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A classic of modernist irony,
This review is from: Zeno's Conscience (Penguin Modern Classics) (Paperback)
Svevo's novel is considered one of the masterpieces of European modernism, and a pinnacle of Italian - or Triestine - writing in the twentieth century. As is well known, it received an early impetus when it was championed by James Joyce. Those who find Joyce's linguistic games a barrier to enjoyment need not fear Svevo: Zeno's Conscience is not `difficult' in the manner of Ulysses. This is not to say that the novel is a throwback to the realist fiction that dominated the last half of the nineteenth century, though its central figure is a bourgeois idler and the society in which he moves revolves around the typical bourgeois preoccupations with money and marriage. Rather, Svevo is an ironist somewhat in the manner of Thomas Mann, Musil, Proust or Gide: albeit an Italian ironist who knows his Boccaccio.
Zeno Cosini is an unlikely hero: the scion of a Triestine commercial family, he is on the face of it a textbook case of privileged neurosis - a self-centred hypochondriac whose consciousness varies a truly awesome lack of insight into his own character, abilities and motives with moments of piercing penetration. As such, having exhausted the resources of conventional medicine, he gravitates naturally towards the novel science of psychoanalysis. Encouraged to write by his analyst, he muses about his smoking habit, his father's character, his courtship of his wife, his infidelities, his commercial ventures, and finally his predictable disillusionment with psychoanalysis itself.
The novel is set mainly in the Trieste of the thirty years before the outbreak of the First World War, during which the city was an outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and, by comparison with London or Paris, something of a backwater. The even temper of bourgeois life during the Belle Époque provides a taken-for-granted backdrop against which Zeno's antiheroic odyssey takes place. The point of the book emerges in the interplay between Zeno's view of life and the various alternatives offered to his preferred mode of self-indulgence - the perennial `last cigarette' by which he delays engagement with responsibility - including the new dogmas of psychoanalysis, which emerges as yet another all-explanatory `master narrative' whose ultimate purpose seems to be to deprive Zeno of his pleasures.
Svevo's literary manner is matter-of-fact and his humour dry. Readers looking for fireworks will not find them here. By comparison with much contemporary writing, Zeno's Conscience moves slowly, and after the short opening section the leisurely pace lasts until the equally short closing section. The novel is often described as comic, but the comedy is largely structural, and although Zeno's shamelessness is amusing there is a constant undercurrent of anxiety and pain that emerges in full flower only at the book's end. Zeno marries, takes a mistress, embarks on an ill-advised commercial venture, and finally finds himself side-swiped by the belated onset of hostilities. Slowly we form a view of his character, which is less simple than it at first appears and less contemptible than a naive description suggests. In the end, Svevo gives us a portrait of an ambivalent modern man that deserves to stand alongside those of the other modernist ironists.