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Zeno's Conscience by Italo Svevo
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's review
Nov 08, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: 20th-century-lit
Read from November 08 to 13, 2010

I read Zeno's Conscience because I saw it on a 2002 list of the 100 greatest works of literature compiled by the Norwegian Book Clubs with the help of 100 authors from around the world and wanted to take a look at it. After a few pages, I was hooked. It purports to be a diary that was written for a psychiatrist, and which the psychiatrist has published for his own benefit rather than for the hero/narrator, Zeno Cosini, a well-to-do businessman of moderate talent in the city of Trieste, then under Austro-Hungarian control.

What is it that I immediately loved about this novel? One could look in vain for something to quote, so it is obviously not its style that appeals to me. Perhaps it is Zeno himself, and Italo Svevo's attitude toward him. In a word, Zeno is something of a nebbish. He is ineffective in business (but fortunately, the company he inherited from his father is under the competent management of a talented businessman named Olivi, who brooks no interference from the son and heir). He is a balding chain smoker. He falls in love with two daughters of a local businessman named Malfenti who reject his proposals -- and he winds up marrying the ugly one with a squint, Augusta, with whom he nonetheless falls increasingly in love.

In the meantime, the daughter he loved most, Ada, falls for one Guido Speier, who plays the violin better than Zeno, who speaks better Italian than Zeno, who looks better than Zeno. And, like a true nebbish, Zeno enters into a business partnership with him -- only to find out that his new brother-in-law is an incompetent dreamer. He conducts an affair with a trophy secretary he hires (Zeno, too, has strayed from his Augusta). Eventually, he commits suicide.

One interesting thing about Zeno is that he has some problem going to funerals. He misses the funeral of his father, of his best friend, and of his brother-in-law Guido. During the course of her marriage with Guido, Ada has lost much of her looks due to illness; and Zeno marvels at it all.

I ask again: What is it that I love about this novel? I don't seem to be any closer to giving an answer. Perhaps I see in it an emotional nakedness -- a personification of Shakespeare's speech by King Richard II
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing.
And Zeno is nothing, but a lovable nothing. I wouldn't lend him money without regretting it; I wouldn't let him close to the woman I loved; but I wouldn't mind spending time with him in otherwise complete friendship and amity.

Much is made of the friendship between Svevo and James Joyce, and there is little doubt that Svevo's career was made by that friendship. (And it is said that, furthermore, Svevo was the original for Leopold Bloom in Ulysses.) But until Italo Svevo and his Zeno Cosini came along, there wasn't anyone in fiction that I really recognized as being a person who could walk off the page and actually exist. Zeno is not merely a literary construct, shored up with a sense of style. I feel as if I could run into him tomorrow and be somewhat annoyed by his endlessly puffing a cigarette, only to fall under his spell, as I fell under Svevo's spell.
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11/08/2010 page 115
01/09/2017 marked as: read
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