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Italo Svevo (1861-1928) - pseud. of Ettore Schmitz


Italian novelist, dramatist, and short story writer, whose best-known novel is The Confessions of Zeno (1923). Svevo published the work at the age of 62 at his own expense. The novel, dealing with the self-revelations of a nicotine addict, is considered one of the greatest examples of European experimental modernist writing. Svevo was killed in an automobile accident. Further Confessions of Zeno (1969) appeared posthumously.

"Vedere la mia infanzia? Piú di dieci lustri me ne separano e i miei occhi presbiti forse potrebbero arrivarci se la luce che ancora ne riverbera non fosse tagliata da ostacoli d'ogni genere, vere alte montagne: i miei anni e qualche mia ora." (from La conscienza di Zeno)

Italo Svevo was born in Trieste into a well-to-do Jewish family. He was one of the seven sons of Francesco and Allegra Schmitz. Svevo's mother, Allegra Moravia, came from an Italian Jewish family of Trieste; his father was of German descent, the son of an Austrian customs official. Svevo attended the Brüssel Institute near Würzburg in Germany. There he became interested in literature and read German classics, Schiller, Goethe, Schopenhauer, and great Russian writers of the time. After returning to Trieste he enrolled in the Instituto Superiore Revoltella. In 1880 his father, who ran a glassware business, went bankrupt and also collapsed physically. Svevo was forced to abandon his studies, but he already planned to become a writer. At the age of nineteen he started to work in the local branch of the Viennese Union Bank as a correspondence clerk. This period in his life lasted nearly twenty years and inspired his novel, Una vita (1893, A Life).

In 1898, after the death of his parents, Svevo married his cousin Livia Veneziani. She was a devoted Roman Catholic and under her influence he converted to Catholicism. Livia's family were prosperous manufacturers of marine paint and Svevo joined the firm. He traveled much, set up a branch of the firm in England, and eventually took over the management of the business after the death of his father-in-law. As a novelist Svevo made his debut with Una vita, which he published at his own expense, and using for the first time his pseudonym. The name, "Italus the Swabian," reflected his mixed ancestry and cultural background. In the story a young man, Alfonso Nitti, comes to Trieste to work as a clerk in a bank. Nitti spends his time in daydreams, has an affair with Annetta, his employer's daughter, and escapes from her to his mother, eventually becoming a suicide victim. Una vita went unnoticed. When his second novel, Senilità (1898), also failed, he stopped publishing for the next 25 years. The original edition was published at Svevo's expense by Vrin in Trieste. "This incomprehension baffles me," he admitted. "It demonstrates that they just don't follow me." However, he still wrote fables, short stories, plays, a diary, and became a successful businessman.

Svevo's unnoticeable literary pursuits took a new turn in 1907 when he met the young, relatively unknown writer James Joyce, who was working as an English teacher in Trieste at the Berlitz School. Svevo needed a private tutor for the English language and became the pupil of Joyce, whose works he reviewed. Svevo's wife Livia, with her reddish-blond hair, inspired the figure of Anne Livia Plurabelle inJoyce's Finnegan's Wake.

The novella Una burla riuscita (1929), about self-deception and passion for writing, was the first of Svevo's works published in English. Joyce praised Senilità, in which the protagonist, Emilio Brentani, suffers in his thirties from a premature sense of senility. Moreover, many Svevo's admirers preferred this novel over The Confessions of Zeno. Emilio falls hopelessly in love with the young Angiolina, a tall blonde, "with big blue eyes abd s supple, graceful body, an expressive face and transparent skin glowing with health." The 1927 edition of Senilità, published by Morreale, was considerably edited. Its English title, As a Man Grows Older, was suggested by Joyce. Their friendship lasted until the end of Svevo's life. Impressed by the the theories of Jung and Freud, Svevo even started to translate Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams with his nephew, a doctor.

In The Confessions of Zeno Svevo's interest in Freud was seen in his first-person narrator, Zeno Cosini, who writes his autobiography for his psychoanalyst, Doctor S, to find the origin of his smoking habit. The ambiguous Italian word of the title, "coscienza", means either conscience or consciousness. Svevo had begun to write the book in 1919, and it came out in 1923. Critics and readers ignored it, as they had done with Svevo's previous novels. Upon the recommendation of Joyce, it was translated and published by Valery Larbaud and Benjamin Crémieux in France, where it was hailed as a masterwork.

Eugenio Montale wrote about Svevo in his article in L'esame (1925), and persuaded him to republish Senilità and La Conscienza di Zeno. The Austrian / American literary theorist and critic René Wellek later stated that Montale grossly overrated Svevo, "if he is evaluated in a European context. But as an Italian novelist he has permanent appeal as a psychoanalytical psychologist and as a portrayer of the inhabitants of Austrian and later Italian Trieste and their often uncertain national allegiance." (from A History of Modern Criticism, vol. 8, 1992)

Montale's article did not end the debate about Svevo, but only fuelled more. His critics held the opinion that the book was written in terrible Italian, and his protagonist was unheroic and commonplace. Svevo's supporters appreciated his humor, and his effective use of interior monologue. Zeno's father dies, he smokes again his last cigarrette, he lies to his doctor, is plagued by a number of psychosomatic diseases, and has his doubts about self-analysis, saying: "after practising it assiduously for six whole months I find I am worse than before." He realizes that there is no cure for life, except a catastrophe: "There will be a tremendous explosion, but no one will hear it and the earth will return to its nebulous state and go wandering through the sky, free at last from parasites and disease."

During the last years of his life, Svevo lectured on his own work, and started to compose a sequel to The Confessions of Zeno. In September 1928 he had a car accident at Motta di Livenza. He died a few days later, on September 13, 1928, from the shock and a heart condition, from which he had suffered for many years. A lifelong heavy smoker, Svevo refused a cigarette on his death bed.

For further reading: Italo Svevo: The Man and the Writer by P.N. Furbank (1966); Essays on Italo Svevo, ed. by Thomas F. Stanley (1969); Italo Svevo: A Critical Introduction by Brian Moloney (1974); La sintassi del desiderio: struttura e forme del romanzo sveviano by Teresa de Laurentis (1976); 'Italo Svevo' by Eugenio Montale in Montale: Selected Essays (1978); Italo Svevo, the Writer from Tireste by Charles Russell (1978); Italo Svevo by Naomi Lebowitz (1978); Italo Svevo: A Double Life by John Gatt-Rutter (1988); Memoir of Italo Svevo by Livia Veneziani Svevo (1990); In the Shadow of the Mammoth: Italo Svevo and the Emergence of Modernism by Giuliana Minghelli (2002); Giraffes in the Garden of Italian Literature: Modernist Embodiment in Italo Svevo, Federigo Tozzi and Carlo Emilio Gadda by Deborah Amberson  (2012)   

Selected works:

  • Una Vita, 1892
    - A Life (translated by Archibald Colquhon, 1963)
  • Senilità, 1898
    - As a Man Grows Older (translated by Beryl de Zoete, 1932, 2nd ed. 1949) / Emilio's Carnival (translated by Beth Archer Brombert, 2001)
    - films: 1961, prod. by Aëra Film, dir. by Mauro Bolognini, starring Anthony Franciosa and Claudia Cardinale, Betsy Blair; TV play 1967, dir. by John Gibson, starring Peter Blythe, Ilona Rodgers, Derek Godfrey, Hilary Hardiman
  • La conscienza di Zeno, 1923
    - The Confessions of Zeno (translated by Beryl de Zoete, 1930) / Zeno's Conscience (translated by William Weaver, 2001)
    - Zenon tunnustuksia (suom. Mirjam Polkunen, 1971)
    - films: TV mini-series, 1966, prod. by Radiotelevisione Italiana, dir. by Daniele D'Anza, starring Alberto Lionello as Zeno Cosini; TV film 1988, dir. by Sandro Bolchi, starring Johnny Dorelli as Zeno Cosini, Le parole di mio padre / My Father's Words (2001), dir. by Francesca Comencini, starring Fabrizio Rongione, Chiara Mastroianni, Claudia Coli, Mimmo Calopresti
  • Terzetto spezzato, 1925
  • James Joyce, 1927
    - James Joyce: a lecture delivered in Milan in 1927 (translated by Stanialaus Joyce, 1950)
  • Una burla riuscita, 1929
    - The Hoax (translated by Beryl de Zoete, 1929) / A Perfect Hoax (translated by J.G. Nichols, [foreword by Tim Parks, 2003
  • Vino generoso, 1929
    - The Wine that Kindles (in Transition, 1929) / Generous Wine (in Short Sentimental Journey, translated by Beryl de Zoete, L. Collison-Morley, and Ben Johnson, 1967)
  • La novella del buon vecchio e della bella fanciulla, ed altri scritti, 1929
    - The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl, and Other Stories (translated by L. Collinson Morley, with note by E. Montale, 1930)
  • Inferiorità, 1931
    - Inferiority (in Essays on Italo Svevo, ed. by Thomas F. Stanley, 1969)
  • Corrispondenza con gli amici di Francia, 1953
  • Saggie e pagine sparse, 1954 (edited by Umbro Apollonio) 
  • Commedie, 1960
  • Diario per la fidanzata, 1962
  • Lettere alla moglie, 1963
  • Epistolario, 1966
  • Short Sentimental Journey, and Other Stories, 1967 (translated by Beryl de Zoete, et al.)
  • Racconti; Saggi; Pagine sparse, 1968
  • Romanzi, 1969
  • Opera omnia, 1969
  • Further Confessions of Zeno, 1969 (translated by Ben Johnson and P.N. Furbank)
  • Carteggio con James Joyce, Valery Larbaud, Benjamin Crémieux, Marie Anne Comnène, Eugenio Montale, Valerio Jahier, 1978 (edited byBruno Maier)
  • La novella del buon vecchio e della bella fanciulla, 1985 (edited by Gianni Turchetta)
  • Edizione critica delle opere di Italo Svevo, 1985-86 (edited by Bruno Maier)
  • Scritti su Joyce, 1986 (edited by Giancarlo Mazzacurati)
  • Diario per la fidanzata, 1987 (2 vols., introduction by Gabariella Contini)
  • I racconti, 1988 (edited by Giacinto Spagnoletti)
  • La rigenerazione, 1989 (introduction by Mario Lavagetto)
  • Romanzi, 1993 (edited by Giovanna Ioli)
  • "Faccio meglio di restare nell’ombra": il carteggio inedito con Ferrieri seguito dall’edizione critica della conferenza su Joyce, 1995 (edited by Giovanni Palmieri)
  • Vita scritta da Italo Svevo, 1998 (edited by Marco Marchi)
  • Racconti e scritti autobiografici, 2004 (edited by Clotilde Bertoni)
  • Teatro e saggi, 2004 (edited by Federico Bertoni)
  • Commedie, 2011 (2 vols., edited by Guido Lucchini)

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