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Zeno's Conscience: Book Review

Written exactly 100 years ago, this book was the final attempt by Italo Svevo to become a successful novelist. Born in Austrian controlled Trieste in 1861, the same year that most of the rest of Italy became a single unified country, Svevo’s real name of Ettore Schmitz was an apt reflection of the dichotomy of Austrian Italy.

His nom de plume was likely chosen to reflect his Italian heritage on his mother’s side and the German heritage from his father. His teenage years were spent away from home being educated in Bavaria so in fact after German and the local Triestino dialect, Italian was an acquired third language for Svevo.

Zeno's Conscience book

Svevo’s first two novels written 25-30 years before Zeno's Conscience were both published at his own expense and subsequently ignored by literary critics and the general public alike.

It was only after he had befriended James Joyce in Trieste while Joyce was working on ‘Ulysses’ that he was persuaded to forge ahead with Zeno’s Conscience. After reading Svevo’s first two books Joyce encouraged him to take up writing again and not only did Joyce re-awaken the novelist in Svevo but he was also instrumental in getting this book published in France where it met with great success, prompting Italian critics to finally take Svevo seriously.

Literary acclaim then followed swiftly in Italy but Svevo had only a short time to enjoy it before dying in a car accident five years later. Zeno’s Conscience therefore survives as his third and final novel.

The book is written in the first person as a narrative of the adult life of Zeno and for me at least it took a little time to warm to both the style and content. For example the first chapter titled ‘Smoke’ is a lengthy description of a very contorted series of mind games employed by Zeno to outwit his compulsion to smoke and even Joyce remarked on the strangeness of it all.

But as the book progresses there is a hapless charm that emerges in Zeno’s character which is disarmingly enjoyable even as you find yourself squirming and cringing at the embarrassing absurdities of many of Zeno’s actions and musings. How much of Svevo himself is reflected in the character of Zeno is not clear, though I would guess quite a lot, but in any case the portrait of Zeno is an admirably honest examination of the inherent contradictions and irrationality of the human condition.

As the tale unfolds there is a strong ironic and even comedic element to the misfortunes of Svevo and those around him and in fact nowhere does Svevo contrive to elicit any real sympathy from the reader because there is always a sense that everyone’s outcome in the story is fully deserved, precipitated by their own actions and not by the hand of fate.

The choice of the name Zeno for the protagonist must have been a deliberate joke on Svevo's part given that Zeno in Greek mythology was the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy but perhaps not entirely inappropriate for Svevo himself, especially given the stoicism with which he faced his own death in hospital after the accident, the denial of a final cigarette included.

James Joyce and Italo Svevo

The book is a study also of the customs and social mores of well-to-do Trieste families in the period before the First World War and there is very much a fin de siècle feel to the whole story. Trieste at that time was the fourth largest city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire under the Habsburg monarchy and its only sea port so the changes wrought by the war for the citizens of this city were both profound and permanent.

Svevo’s wife survived him for almost 30 years, living through the tragedy of the death of all three of her grandchildren during the Second World War.

Too many literary commentators seem to dwell too much on the psychoanalytical aspects of this novel and make the book sound much more intimidating than it actually is. I found Zeno’s Conscience to be an amusing and easily digestible story by a talented and uninhibited writer of considerable ability; some credit must also go to the highly experienced translator William Weaver for this newer and very seamless version of the English language edition.


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