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5.0 out of 5 stars Italian modern classic, 2 July 2012
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This review is from: Zeno's Conscience (Penguin Modern Classics) (Paperback)
Confessions of Zeno was published in 1923 by Italian Svevo - it is one of the top 100 books of World literature. It is also titled "Zeno's Conscience" which I think more representative of the style really. I read the Penguin classic translated by Zoete.

Ok, the basic story is the life of Zeno Cosini who lives in Trieste in the late 1800-early 1900s with the story ending in 1916 when Zeno is in his seventies. After an introduction from "Dr S" we have Zeno writing his own diary/analysis (and given to the Dr) as a therapy for his infirmities which are routed in psychological issues. Svevo's tale is based on the Oedipus complex of father hating, mother loving etc and the ideas of Freud as a foundation.

Zeno is a hypochondriac unlovable, prematurely bald, virtually chain smoking, short, fluent, adulterous, weak minded, rude, odius and educated chemist come lawyer. He is perpetually having his last cigarette (chapter 1) and suffering pains and need to limp. He has cringing moments that don't endear you to him; he is a literary David Brent ("The Office" manager). His mother Maria died when he was quite young (about 20); we have Zeno discussing the circumstances of father's death when Zeno was in his early 30s (chapter 2). Zeno falls in with the Malfenti family: a businessman patriarch, 4 daughters (3 of marriable age: Ada, Augusta and Alberta). The pivot of the most excellent dynamic arc of the whole story is basically he loves Ada (the pretty one) and ignores Augusta (the plain one). The sad, vaguely comic, incident when he proposes to all three, after successive refusals, end in an almost spiteful self loathing way hitched with Augusta (chapter 3). But at the same time needs to get along with rival Guido in business whilst he goes on to marry Ada. He has a year long affair with Carla a sixteen year old whom he doesn't want to end up losing suffering much angst in the diary (whilst Augusta has his first kid) (chapter 4). There are further chapters but I won't spoil it by saying more. There are other characters like Olivi (a genuinely good business man who educates Zeno) and a friend Enrico.

This is a most excellent existentialish book. It is quite long but has a real vibrant, modern style which quickly draws you into the mind of Zeno; unlike other literature where the motives are somewhat understated this is full on, dare I say, `male' psychology stuff. You really do find yourself making your own judgements of his behaviour (such as thinking "Zeno I know you're not fooling even yourself there"). Zeno for the majority of the book is an annoying little anti-hero by the end he's just an old, understood anti-hero. If I had a criticism it would be that the last short chapter, when WW1 enters the story, is a little unnecessary and misplaced.

Some quotes:

"When you are actually dying you have other things to do than think about death"

(of his father) "With a supreme effort he struggled to his feet, raised his arm high above his head, and brought it down with the whole weight of his falling body on my cheek. Then he slipped from the bed on to the floor and lay there - dead!"

"I felt unhappier than ever, and in such a morbid state of self-pity one may easily fall prey to unwholesome suggestions"

"The resolutions existed for their own sake, and had no practical results whatever"

"My dismay at finding that I was not really good was becoming less acute. I felt as if I had solved that distressing problem. One is neither good nor bad, just as one is not so many other things besides"

"One of the great difficulties of life is guessing what a woman wants. Listening to what she says is no help, for a whole speech may be wiped out by a single look"

In summary, this is an excellent book, though lacking a certain freedom of forthrightness and naturalism (there is no sex for example). I normally like a lot of story and could imagine others thinking this tale lacking enough narrative but overall a male oriented literary classic (at last, none of your "Portrait of a Lady" here).
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