school. Joyce was working as a private tutor when Svevo contacted him in 1907. Joyce, who spoke Triestine dialect at home, was an unorthodox teacher of English; he once asked Svevo, as an English exercise, to write a review of the first chapters of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Svevo was initially secretive about his two ignored novels, but eventually admitted to having been a writer himself, and gave his teacher his books. Joyce, in a famous tale, returned from his reading of Senilità proclaiming Svevo a fine novelist, the equal in places of Anatole France, and claiming that he could recite by heart the novel's last pages.
Svevo and Joyce kept only a flickering friendship alive after Joyce's departure from Trieste at the outbreak of war. But Svevo would call on that friendship in 1923, after Confessions of Zeno had been published to the now familiar roaring silence. He wrote to Joyce, asking if he might be able to do something on Zeno's behalf. Joyce suggested, in France, Valéry Larbaud and Benjamin Crémieux, men of letters with an interest in Italian writing. Svevo duly sent copies to them, and Joyce busied himself at the kind of high cultural bustle that he was now very good at. Thanks to Joyce, it was French literary culture that first took Svevo's greatest novel seriously ('Italy's Proust' was the warming if largely inaccurate refrain), followed by a blushing Italian literary establishment. Beryl de Zoete's translation into English appeared in 1930, and has, rather mysteriously, been the only standard version until now, as the American translator William Weaver arrives with an excellent new rendering.
Weaver's is not merely a modern repointing of De Zoete, but a fresh imagining, which differs in important respects from its predecessor, and in almost every one improvedly (though I prefer De Zoete's English 'mad', which occurs a fair amount in the novel, to the American 'crazy'). The most obvious change appears in the new title, Zeno's Conscience, where Weaver returns some of the meaning of the Italian La coscienza di Zeno, which can mean both 'Zeno's consciousness' and his 'conscience'. In a lively introduction, Weaver says that the old compromise word, 'confessions', not only confusingly flutters the laurels of Augustine and Rousseau, but has an inappropriately Catholic resonance.
On rereading Svevo's novel, I am not sure, however, that a religious resonance should be avoided. Because Svevo is well known to have disliked organised religion, and because his novel is framed by the procedures of psychoanalysis, Confessions of Zeno is generally read only in a secular light: here is the great comic document of modern stasis and neurotic introspection. Yet Svevo's anti-religiousness, like that of Schopenhauer and Hamsun, is marked by what it has rejected. One might go further and dare the thought that Svevo's vision is fundamentally religious. He represents, in a way, the logical fusion of Augustine's religiously pessimistic view of life - 'we must conclude that the whole human race is being punished,' Augustine writes - and Schopenhauer's atheistically pessimistic view of life. Svevo's wife repeatedly describes him as a melancholy man, sensitive to life's brevity and pain. He saw quite a lot of it: his brother Elio died in 1886, at the age of 23, from nephritis; his sister Noemi died in childbirth; another sister Ortensia died of peritonitis; yet another sister Natalia gave birth to two deaf children; and in 1918, just before he started writing Zeno, Alfonso, his brother-in-law, died of heart disease. All these many misfortunes, Livia writes, 'had helped to make Ettore pessimistic, almost resigned to the harshest blows of fate. He always expected the worst, and was prepared to meet suffering at any moment, almost as if in the deepest part of his being he had foreseen the appalling suffering the Second World War was to bring his beloved daughter.' (Svevo's daughter lost all three sons during the war; his house was destroyed by a bomb.)
At one point in the novel, Zeno tries to impress Ada by letting her know how much he has grieved over his father's death. He goes on to suggest that if he had children he would try to make them love him less, so as to spare them suffering at his passing. Alberta says: 'The surest method would be to kill them' - an excellent Svevian Witz. Ada then says that she thinks it wrong to spend one's life only in preparation for death, to which Zeno forcefully replies: 'I held my ground and asserted that death was the true organiser of life. I thought always of death, and therefore I had only one sorrow: the certainty of having to die.'
Living only in preparation for death: but not wanting to die. What is this but an essentially religious vision, without the consolation of religion? Again and again, Svevo returns us first of all to the pure death-diligence of the ancients (and Zeno's name alone should do that), and then to the great medieval and Renaissance philosophers and writers. His novel reverberates with a grave religious wit, not unlike that of Sir Thomas Browne, who wrote that 'the long habit of living indisposeth us for dying,' and very close to the 17th-century divine Jeremy Taylor, who tells us in Holy Living that balding is merely man's early preparation for death. Svevo would have loved that.
When Joyce returned to Trieste from Zurich in 1919, Svevo asked him about his experience of psychoanalysis. Joyce apparently replied: 'Psychoanalysis? Well if we need it, let us stick to confession.' John Gatt-Rutter, whose biography of Svevo came out in 1988, tells us that Svevo was dumbfounded by Joyce's response. But perhaps he was stimulated by it, for the novel he would go on to write expresses a rather similar sentiment. Renato Poggioli once wrote that in Zeno Svevo psychoanalyses psychoanalysis itself. But one might equally say that he forces it to confess itself. The idea of life as a disease, after all, is the logical conclusion of psychoanalysis's famous difficulty with how and when to end a patient's treatment; if the patient's sessions have to continue for years and years, for as long as life itself, then life is indeed a long sickness. This might be seen as the unwanted religious or metaphysical implication of psychoanalysis's resistance to religion, its determination to be a therapy rather than a faith. In that sense, Zeno does not merely psychoanalyse psychoanalysis, but sees it as another religion, and hence merely a modern fraudulence.
Repeatedly, Zeno finds himself exaggerating and parodying religious attitudes. He craves and defiles innocence, a word that recurs throughout the book. He briefly manages to stop smoking for several hours, but 'my mouth was cleansed and I felt an innocent taste such as a newborn infant must know, and a desire for a cigarette came over me.' He longs to tell his father, who has just died, that he is 'innocent', that it wasn't he who killed him. One night he feels 'innocent' because he comes home earlier than normal from his mistress to his wife: 'I felt very innocent in not having been unfaithful to the extent of staying away from home all night.' He parodies the process of confession and expiation: he confesses to his wife that he has not been feeling love for his baby daughter, and then 'fell asleep again with a quiet conscience . . . in fact I was now completely free.'
Read in this light, Confessions of Zeno is a darker book than it has sometimes seemed. P.N. Furbank, who wrote so intelligently about Svevo in Italo Svevo: The Man and the Writer (1966), suggests that Joyce and Svevo 'not only celebrated the bourgeois as hero, they cheerfully identified themselves with him'. But Svevo, a writer in a businessman's suit for so many years, was in some ways not a cheerful bourgeois, and Zeno enacts a hypocritical parody of the bourgeois life, of which the hypocrisy of religious ailments and cleansings is one aspect. Zeno's clearest fictional allies are the heroes of Knut Hamsun, who deliberately pervert religious categories of sin and punishment, in an attempt to seize a control they can never possess. Hamsun is the wilder writer, for his demented characters invent the sins for which they feel they need to be punished; they invent their corruption. Zeno's sins are real enough: it is his innocence that he invents, his innocence that is his fond fantasy. Hamsun, the atheist former Lutheran, is obsessed with sin; Svevo, the atheist Jew who converted to nominal Catholicism only in order to marry his wife, is consumed by confession.
Svevo had four brief years of fame as the great new Italian novelist, the creator of Zeno Cosini. He called this time 'the miracle of Lazarus'. He died in 1928, after a car accident. On his deathbed, he was asked if he wanted to pray. 'When you haven't prayed all your life, there's no point at the last minute.' Gloriously and impressively, at the last moment of his life, Italo Svevo was not like Zeno Cosini at all.
James Wood's The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief is out in paperback. He is a senior editor at the New Republic.
WEDNESDAY JANUARY 23 2002
A gentle rollercoaster of Zeno Cosini's good intentions and relapses
Trans. William Weaver
Everyman, £10.99; 437 pp
ISBN 1 857 15249 2
All artists need luck. In 1907, Ettore Schmitz went in search of an English teacher and found James Joyce. The 45-year-old Triestine had published two novels, Una Vita and Senilità under the pseudonym Italo Svevo, but at his own expense and with little success. Joyce was searching for a publisher for Dubliners and working on A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Joyce’s lessons proved idiosyncratic. The youthful teacher explicated lines from Shakespeare’s sonnets in terms of Triestine politics. His older pupil challenged the Irishman to find a page of D’Annunzio’s poetry without at least one perfectly meaningless sentence. A friendship took root.
Both writers were struggling, but in different ways. Convinced of his genius, Joyce needed to keep the wolf from the door until the world’s opinion caught up with him. Svevo had already put his work before Trieste’s (and Italy’s) literary community and had been rewarded with indifference. He was a small-scale but successful industrialist (the family business was the manufacture of submarine paint) happily and sometimes jealously married to a younger wife. Lassitude, not poverty, was Svevo’s enemy. Joyce read him, encouraged him, borrowed money from him and (perhaps most enabling of all) left town for Zürich with the outbreak of the First World War.
La coscienza di Zeno was begun in 1919, the greater part being written in the summer of 1922. Zeno Cosini is the reluctant narrator of his conscience’s progress, compelled to write on doctor’s orders: “Write it down! And you’ll see yourself whole! Try it!” The inflated claims of psychoanalysis are regularly and resoundingly burst in the tale that follows, a gentle rollercoaster of good intentions and relapses.
“Last cigarette!” is his rallying cry and serially broken promise. He can no more give up his smokes than his mistress, Carla, or his longings for his sister-in- law, Ada. Zeno marches the line of least resistance to his cravings, fighting an unheroic but effective rearguard action against the mores of his world.
That world’s locales are family suppers, death-bed vigils, promenades and assignations, the topoi of late-19th-century art and life. Its sections bear titles such as “The Story of my Marriage”, “Wife and Mistress” or “The Story of a Business Partnership”. The haplessly self-aware Zeno tumbles from one event or relationship to the next, unsuited to partake in their rituals. He is an unbeliever, even in himself; a Modernist sensibility in a world yet to recognise its modernity.
Musil’s Ulrich, another semi-detached subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, would be the closest comparison. Like Musil too, Svevo writes of a vanished world from the other side of the Great War’s divide. The pervasive irony in this novel (one almost devoid of overt ironic gestures) is that Zeno, so ineffectual in this prewar world, is the homme moyen sensuel of its future. But nobody knows that. Not even Zeno.
To read Svevo’s novel today is to overlay that historical irony with another. The Modernist project was to last no longer than the Trieste which Svevo depicts so meticulously, only to foreshadow its disappearance. Its literary monuments have regained a pristine strangeness, Svevo’s novel among them. William Weaver’s translation sets out to restore the roughnesses of the original Italian (Svevo’s third language). He changes the title from Beryl de Zoete’s “inspired but misleading” Confessions of Zeno to Zeno’s Conscience and supplies an illuminating introduction. On first publication in 1923, La coscienza di Zeno seemed to suffer the fate of Svevo’s other novels. A few tepid reviews were followed by silence, until the next year, when a letter arrived from Paris. “Thank you for the novel with the inscription. I am reading it with great pleasure . . .” The signatory was James Joyce, whose canny campaign to promote the book in Paris resulted in its author’s long-awaited lionisation.
Svevo’s luck was to achieve literary fame at the age of 57 and enjoy it for a scant four years. In September 1928, he lay dying following a car accident outside Trieste. Almost his last act was to ask for a cigarette, which was refused him. “That really would have been the last cigarette,” was his response.
March 22, 2002, 1:09PM
Crazy days and nights at Zeno's place
By Italo Svevo.
New translation by William Weaver.
Everyman's Library, $20.
ZENO Cosini, the hero and narrator of Italo Svevo's novel Zeno's Conscience, wins our affections by confessing his faults. By his own account he is an unsatisfactory son, an unfaithful husband, an indifferent businessman. He is not above faking a limp or bursting into tears at the right moment to gain sympathy. In short, he's a perfect candidate for psychoanalysis.
Accordingly, Zeno visits the Freudian analyst Dr. S. and records the memories that make up this novel of pre-World War I life in Trieste.
Yet Zeno soon becomes as bored with his therapeutic regime as he had been with his work and marriage, and breaks off analysis just when Dr. S. feels they are making progress. In revenge, Dr. S. publishes Zeno's written confessions, offering to split the proceeds if Zeno will return to treatment.
This is the premise of Italo Svevo's newly retranslated 1923 novel Zeno's Conscience (previously The Confessions of Zeno), which stands as one of the finest Italian novels of the 20th century and which deserves to be read alongside James Joyce or Marcel Proust for its skillful treatment of love and the intricate, sometimes perverse working of the unconscious.
Zeno, ironically named after the Greek founder of Stoic philosophy, may not be much of a hero, but as an observer of his own and others' psychic lives he is sharp and unsparing.
He is also hilarious, a libertine moralist in the manner of La Rochefoucauld or Nietzsche, though soft-spoken and elegiac where they might have been brutal. Here he is describing Ada, a woman he once loved, years after her marriage to someone else: "I was truly fond of Ada at the moment, and it is a very strange thing to feel fondness for a woman one once has ardently desired, did not possess, and who now matters not at all. ... [Y]ou arrive at the same state you would be in if she had succumbed to your desires, and it is surprising to realize once again how certain things for which we live have really scant importance."
Like its hero, Svevo's book takes a leisurely approach to its business, organizing its narration around the events that have formed Zeno's rather bizarre character. As with any psychoanalytic exploration, the most trivial topics can open out into surprisingly grave meditations.
The novel begins with Zeno's lifelong attempts to quit smoking; these result in nothing besides a whole series of "last cigarettes," cigarettes smoked to celebrate his resolution never to smoke again. Of course, Zeno is still smoking at the book's conclusion.
The next section discusses his hapless pursuit of the Malfenti daughters, all of whose names begin with A. Zeno falls in love and is rejected by the beautiful and humorless Ada, is refused in turn by the studious Alberta and finally marries the plain Augusta, who had fallen in love with him during his visits to Ada (Anna, at 12, is too young for his proposals). Augusta, however, is a deceptively strong character, and her acceptance of Zeno's eccentricities ensures their marriage's success in spite of Zeno's wanderings.
One of the best segments details Zeno's longtime affair with Carla, an impoverished singer who becomes his mistress. In a characteristically delicate touch, Svevo introduces her as a loud and painfully bad singer, but midway through their affair she abandons the operatic, overtheatrical songs she has been taught by her music masters.
Instead, she turns to the local Triestine story songs that are as much recited as they are sung. This time, the effect is different: "Carla's eyes shone slyly and confessed even more than the words. There was no fear of shattered eardrums, and I went over to her, surprised and enchanted. I sat beside her and she then retold the song directly to me, half-closing her eyes to say, in the lightest and purest tone, that the sixteen-year-old [Carla? Or perhaps the young girl portrayed in the song?] wanted freedom and love."
This scene is remarkable because Svevo captures both the purity of Carla's aspirations and the complexity of the two lovers' motives: We can see in Carla's performance a mixture of submission and pride, and in Zeno's enchantment his realization that the woman he has seduced is, in fact, a genuine artist. She offers him her "confession," which he warmly recalls in his own "confession" years later.
This episode also helps clarify Svevo's relation to the other major modernist writers of his era, particularly Joyce, his one-time tutor in the English language (Joyce spent part of his exile in Trieste and gave English lessons to the local businessmen and their wives, a clientele that included Svevo).
Joyce, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and the other modernist writers of that generation created self-consciously literary monuments, great booming works designed to proclaim their own place at the end of literary history. In the meantime, writers like Svevo abjured such large-scale historical ambitions and tried instead to render a tiny piece of psychic and geographical landscape (Zeno in Trieste through 1916) as effectively as possible.
The result is delightful, a novel that succeeds in vividly portraying both a memorable individual and the time and place that produced him.
David Mazella teaches 18th-century British literature at the University of Houston and has just completed a history of the concept of cynicism.
Das Genie Svevo
Mein Jahrhundertbuch (19): Claudio Magris über Ettore Schmitz, der sich Italo Svevo nannte
Im Stadtgarten von Triest stehen einige Büsten, die illustren Bürgern gewidmet sind. Nicht weit von Joyce, mit Hut und Zwicker, und von Saba findet sich auch Svevo. Doch vor einiger Zeit fehlte dieser Büste ein paar Monate lang der Kopf; nur noch der Zapfen war da, der ihn hätte halten sollen und der aussah wie ein winziger Hals auf einem kopflosen Torso. Natürlich haben die zuständigen Behörden schleunigst dafür gesorgt, dieser kuriosen Verstümmelung abzuhelfen und den Besuchern wie den auf den Parkwegen Fangen spielenden Kindern Italo Svevo, Zierde der Triester und der Weltliteratur, wieder mit Kopf darzubieten. Aber man kann schlechterdings nicht umhin, den Genius des Zufalls zu bewundern, der unter so vielen Möglichkeiten nicht den Kopf irgendeines obskuren Literaten oder edlen Patrioten verschwinden ließ, sondern ausgerechnet den Svevos, des großen ironischen Erzählers, der behauptet hatte, die Abwesenheit sei sein Schicksal.
Der fehlende Kopf scheint sich in die Reihe der vielen Mißverständnisse, Fiaskos und Niederlagen einzufügen, mit denen die Existenz Svevos übersät ist, die Existenz jenes Schriftstellers, der die Fragwürdigkeit und die Leere des Lebens bis auf den Grund erforscht und dabei entdeckt hat, daß die Dinge nicht in Ordnung sind, und der trotzdem so weiterlebte, als wären sie es; der das Chaos enthüllte und so tat, als hätte er es nicht gesehen; der begriff, wie wenig begehrens- und liebenswert das Leben ist, und dennoch lernte - und lehrte -, es intensiv zu begehren und zu lieben.
Diesem Genie, das zu den dunkelsten Wurzeln des Lebens hinabstieg und als ehrenwerter Bürger und liebevoller Familienvater lebte, ist vieles schiefgegangen. Auch Zeno Cosini - sein Hauptwerk, eines der größten Bücher des Jahrhunderts und nicht nur des Jahrhunderts, das, trotz seiner inzwischen weltweiten Geltung, in seiner ganzen dämonischen Größe vielleicht erst noch zu entdecken ist - begegnet am Anfang Ablehnung und Unverständnis, bis hin zu komischen Fehlleistungen. Als wenig später, dank Montale, vor allem aber dank Joyce und den französischen Kritikern, mit einem Schlag der internationale Ruhm ausbricht, genießt Svevo seinen Erfolg mit kindlicher Freude, nimmt ihn aber auch, obwohl er weiß, daß er verdient ist, wie einen Scherz auf, wie eines der vielen bald lustigen, bald traurigen Vaudevilles, in Szene gesetzt von der Sphinx des Lebens.
Der Triester Jude Ettore (Aron Hector) Schmitz hatte das Pseudonym Italo Svevo angenommen, um auf seine doppelte Seele anzuspielen, die auch die zweifache, die vielfache Seele des habsburgischen und mitteleuropäischen Triests war: kosmopolitisch-merkantil und italienisch-irredentistisch, bürgerliche Stadt, karg an Kultur, und meteorologische Station des Unbehagens in der Kultur, Gebärerin einer außergewöhnlichen Literatur, in der sie ihre einzig mögliche, auf andere Weise nicht aufzuspürende Identität finden sollte. Mit der unsterblichen Figur Zenos hatte Svevo eine trügerische und irreführende Gegenfigur seiner selbst geschaffen; als später die, vor allem in Frankreich, begeisterten Kritiker sein Porträt skizzieren, wird er, mit ungläubigem Staunen, versuchen, sein Bild diesem Porträt anzupassen und ihm so ähnlich wie möglich zu werden, wobei er eine Menge Eigenschaften entdeckt, von denen er gar nicht wußte, daß er sie besaß.
Er betrieb die Literatur wie ein geheimes Laster
Als Zeno Cosini 1923 herauskommt, scheinen die beiden ersten Romane Svevos, Ein Leben (1892) und Ein Mann wird älter (1898) - große Gleichnisse der existentiellen Müdigkeit und jener der bürgerlichen Kultur innewohnenden ambivalenten Mischung von Krankheit und Vitalität -, vergessen. Viele Jahre lang hatte Svevo die Literatur wie ein geheimes Laster betrieben, eine Gymnastik, um sich auf das Nichts einzuüben und ihm Schimmer und Bruchstücke von Wahrheit zu entreißen. In Zeno Cosini werden das Unbehagen und die Lebensuntauglichkeit, die die Protagonisten der vorangegangenen Romane untergehen ließen, zum Heilmittel, zu einer Überlebenslist, zu einer Waffe im Kampf des Lebens und der Triebe. Zeno verheddert sich in den Dingen und Leidenschaften, doch genial verwandelt er die Niederlage in eine Abwehr noch größerer Katastrophen.
Svevo hat begriffen, daß für den Menschen von heute die größte Bedrohung nicht darin besteht, nicht geliebt zu werden, sondern darin, nicht zu lieben; nicht im Mangel an Glück, sondern darin, nicht nach dem Glück trachten zu können. In einem kurz vor seinem Tod geschriebenen Fragment stellt sich Svevo einen Mephistopheles vor, perplex angesichts der Menschen, die zwar bereit sind, ihm ihre Seele zu verkaufen, aber nicht wissen, welche Gegengabe sie von ihm erbitten sollen. Indem er sich den Weg zu Adas Liebe versperrt und im Erlangen einer anderen Liebe sein eigenes Scheitern organisiert, schützt sich Zeno vor einer noch größeren Niederlage, nämlich der Entdeckung und Erfahrung, für die Liebe ungeeignet zu sein. Die Untauglichkeit - und jene endgültige Form von Untauglichkeit, wie das Alter sie darstellt - wird zur Ermächtigung, sich vom Leben auszuschließen, wie unausweichlich es auch immer sein mag, zu einer Ermächtigung, die erlaubt, sich aus der Unbarmherzigkeit der Existenz zurückzuziehen und das Spiel daran zu genießen. Wenn das Leben, wie Svevo sagt, eine Krankheit der Materie ist, dann erscheint das Alter als das authentischste Bild dieser Krankheit; es ist eine Korrektur des Lebens - wie das Schreiben, das das Leben nachschreibt, es verwandelt und einstweilen auf Distanz hält.
In der Romanfiktion schreibt Zeno Cosini seine Autobiographie zu therapeutischen Zwecken, für seinen Psychoanalytiker. Im Roman existieren drei imaginäre Manuskripte: Zenos Autobiographie, das Vorwort des Therapeuten - der diese, mit einem eines Analytikers wenig würdigen Lapsus, als Lügen abtut und damit ins Netz geht - und den Kommentar, mit dem Zeno selbst seine Memoiren begleitet. Die therapeutische Autobiographie, die Klarheit und Heilung bringen soll, wirft die Karten durcheinander und verwirrt das Bewußtsein. "Ich erinnere mich an alles, aber ich verstehe nichts", sagt Zeno. Die Psychoanalyse wird ironisiert und löst sich auf wie Rauch; sie findet keine Gründe oder Ursachen, sondern trägt zur Unordnung des Lebens bei, zu seiner Unregelmäßigkeit, die nicht einer, sondern vielen unterschiedlichen Logiken gehorcht, welche einander überlagern und sich gegenseitig widersprechen. Zeno wird geheilt, aber er weiß nicht, wovon; er ist ein "eingebildeter Gesunder".
Indem Zeno sein Leben aufschreibt, ist er nicht mehr der, der es lebt und gelebt hat, sondern der, der es geschrieben hat; er erfindet es neu und verfälscht es unvermeidlich, aber in diesem trügerischen Wirrwarr stößt man auf eine schmerzliche Suche nach Wahrheit, so wie die Geschichte von Adas verfehlter Liebe zu den quälendsten und leidenschaftlichsten Liebesgeschichten gehört. Zeno Cosini ist ein Meisterwerk von unauslotbarer Tiefe, die so gut kaschiert ist, daß sie einem wenig gewitzten Leser entgeht; oft glaubt man, einen ganz leicht konsumierbaren Roman vor sich zu haben, der vom Rauchen der ewigen letzten Zigarette erzählt, von Flirts und von bürgerlichen Familienabenteuern, während sich der Schriftsteller hinter dieser liebenswürdigen Oberfläche in den dunkelsten Mäandern des Unbewußten, des Eros, der Zwiespältigkeiten des Verlangens und der Zuneigungen, des Todes bewegt.
Die verführerischen, bezaubernden und amüsanten Begebenheiten lassen den Leser vergessen, daß es der alte Zeno ist, der hier, verfälschend, erzählt. Zeno Cosini ist auch ein traditioneller Roman, enthalten in einem getarnten und schwindelerregenden experimentellen Roman, offen, grenzenlos und ambivalent wie das Leben. Scheinbar einfacher, ist Svevo schwieriger als Joyce oder Thomas Mann, die die Kompliziertheit ihres Erzählens oft absichtlich unterstreichen, während er sie verbirgt, so daß sich der Leser dem Zauber, dem Lachen und dem Schmunzeln überläßt und nur bisweilen gewahr wird, daß er sich auf einen Abgrund zubewegt, auf den Strudel des Lebens, das sich verwandelt und im Begriff ist, auch das Antlitz des Menschen zu verwandeln.
Svevo erzählt auch von einer radikalen Veränderung, die in der Natur des Individuums stattfindet, jener von Nietzsche geahnten anthropologischen Mutation, der Abenddämmerung des Menschen, so wie wir ihn kennen. Zenos Lachen ist auch dieses schwindelerregende Wissen, und es hallt wider in der unheilvollen, schrecklichen letzten Explosion, die das Ende der Erde bedeutet.
Doch bis dahin berichtet Svevo von der Leidenschaft, der Verzauberung, der Sehnsucht, der Unbeholfenheit und der Vitalität dieses Individuums, das vielleicht im Aussterben begriffen ist. Der sich absichtlich unglaubwürdig gebende Erzähler läßt sich auch wie ein Romancier des 19. Jahrhunderts lesen, während er die okzidentale Erzählprosa zu einem ihrer äußersten Strände führt. Vielleicht merkte Svevo gar nicht, was er eigentlich entdeckte, denn er war, wie Bazlen sagte, weder ein Intellektueller noch besonders raffiniert, sondern "er hatte nur Genie, nichts weiter" - und auch genügend Ironie, um zu begreifen, daß selbst das Genie angesichts der "Originalität des Lebens" nichts Besonderes ist.
Aus dem Italienischen von Ragni Maria Gschwend
· Italo Svevo: Zeno Cosini. Roman, herausgegeben von Claudio Magris u. a.; rororo 13485, Rowohlt Verlag, Reinbek 1993; 640 S., 19,90 DM
Von Oliver Jahn
Es war die von Willy Haas in Berlin herausgegebene "Literarische Welt", in der Ernst Schwenk am 2. September 1927 auf einer ganzen Seite seinen Lesern einen "neuen italienischen Dichter" vorstellte, der nach langer Erfolglosigkeit mit seinem "Zeno Cosini" nun endlich zu Weltruhm gelangen sollte. Dieser ersten deutschsprachigen Würdigung überhaupt des Triesters Italo Svevo war ein Auszug aus dem Kapitel "Die Zigarette" beigegeben, jenem ewig wiederholten Bekenntnis zur "letzten" Zigarette, das heute jeder Svevo-Leser mit seinem Namen verbindet.
Italo Svevo wurde 1861 in Triest geboren. Wie wenige Jahre später Franz Kafka, der in der Prager Niederlassung einer altrenommierten Versicherungsfirma lustlos seinen Dienst versah und nur nachts über seinen Manuskripten sitzen konnte, lebte auch Svevo lange sehr bescheiden als Bankangestellter und verkannter Schriftsteller. Mit journalistischen Brotarbeiten, einigen Komödien und Erzählungen am Beginn, ließ er 1892 auf eigene Kosten seinen ersten Roman unter dem Titel "Una vita" erscheinen - genauso erfolglos wie sein zweiter, "Senilità" (1898), dessen Buchpublikation er ebenfalls aus eigener Tasche bezahlte.
In jene Zeit fällt seine Verlobung mit Livia Veneziani, der katholischen Klosterschülerin und Tochter eines reichen Industriellen, der mit einer Kusine Svevos verheiratet war. Am 13. Januar des Jahres 1895 hatten sie sich kennen gelernt und offenbar schnell ineinander verliebt, denn schon im Dezember gelobte man sich die Vermählung. Livia, gerade 21 Jahre alt geworden, machte ihm einen goldenen Federhalter und ein farbig ausgestattetes Quart-Tagebuch zum Geschenk, verbunden mit dem Wunsch, er möge darin ein Protokoll ihrer Verlobungszeit führen.
Vom 1. Januar bis zum 6. März 1896 reichen die Eintragungen in diesem "Diario per la fidanzata", das nun erstmals vollständig und in sehr sorgfältiger Edition auf Deutsch erschienen ist. Die neue Übersetzung von Hans Michael Hensel folgt einer stilistischen Eigenart Svevos, der seine Sätze oft nahezu interpunktionslos sich über die Seite schlängeln lässt. Gerahmt wird der Text des Tagebuches von zwei weiteren inhaltlich sehr aufschlussreichen Texten Svevos, einem als Einleitung zu lesenden Brief an die Braut vom 23. 12. 1895 und einer kurzen, auf August 1897 datierten Familienchronik.
Dafür, dass es sich um das Tagebuch einer frisch erwachten Liebe handeln soll, ist erstaunlich oft, von Gefühlen die Rede, die das junge Glück zu bedrohen scheinen. Misstrauisch, übernervös - man ist versucht zu argwöhnen: wie es sich für das überspannte fin de siècle gehört - zergliedert Ettore in direkter Reaktion auf die Erfahrung jeder gemeinsamen Stunde noch die kleinste Lebensäußerung seiner zukünftigen Frau. Mit verschiedenen Schriftarten, Tinten, Farben, wechselnden Schreibweisen und Betonungen ergießen sich die widersprüchlichsten Empfindungen in das Kalendarium. Wo man wortreiche Liebesschwüre erwarten würde, drängen sich Vorwürfe, Eifersüchteleien, Bitterkeit und Trauer, Wutausbrüche und Schambekundungen zusammen in das Bild einer sich und der anderen ungewissen und zerrissenen Seele.
Was ist zum Beispiel davon zu halten, wenn es schon in dem Einleitungsbrief heißt: "In diesen Wochen der Prüfung, bevor alles geschah, konnte ich vor allem deswegen so ruhig und kühl sein, weil ich wusste, dass Du littest, und wenn ich hörte, dass Du geweint hattest, verbrachte ich Stunden in ungetrübter Freude"? Die Spannungen dieses aufgewühlten Selbstzeugnisses, das freilich nicht für einen fremden Leser gedacht war, zeichnen sich schon in den Anreden ab: "Miststück" nennt er sie, "Luder", "Ziege" und "Gaunerin".
Man darf sich fragen, wie sehr das alles ernst gemeint ist, scheinen doch die zahlreichen Beteuerungen und Schwüre, jetzt und heute die allerletzte Zigarette geraucht zu haben, auf spielerisch-ironische Weise diese so ernsthafte Gemütserkundung zu punktieren. Tatsächlich enthält dieses ebenso zerquälte wie zuneigungsinnige journal intime im Kern schon die Themen und Motive, die in den Reflexionen seiner autobiografisch grundierten Romanfiguren wieder auftauchen.
Samstag, 14. Dezember 2002 Berlin, 01:57 Uhr
Buch der lächerlichen Liebe
Ein Roman für uns: Italo Svevos „Senilitá“ wurde der Vergessenheit entrissen
von Elmar Krekeler
Emilio Brentani war einer von uns. Damals in den Neunzigern. Als wir alle am Zaun des Lebens standen und hinüberspähten. Es ging uns gut. Wir hatten alles. Und uns gemütlich eingerichtet über einem sicheren Netz aus Selbstironie und Wirklichkeitsverleugnung. Warum was riskieren, warum sich in Gefahr begeben, sich lächerlich zu machen? Aber was war authentisch, was war echt, wo war das Gefühl? Nichts und nirgends. War ein komischer kleiner Kerl. Emilio. Wie jeder von uns in unserer kleinen Stadt, hatte er einen Roman geschrieben. Gelesen hatte ihn kaum einer, Emilio aber glaubte sich einen Dichter. Analysierte sich auch permanent. Müde, träge war er. Und die Welt, in der lebte, war so grau, als hätten sich sogar die Farben zur Ruhe begeben. Ständig legte er sich Sätze im Kopf vor. Wollte nicht überrascht werden von den schrecklich unwägbaren Situationen, vor die einen der Alltag ständig stellte. Er kam uns immer vor, als schriebe er gerade am Drehbuch seines Lebens. Während er es lebte. Und dann hatte er dieses neue intellektuelle Projekt. Die Liebe. Das konnte nicht gut gehen.
Emilio Brentani war natürlich keiner von uns. Weil Emilio Brentani in unseren Neunzigern schon mindestens 60 Jahre tot gewesen sein dürfte. Emilio Brentani war zum Zeitpunkt seiner literarischen Geburt anno 1898 um die 35 Jahre alt – ein kleiner Versicherungsangestellter in Triest, der seinem Schöpfer nicht sehr unähnlich sah, die Hauptfigur in einem Roman, der, wie ein Zeitgenosse gar nicht mal ironisch ausdrückte, wie totgeboren aus der Druckerpresse und direkt durch den Rost der Literaturgeschichte fiel. Manchmal aber fallen derlei Druckwerke unterm Rost auch weich, halten sich lange im Dunkeln, und wenn sie wieder ans Licht gebracht wurden, sehen sie nicht selten bemerkenswert frisch aus. Mit „Senilitá“, dem zweiten Roman des Triester Schriftstellers Italo Svevo, ist es so gekommen.
Wobei man zugestehen muss, dass die Geschichte vom Liebesexperiment des Emilio Brentani nie völlig von der literarischen Bildfläche verschwunden war. Was für einen ursprünglich im Selbstverlag unter ein handverlesenes Volk gebrachten Roman schon ein kleines Wunder ist.
Ein allzu großes ist es nun aber auch wieder nicht. Denn Freizeitdichter Svevo, der in seinem wirklichen Leben als Schiffslackfabrikant und treusorgender Ehegatte Ettore Schmitz hieß, hatte einen ziemlich mächtigen Fürsprecher. Seinen Englischlehrer.
Eines Tages nämlich – Moravia-Veneziani, die Firma, in die Svevo/Schmitz eingeheiratet hatte, wollte eine Dependance in England eröffnen – wurde den Schmitzens von der Triester Berlitz-Sprachschule ein schmaler Mann mit dicken Brillengläsern vor den Augen in ihre Prachtvilla geschickt, um Ettore fit zu machen für Verhandlungen mit den Briten. So kam es, dass zu Anfang des 20. Jahrhunderts zwei Wegbereiter literarischen Moderne in einem prächtigen Triester Salon bei Tee und Gebäck saßen und Englisch büffelten. Der Lehrer des Italo Svevo hieß James Joyce.
Sie entdeckten sich gegenseitig als Kollegen. Und sie kamen überein, dass es sich beim Verfassen von Romanen und anderem Prosawerk von einigem Anspruch um eine eher frustrierende Angelegenheit handelt. Jedenfalls was ihre Öffentlichkeitswirkung angeht. Keiner liest uns, weinten sie einander vor. Joyce brachte das Manuskript von „The Dead“ in die Fabrikantenvilla. Da rückte Svevo mit seinen beiden Privatdruckromanen „Una vita“ von 1896 und „Senilitá“ von eben 1898 heraus und gab sie dem notorisch finanzklammen Iren mit. Joyce, der sich von Svevos Gattin Livia einen Teil des Vornamens seiner „Finnegans Wake“-Heldin Anna Livia Plurabelle entlieh, war fasziniert. Ganze Seiten von „Senilitá“, so will es die Fama, konnte er auswendig.
Der Zuspruch des
Englischlehrers – den dieser später derart verstärkte, dass man in Italien erst
via Paris auf Svevo aufmerksam wurde – hätte um ein Haar einen Ex-Kollegen
getroffen. Zu seinem 40. Geburtstag hatte der frustrierte Svevo sich in seinem
Tagebuch nämlich eigentlich von der Dichterei verabschiedet: „Zu dieser Stunde
und unnwiederbringlich habe ich diese lächerliche und schändliche Sache, die man
Literatur nennt aus meinem Leben verbannt.“
Der Mensch ist nun aber ein inkonsequentes Wesen. Weswegen Italo Svevo selbstverständlich rückfällig wurde, neben seinem Brotberuf weiter für die Schublade dichtete und sich heran schrieb an den großen Roman der italienischen Moderne, der 1923 nun nicht mehr im Privatdruck erschienen: „Zeno Cosini“.
Die Lebensabschnittsgeschichte des Emilio Brentani hatte es im Schatten dieses Meisterwerks immer ein bisschen schwer. Was in Deutschland möglicherweise am bislang gültigen und nicht besonders animierenden Titel „Ein Mann wird älter“ gelegen haben mag. Besonders treffend war er nämlich auch nicht. Denn Emilio, der komische und uns Kinder der achtziger Jahre so seltsam nahe stehende Angestellte, wird nicht älter in diesem Buch. Er ist bereits alt. Er ist ein altes Kind.
Auf die Idee, er
wolle sich verlieben, kommt er jener schieren Trägheit wegen, für die Svevo das
Wort „Senilitá“ verwendete und die man ruhig Frühvergreisung nennen kann.
Eigentlich bereitet sich unser allseits abgesicherte Angestellter ja innerlich
schon auf die Rente vor. Aber da ist dann noch etwas, da spürt er in seiner
ganzen Selbst- und Weltdistanziertheit, in seiner emotionalen Abgestumpftheit
noch etwas, das ungestillte Verlangen nämlich „nach Vergnügen und Liebe, und
auch schon die Bitterkeit, sie nicht genossen zu haben, und im Kopf die große
Angst vor sich selbst und der Schwäche des eigenen Charakters, die er in
Wirklichkeit mehr fürchtete als das, was er erfahren hätte.“
Der Zufall kommt ihm zu Hilfe. Ein Schirm fällt ihm vor die Füße. Fallengelassen von der Hand einer schönen, aber nicht sehr wohlbeleumundeten Frau namens Angiolina. Dass es mit der Kopfgeburt dieser Liebe nicht einfach werden würde, liest man schon auf der ersten Seite des Romans. „Gleich mit den ersten Worten, die er an sie richtete, wollte er ihr klar machen, dass er nicht vorhatte, sich auf eine allzu ernsthafte Beziehung einzulassen. ,Ich liebe dich sehr, und zu deinem eigenen Besten möchte ich, dass wir uns darauf einigen, sehr behutsam zu sein.‘“ Was er eigentlich meint, denkt er sich bloß: „Du gefällst mir sehr, aber in meinem Leben wirst du nie mehr als ein Spielzeug sein können.“ Ob er das nun allerdings wirklich meint, weiß er aber auch nicht genau. Er ist schon sehr kompliziert.
So jedenfalls startet Emilio, der Intellektuelle, der sich während seiner fortwährenden Selbstbespiegelung gern als „eine gewaltige, im Bau befindliche Maschine“ betrachtet, „die noch nicht in Betrieb war“, einen Probelauf in das, von dem er annimmt, es sei das wirkliche Leben. Heftig kommt die intellektuelle Maschine ins Arbeiten, aber sie tritt permanent auf der Stelle, kurbelt um sich selbst und hat vor allem den – Emilio nicht eben unerwünschten – Effekt, Schmerzen zu bereiten.
So lebt Emilio Brentani in seinem Jahr mit dem schwarzen Engel Angiolina auch das aus, was man heute intellektuellen Selbsthass nennt. Aber damit nicht genug. Der Urahne der emotionalen Ich-AG probiert einen ganzen Katalog von seltsamen Sublimierungsversuchen des Lebens durch an dieser Liebe. Er gibt den Professor Higgins, will Angiolina erziehen. Er verleugnet sie wie Petrus seinen Heiland auf dem Kirchhof. Er verfolgt sie durch die Straßen Triests. Kuschelt sich an sie in der großen Stille der Nacht am Hafen. Er treibt sie zur seelischen Reinigung seiner selbst und seiner merkwürdigen Liebe in die Arme anderer. Er versucht die Sublimierung durch Religion, durch Politik, durch die Kunst. Am Ende weiß er von Liebe noch weniger als zuvor, hat seine Schwester Amalia mehr oder weniger in den Tod getrieben und bastelt sich aus den Bildnissen der beiden Frauen seines Lebens den Altar jenes Traumes, den Angiolina, „das Mädchen aus dem Volke“ nicht verstanden hatte, und vor dem er, aber das ist jetzt Spekulation, sitzen geblieben ist für den Rest seines Lebens.
Peinlich – wie dem
Leser nicht nur bei einem Blick durchs Schlüsselloch von Emilios Seele – ist ihm
nichts. „Jahre später blickte er auf diesen Abschnitt seines Lebens zurück, den
wichtigsten, den strahlendsten. Er zehrte davon wie ein alter Mann von der
Erinnerung an seine Jugend.“
Emilio Brentani ist einer von uns. Und auch in Italo Svevo mit seinem nun in makelloses Deutsch transferierten, nirgends angealterten, sehr eigentümlichen Sprachduktus endeckt man einen ganz eigentümlichen uralten Zeitgenossen. Und bedankt sich. Für eine exquisite Etüde in intellektuellen Kältegraden. Ein hinreißendes Skizzenbuch aus allen Graustufen der Seele. Das Handbuch der lächerlichen Liebe.
Italo Svevo: Senilitá. Der Altkluge. Die Senilität des Emilio Brentani. Aus d. Italien. v. Barbara Kleiner. Nachwort v. Ute Stempel. Manesse, München. 443 S., 19,90 E.
Artikel erschienen am 14. Dez 2002
Ein Echo von Empfindungen, die es nicht gibt
Unfähig zu lieben: Wie uns Italo Svevo mit der Krankheit unserer Epoche bekannt macht / Von Richard Swartz
Das Leben ist, bei Licht besehen, natürlich ein Skandal, vor allem wenn man bedenkt, wie es endet. Zumindest prinzipiell haben wir zwei Möglichkeiten, uns zu dieser Tatsache zu verhalten: Entweder nehmen wir das Leben trotz allem ernst, oder wir halten es für einen schlechten Witz und lehnen es ab, uns näher damit zu befassen.
Wer es ernst nimmt, rebelliert im Grunde gegen den Tod. Er will den Skandal abschaffen, er ist ein heroischer Kämpfer, der die Zeit zum Stillstand bringen will, aber deshalb ist er auch ein tragischer Held, zum Untergang verurteilt, dem er im günstigsten Fall noch eine großartige Geste abgewinnt. Trostlos. Und ganz umsonst! So muss es jedenfalls demjenigen erscheinen, der das Leben nicht erst nehmen kann, der vielmehr einen Schritt zurückgetreten ist, um zu zeigen, dass er es durchschaut hat. Da steht er nun und betrachtet den Skandal aus einiger Entfernung. Bei Italo Svevo (der in Wirklichkeit Ettore Schmitz hieß) begegnen uns fortwährend Menschen, die gerade diesen Schritt rückwärts gemacht haben. Sie haben sich freiwillig an den Rand des Lebens gestellt. Svevo wusste selbst am besten, was das bedeutet. Sein jüngerer, früh verstorbener Bruder Elio erinnerte sich daran, wie Ettore als Schüler den ganzen Hamlet auswendig lernte und „mehrere Nächte hintereinander“ nicht schlafen konnte, weil die Frage des dänischen Prinzen nach Sein oder Nichtsein ihn quälte.
Wozu überhaupt dieses „Sein“? Am Ende des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts scheint sich ein neues Zeitalter anzukündigen, in dem ein logischer, rational begründbarer Zusammenhang zwischen menschlichen Handlungen und ihren Folgen nicht mehr herstellbar ist. Absicht und Resultat haben einander die Bekanntschaft aufgekündigt; der explizite Wille kann nicht mehr damit rechnen, der Welt seinen Stempel aufzudrücken. Svevo zeigt schon früh und mit äußerster psychologischer Konsequenz, worauf dieser neuzeitliche Wackelkontakt zwischen Ursache und Wirkung hinausläuft. Und wir haben es hier mit veritablen Katastrophen zu tun: wenn etwa sein Held Zeno Cosini am selben Abend den drei Schwestern Maller der Reihe nach einen Heiratsantrag macht und ausgerechnet von derjenigen erhört wird, die er am wenigsten will. Man braucht sehr starke Nerven – oder einen völligen Mangel an Willenskraft –, um unter solchen Umständen an dem festzuhalten, was eigentlich ganz anders gedacht war.
Aber Svevos Helden tun eben dies, mit einer milden Resignation, die dann oft durch eine neue, unerwartete Wendung, den so genannten Zufall, belohnt wird. Es stellt sich heraus, dass die Hässliche, Dumme sich vortrefflich zur Gattin eignet, viel besser als die Begehrte, Begabte, die sehr bald auch noch ihre Schönheit einbüßt. Meistens jedoch ist der Zufall auf der Seite des Skandals. Jemand, der keinen blassen Schimmer von Ökonomie hat, macht die besten Geschäfte; der Schwerkranke überlebt den Kerngesunden um Jahrzehnte; der Selbstmordkandidat lebt lange und in Freuden, während einer, dem stets alles in den Schoß gefallen ist, sich aus Versehen umbringt.
Nichts von alledem aber lässt sich durch entschlossenes Handeln beeinflussen, und deshalb tun Svevos Helden so wenig wie möglich. Am liebsten tun sie gar nichts. Sie versuchen höchstens, sich das Rauchen abzugewöhnen – ohne Erfolg. Wenn sie dann schließlich doch aktiv werden, geschieht es ohne Spontaneität. Alles ist längst intellektuell vorbereitet, die Reflexion ist stärker als jedes Gefühl. Das Ergebnis ist ein Echo von Empfindungen, die gar nicht da sind. Aber auch ein Bewusstsein der Überlegenheit, weil man dieses skandalöse Leben unter Kontrolle hat. „Er, der sich wie alle, die nicht leben, für stärker gehalten hatte als den erhabensten Geist, für gleichgültiger als den überzeugtesten Pessimisten“, heißt es über Emilio Brentani im Roman „Ein Mann wird älter“ („Senilità“). Nicht von ungefähr sieht ein solcher Mensch sich selbst als eine „mächtige Denkmaschine“.
Will der Autor den Leser damit zum Lachen oder zum Weinen bringen?
Fast immer wirken Svevos Helden genauso komisch und lächerlich, wie ihnen umgekehrt die Menschen vorkommen, die sich mutig ins Leben stürzen. Vielleicht ist das Leben wirklich ein Skandal, eine „Krankheit der Materie“, wie Svevo schreibt, und doch macht sich auch derjenige zum Narren, der einen Schritt zurücktritt und sich damit begnügt, es nur zu betrachten.
Denn die Zeit verrinnt, ob man das Leben nun ernst nimmt oder nicht. Svevo weiß, dass ihr Gang unaufhaltsam ist, aber das regt ihn nicht weiter auf. Die Vergänglichkeit interessiert ihn nur in biologischer Hinsicht, wenn sie sich gegen Ende des Lebens als Alter manifestiert. Seine Helden sind fast ausnahmslos reife Menschen, „fertige“ Charaktere, ohne dass dem Leser mitgeteilt würde, wie sie dazu geworden sind. In diesem Sinne gibt es keine Entwicklung oder Bewegung in Svevos Werk. Das einzige, was sich bewegt, ist das Denken, die unablässige, endlose Reflexion. Die Welt bleibt begrenzt auf diesen inneren Raum.
Und das Äußere? Das ist der Corso, bevor das Flanieren in den Marschtritt übergegangen ist; das Kontor, bevor es sich in Kafkas bürokratisches Zuchthaus verwandelt hat; das Gericht, bevor es zu einem Ort geworden ist, an dem man sich selbst anzeigt und versichert, dass man die Partei liebt. Der Lauf der Zeit ist bei Svevo noch nicht in Historie umgeschlagen. Seine Welt gehört immer noch zu einer Epoche, die vor den großen Katastrophen des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts liegt, einer Epoche, in der ein Herr noch mit dem Hut in der Hand stehen bleiben und einer Dame nachschauen kann, die gerade vorbeigegangen ist. So bleibt auch Emilio Brentani stehen und schaut einer Unbekannten lange nach, bereit, ihr „eine Liebe ohne Bindungen, ohne Risiken“ anzubieten.
Von Anfang an sind dies seine Absichten gegenüber Angiolina, der Schönen mit dem zwielichtigen Hintergrund. Im Gegensatz zu Emilio steht sie mitten im Leben. Aber wer sich jedem Risiko verweigert, sieht nur das, was er sehen will: Er versteht nicht, dass sie, die offenbar liebt und leidet, ein viel reicheres Leben hat, als er sich vorstellen kann, dass sie diese Liebe und dieses Leiden vergisst, sobald sie sich einer anderen Sphäre ihres Daseins zuwendet, einer heimlichen Sphäre, von der er keine Ahnung hat. Als er dahinterkommt, muss er, der Lieblose, plötzlich leiden. Nicht mehr er selbst, sondern jemand anders schiebt ihn an den Rand des Lebens. Jetzt wird aus ihm, der einen Schritt zurückgetreten ist, genau das, was er nicht sein wollte: eine lächerliche Person. Das Leben, zu dem er auf Abstand gegangen ist, hat ihn in die Falle gelockt. Es hat ihn in Gefühle verstrickt, von denen er nicht geglaubt hat, dass er dazu imstande sei. Und das ist etwas Neues – die Helden eines Rabelais oder Cervantes konnten noch über sich selbst lachen, aber in den Kehlen des bürgerlichen Zeitalters muss dieses Lachen stecken bleiben.
Denn nicht zu leben bedeutet ja vor allem, nicht zu lieben; darin liegt die eigentliche Tragweite jenes Schrittes, mit dem man sich vom Leben entfernt. Und vieles deutet darauf hin, dass diese Unfähigkeit zur Liebe auch in unserer Epoche als schlimmste Krankheit verbreitet ist.
Italo Svevo war einer der ersten, die sie entdeckt haben, und niemand hat diese Krankheit mit derart schonungsloser Präzision und milder Wehmut untersucht wie er. Aber sie gehört zu ihrer Zeit. Es ist dieselbe Krankheit, die Franz Kafka befällt, als er sich mit Felice Bauer verlobt hat. Vor dem Bruch versucht er, genau wie Emilio Brentani, seine Liebesunfähigkeit dadurch in den Griff zu bekommen, dass er die Beziehung in eine so unverbindliche Affäre umwandelt, wie sie Emilio in seinem Verhältnis zu Angiolina anstrebt. Bei Svevo kommt das noch brutaler zum Ausdruck, wenn sein Held Alfonso Nitti im Roman „Ein Leben“ seiner Anetta folgendes zu sagen hat: „Gewiss, ich liebe Sie, aber nicht so sehr, um auch Ihre Fehler zu lieben und zu dulden. Ich habe Sie während der Zeit, da ich Sie kenne, lange gehasst und verachtet, oft auch dann, wenn ich Liebe zeigte
Wie so häufig bei Svevo lassen sich Tragödie und Komödie nicht voneinander trennen. Haben wir es mit einer Liebeserklärung zu tun? Oder mit einer Kriegserklärung? Das Ganze wird dadurch noch komplizierter, dass Alfonso diese Worte niemals zu Anetta sagt; er hat sie sich ausgedacht, wird aber nie Gelegenheit haben, sie auszusprechen – zwei Sätze, die er auswendig gelernt hat, als wäre er kein Liebhaber, sondern ein Papagei.
Bei Svevo kann man den Eindruck gewinnen, dass die Unfähigkeit zu lieben in erster Linie eine Männerkrankheit sei. Seine Helden bekämpfen sie mit typisch männlichen Riten wie Selbstbeobachtung und Analyse, durch die sie sich nur noch weiter vom Leben entfernen. Die Frauen lieben wenigstens – wie Emilios Schwester Amalia – in ihren Träumen. Sie bestehen darauf, zumindest in die Liebe verliebt zu sein, und in „Senilità“ stirbt Emilios Schwester aus diesem Grund, nämlich an unerwiderter Liebe.
Mit der Feder im Mund
Gibt es denn nichts, was die Liebe ersetzen könnte? Hin und wieder taucht in Svevos Werk jemand auf, der versucht, die Kunst als Schlüssel zum Leben zu benutzen. In fast allen Romanen wird geschrieben. Aber was die Schreibenden zustande bringen, ist stets dürftig. Wer sich als Schriftsteller versucht, der kriegt gerade noch eine Einleitung hin. Das Papier bleibt leer. Die Tinte trocknet aus; jemand stirbt „mit der Feder im Mund“.
Es sieht so aus, als sei Italo Svevo sich darüber im klaren gewesen, dass auch die Kunst eine Entfernung vom Leben bedeutet, jedenfalls keine wertvollere Beschäftigung darstellt als irgend eine andere, mit der wir unser Leben zu verbringen pflegen. Und Ettore Schmitz? Ihm blieb nur wenig Zeit zum Schreiben, und doch spricht vieles dafür, dass er mit seinem Dasein als Bürger und Geschäftsmann zufrieden war. Es fällt schwer, ihn sich nach klassischem Muster gespalten vorzustellen, zerrissen zwischen seiner bürgerlichen und seiner künstlerischen Rolle, wie wir es als Stoff vieler Romane kennen. Über seinen späten Erfolg auf künstlerischem Gebiet war er entzückt wie ein kleines Kind, ohne sich darüber zu beklagen, dass er so viele Jahre damit zugebracht hatte, Schiffslack zu verkaufen, statt unsterbliche Meisterwerke zu verfassen. Die Arbeit im Familienunternehmen war für ihn keine verschwendete Zeit, kein verfehltes Leben.
Oder sollten hier svevoeske Zweifel angebracht sein? Wohl kaum. Derselbe Mensch, der sein literarisches Schaffen jenem Schritt aus dem Leben widmete, stand selbst mitten darin. Und gibt es in seinem Werk auch etliche Passagen, in denen er die Nichtigkeit der Geschäftswelt beschreibt, so wird man doch noch viel mehr derartige Stellen finden, die sich auf die Kunst beziehen.
Richard Swartz, 1945 in Stockholm geboren, lebt in Wien und in Istrien. Zuletzt erschien von ihm „Ein Haus in Istrien“.
Deutsch von Kristina Maidt-Zinke.