Italo Svevo (1861-1928) was one of the first Italian novelists to consequentially apply psychoanalytical discoveries to literature.
Italo Svevo was born Ettore Schmitz on Dec. 19, 1861, in Trieste, one of eight children of a businessman. The pseudonym he later chose reflects his mixed origins: his paternal ancestors had come from the German Rhineland, whereas his mother was of Italian descent. At 12 Svevo was sent to Germany to complete his secondary education in Segnitz, Franconia. At this time he became acquainted with the German classics, developing later special predilection for Arthur Schopenhauer.
After Svevo's return to Trieste at the age of 17, he studied economics for 2 years at a local institute. In 1880 the failure of his father's business forced him to take a job at the Triestine branch of the Viennese Unionsbank, which he held until he began working full time for his father-in-law's business in 1902. From the time of his return to Trieste he contributed for some 10 years to the local Italian paper L'Indipendente. His first two novels, Una vita and Senilità, were published in 1892 and 1898 but received scant attention. In 1896 he married Livia Veneziani, the daughter of a well-to-do industrialist. After his second novel Svevo seemingly devoted all his time to business and published nothing for 25 years until La coscienza di Zeno (The Confessions of Zeno) appeared in 1923.
Svevo's friendship with James Joyce goes back to the early years of the century when he took English lessons from Joyce, who then taught English in Trieste for a living. The friendship continued after Joyce had moved to Zurich and then Paris, where he was instrumental in making the Italian known. Svevo died in an automobile accident at Motta di Livenza on Sept. 13, 1928.
For a long time Svevo had doubts of his own talent, yet he turned out to be one of the best Italian novelists of the century. In a loose form and a low-keyed style imbued with irony, he adopted forms of narration and a treatment of the time element that definitely ranked him among the avant-garde and proved him to be one of the early representatives of the psychoanalytical novel. Svevo, who could equally well have written in German, detested rhetoric and was not interested in artistic prose and a refined style. What some critics referred to as "Pidgin-Italian" indicates only a use of language in conformity with the psychological situation it represents: as there are no consequential heroes, there is no consequential style.
To Svevo, writing, in a sense, represented a therapeutic catharsis for all sorts of "diseases, " real or imaginary, from cigarette smoking to senility. Lending itself by definition to—retroactive—introspective analysis, senility indeed became one of the dominant motives of Svevo's narrative: old age and youth, "the old man and the pretty girl."
Svevo's first novel, as most of his writing, is to a large degree autobiographical. Una vita (1892), published at his own expense, bore the original title Un inetto—the story of a young man "incapable" of mastering life. The analytical and introspective modes already visible in this first novel become more prominent in the second: Senilità (1898). Again, the perennial indecision and incapacity to face the facts of life characterize the actions of the central character. His feelings are being analyzed with supreme irony, and in true Schopenhauerian fashion life's realities are being dissolved before the all-important reality of the hero's mind and imagination.
The corrosive play of contrapuntal irony is brought to perfection in La coscienza di Zeno (1923), the "story of a disease." In a series of loosely knit episodes—concerning his cigarette-smoking habit of which he wants to be cured, his father's death, his marriage—Zeno Cosini writes down his case history for his psychoanalyst. Svevo's relationship to Freud, whose ideas he deliberately applied, was not very different from those of his characters to their "diseases" which they both hate and love. Svevo always ended up reading Freud again after having laid the books aside out of true antipathy.
The theme of senility—and the implication of a possible distant review of things—is also predominant in a volume of short stories that was published posthumously: La novella del buon vecchio e della bella fanciulla (1929). It contains the fragment of what was to be Svevo's mature masterpiece: Il vecchione. Corto viaggio sentimentale (1949) is a collection of short stories and fragments of stories left unfinished. Saggi e pagine sparse (1954) presents various articles and essays. Svevo's dramatic production was collected in Commedie (1960).
Most works on Svevo are in Italian. In English, P. N. Furbank, Italo Svevo: The Man and the Writer (1967), gives an account of Svevo's life and an intelligent analysis of his work. Recommended for general historical background is Sergio Pacifici, The Modern Italian Novel: From Manzoni to Svevo (1967).
Veneziani Svevo, Livia, Memoir of Italo Svevo, Marlboro, Vt.: Marlboro Press, 1990. □
SVEVO, ITALO (pen name of Ettore Schmitz ; 1861–1928), Italian novelist. Svevo's mother was an Italian, his father an Austrian. He was educated in Germany, and on returning to his native Trieste worked as a bank clerk. From 1889 he was a partner in an industrial concern which he managed until his death, carefully separating his business from his literary life. After publishing two unsuccessful novels, Una vita (1892; A Life, 1963) and Senilità (1898; As a Man Grows Older, 1932), Svevo immersed himself in commerce for over 20 years. His talent was first discovered by the Irish writer James Joyce, who spent some time in Trieste from 1903 onward. Their friendship was mutually fruitful, and the correspondence between the two novelists, Carteggio inedito Italo Svevo-James Joyce, was published in 1949. It was as a result of the favorable attention it attracted in England and France that Svevo's masterpiece,La Coscienza di Zeno (1923; The Confessions of Zeno, 1930), came to be recognized in Italy itself as a classic of modern Italian literature. Partly autobiographical, the book is in effect an extended monologue, self-analytical and deeply introspective, telling the story of a man's life as he observes it from the outside. A member of a middle-class mercantile family, the hero regards his life as empty of meaning, a succession of failures. Caught up in dreams and visions and beset by psychological complexes, he becomes a melancholic and ironical spokesman of the absurdity of the human condition. Like the people in similar condition with whom he comes in contact, he finds life full of irremediable disappointments. Svevo's own rejection of the unremitting flow of life is thus projected onto his hero. In spite of the fact that Svevo never explicitly related to Jews or to a Jewish milieu in his literary works, some scholars have considered them crypto-Jewish. This thesis appeared in the late 1920s in an article by Giacomo Debenedetti, one of the outstanding Italian literary critics of the last century (a Jew himself), and since then it has been proposed many times in several different versions. According to Debenedetti, Svevo symbolically describes in his works the uneasiness of the emancipated Jew not completely belonging to European Christian society, and his approach to Judaism is in some way close to the negative attitude of the Jewish-born philosopher Otto Weininger.
Svevo's colloquial style was something of an innovation in Italian writing. His cosmopolitan background and education undoubtedly contributed to his unique position in his country's literature. Immediately before and after his death in an automobile accident some of his short novellas were published. They include Una burla riuscita (1928; The Hoax, 1929) and La novella del buon vecchio e della bella fanciulla (1929; The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl, 1930), both successfully combining pessimism with humor and gentle irony. Two other posthumous publications are his Corto viaggio sentimentale (1949; Short Sentimental Journey and Other Stories, 1967), a collection of novellas; and a volume of essays, Saggi e pagine sparse (1954). His collected works, edited by B. Maier, appeared in 1954 (in English, 1962ff.).
M. Penter, Italo Svevo (It., 1936); G. Spagnoletti, La Giovinezza e la formazione letteraria di Italo Stevo (1953); B. Maier, Profilo della critica su Italo Svevo (1954); E. Levi, in: Scritti… Sally Mayer (1956), 122–38; idem, Opere di Italo Svevo (1958), preface; L. Veneziani Svevo, Vita di mio marito (19582); A.L. de Castris, Italo Svevo (It., 1959); R. Ellman, James Joyce (Eng., 1959), index; G. Luti, Italo Svevo (It., 1961); Roditi, in: Svevo, Confessions of Zeno (1962), 7–25; M. Forti, Svevo romanziere (1966); P.N. Furbank, Italo Svevo (Eng., 1966). add. bibliography: G. Voghera, Gli anni della psicanalisi (1980), 45–51 and passim; H. Stuart Hughes, Prisoners of Hope (1983), 33–42; P. Puppa, "Italo Svevo. La scrittura in scena," in: M. Carlà and L. De Angelis, L'ebraismo nella letteratura italiana del Novecento (1995), 33–42; L. De Angelis, "La reticenza di Aron. Letteratura e antisemitismo in Italo Svevo," in: ibid., 43–85.
[Joseph Baruch Sermoneta /
Ariel Rathaus (2nd ed.)]