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[Reviews]

The Last Cigarette

On Italo Svevo

Illustration by Pierluigi Longo

[Reviews]

The Last Cigarette

On Italo Svevo
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Discussed in this essay:

A Very Old Man, by Italo Svevo, translated by Frederika Randall. New York Review Books Classics. 224 pages. $15.95.

“Mario Samigli was a man of letters, getting on for sixty years old. A novel he had published forty years before might have been considered dead if in this world things could die even when they had never been alive.” So begins Italo Svevo’s comic novella A Perfect Hoax (1926), written after he himself had passed the age of sixty. Though a failed writer, Mario has managed to make a life for himself by working in business, but even “at his age he continued to think of himself as destined for glory.” That dream of glory turns out to be precisely what makes Mario vulnerable to the nasty practical joke of a colleague, who pretends to have met a German publisher eager to commission a translation of Mario’s long dead self-published novel. Mario gullibly swallows the lie, and suffers the consequences. But though his vanity is paid for with humiliation, by a twist he also ends up benefiting financially from the joke that has been played on him.

A Perfect Hoax shows an author well acquainted with literary egotism who is also capable of poking fun at himself. Like all of Svevo’s fiction, it is an incisive psychological portrait of a male protagonist whose fate is determined largely by self-delusion. And like all of his fiction, it is partly autobiographical. Italo Svevo was the pen name of Ettore Schmitz, who was born in Trieste, in 1861, to an Italian-Jewish mother and a German-Jewish father who made his living as a manufacturer of glassware. Like his true name, Schmitz’s fictitious one reveals his mixed heritage: Italo Svevo means “Italian Swabian.”

Though literature was his passion from an early age, Svevo spent his entire life in business, first as a bank clerk, then, after his marriage to a second cousin, Livia Veneziani, as an employee of his in-laws’ marine paint firm. His duties there required that Svevo sometimes travel abroad. He was already fluent in Italian, French, and German, and when the firm opened a branch in London he decided to acquire a stronger command of English as well. Though he could hardly have imagined it then, hiring an English tutor would prove to be the most advantageous move of his literary career, one that would leave him, like Mario Samigli, tantalized by the prospect of literary fame in his sixties.

It all began one day in 1907, when Svevo found his tutor in the twenty-five-year-old James Joyce. Joyce had been living mostly in Trieste since 1904. He had not yet published a book, and teaching English was one of the means by which he had been keeping himself and his family (just barely) above poverty. Svevo was already the author of two novels: A Life (1892) and As a Man Grows Older (1898), or Senilità. Each had been published at his own expense, and each could be said to have died without ever having been alive. The two men hit it off and, after sharing some of their work, recognized each other as the literary masters they were. According to his younger brother Stanislaus, Joyce hounded Svevo for details about his Jewish background—material he would use to create the character Leopold Bloom. (Perhaps some readers have been wondering, and the answer is yes: it was from Svevo’s wife that Joyce took the middle name for Finnegans Wake’s Anna Livia Plurabelle—for whom he also borrowed Signora Schmitz’s luxurious flow of blond hair.)

But in this case of artistic friendship, it was the younger writer who would play the role of true believer and promoter to the older. Joyce praised Svevo’s two novels unreservedly, laying the blame for their extinction wholly on the stupidity of their critics. When, in 1923, Svevo published his third novel, Zeno’s Conscience—again at his own expense—and it, too, was all but ignored, he sent a copy to his old friend, now living in Paris. Svevo heard back from Joyce even before he’d finished reading it. “Why be discouraged? You must know that it is by far your best work.”

Joyce instructed Svevo to send copies of the book not only to the influential critics Valéry Larbaud and Benjamin Crémieux in Paris, but also to T. S. Eliot and Ford Madox Ford in London, and to Gilbert Seldes in New York. “I will speak and write to them about it also,” he promised.

By now Joyce’s own star had risen to ethereal heights, and his efforts on Svevo’s behalf bore fruit. The French response to Zeno was as hot as the Italian one had been cold. By 1926, translations, critical studies, and praise of Svevo’s work—including, apparently, the magic words “Italian Proust”—had made Svevo a celebrity. Now other foreign publishers commissioned translations, and thanks to the Italian poet Eugenio Montale, who wrote admiringly about Svevo’s work and deploringly about the shabby way his own country had treated him, Svevo found himself fêted at home as well. Zeno’s Conscience—Svevo’s first comic novel, and a departure from the realism of his previous books—was recognized as Italian literature’s great contribution to the modern European novel. Though his name would never be as familiar as those of Proust, Joyce, or Woolf, like them Svevo broke with narrative tradition to place individual consciousness and its analysis at the center of his fiction. He also shared the modernists’ preoccupation with the nature of memory, and with the individual’s complex relationship to time. And, like them, he saw the need for an experimental new form, which, in the case of Zeno’s Conscience, would be—audaciously enough—that of a document written in the first person for the narrator’s psychoanalyst.

For about three years, then, Svevo enjoyed the glory that he, like his character Mario, had, through decades of neglect and despair, remained convinced he was destined for. But already his health had begun to decline. A lifelong heavy smoker, he had developed a heart condition that left him too frail to survive a car accident that spared the three other passengers involved. He died the following day. Prematurely, we would say. But in the eyes of Svevo himself—one of whose main themes as a novelist was aging—sixty-six was old.

Il Vegliardo (“the very old man”) was Svevo’s working title for what was meant to be a sequel to Zeno’s Conscience. Parts of the manuscript were published posthumously, in 1969, as Further Confessions of Zeno, translated by Ben Johnson and P. N. Furbank. A new translation by the late Frederika Randall, with an introduction by Nathaniel Rich, now appears as a collection of five linked stories under the title A Very Old Man. Although the stories stand well on their own, they would be even more enjoyable if read together with Zeno’s Conscience, excerpts of which are quoted here from William Weaver’s 2001 translation.

Like his creator, the hero of Zeno’s Conscience, which is set in Trieste during the city’s final years under Austro-Hungarian rule, has never been able to give up smoking. Indeed, we are told that the book itself, an autobiographical project undertaken by Zeno at the age of fifty-seven, was intended to be, in part, “a historical analysis of [his] smoking habit.” A brief preface, signed by a Doctor S., hints at what mischief lies ahead: “I am the doctor occasionally mentioned in this story, in unflattering terms. Anyone familiar with psychoanalysis knows how to assess the patient’s obvious hostility toward me.” It had been the doctor’s hope that Zeno’s writing about his past would be helpful to his treatment. Instead, to his anger, it has motivated his patient to quit. As for the memories Zeno has produced in writing (a collection of “many truths and . . . many lies,” according to Doctor S.): “I am publishing them in revenge, and I hope he is displeased.”

The first chapter of the book is indeed largely devoted to Zeno’s reflections on his addiction, which nothing—not even confinement to a sanatorium—has been able to cure: a story of endless procrastination and countless deeply savored last cigarettes, all told to brilliant comic effect. Though the comedy is sustained through the following chapter, the mood darkens as Zeno looks back at his father’s death. “A great, genuine catastrophe,” Zeno declares it. “At thirty, I was finished.” (No one describes the drama of witnessing a parent’s death better than Svevo; just as powerfully observed and even more affecting than the last days of the father here are those of the hero’s beloved mother in A Life.)

Freud famously called the death of the father the most important event in a man’s life. Svevo, who was drawn to Freud’s thinking even as he remained skeptical of the efficacy of psychoanalysis, has Zeno use those very words. But by “the most important event of my life” Zeno is referring not only to his father’s death, but to their hair-raising final interaction: just before he falls dead, as Zeno, following doctor’s orders, struggles to prevent him from getting out of bed, his father tries to slap Zeno in the face. Zeno cannot tell whether, in that chaotic moment, his father actually knew what he was doing, but as a consequence, his “every feeling was to be undermined for years.”

In the next two chapters, Zeno recounts the history of his marriage into a rich family whose patriarch has taken him under his wing, and of his long ensuing extramarital affair. The Malfentis have four daughters: Ada, Augusta, Alberta, and Anna. Of the three old enough to marry, Zeno immediately dismisses any thought of Augusta, on the grounds of her bad looks, though, ironically, she wants nothing more than to be his wife. Instead Zeno lusts after Ada, the family beauty. Ada, however, loathes Zeno, and is in love with Guido, the handsome and charismatic man soon to be her husband. Zeno moves on then to Alberta, but she too rejects his proposal. And that, absurdly enough, is how he ends up marrying the one Malfenti woman he’d been determined to avoid.

From here the ironies accumulate. Zeno ends up loving Augusta after all, and as her love for him never wavers, the marriage turns out to be a happy one (as Svevo’s marriage to Livia appears to have been). But despite this marital contentment, Zeno cannot stop himself from perpetually jeopardizing it. His stricken conscience is never more on display than when we find him agonizing over his enthrallment to his young mistress, an aspiring yet untalented singer named Carla. He is as incapable of breaking the habit of infidelity as he is the habit of smoking, and just as there have been all those last cigarettes, now there are countless last acts of betrayal. In fact, it is Carla who ends the affair, after she falls for her music teacher. Whereupon—what’s a man to do?—Zeno turns, albeit wallowing in remorse, to prostitutes.

As it happens, it is the marriage of Ada and Guido that fails—and spectacularly. Quickly tiring of his beautiful wife, Guido, a womanizer and a gambler, all but wrecks her life. She is widowed when his fake suicide attempt (intended to get him out of a financial mess of his own making) accidentally succeeds. A further irony, and a cruel one: a flaw in Augusta’s appearance that Zeno found especially displeasing was that she had a squinty eye. Ada, on the other hand, had lovely eyes, but now a thyroid disease has caused them to bulge hideously from their sockets.

Zeno’s autobiography then moves on to tell the long story of the business partnership he enters into with his brother-in-law, and the series of shenanigans, bordering on the burlesque, that lead to Guido’s tragicomic downfall. A final chapter returns us to the novel’s beginning, with Zeno elaborating on his unsatisfying encounter with psychoanalysis. Among other blunders, Doctor S. fails to grasp a crucial point about the pages his patient has written: The doctor “doesn’t know what it means to write in Italian for those of us who speak the dialect and can’t write it. A confession in writing is always a lie. With our every Tuscan word, we lie!” It should be said here that a major reason for the cool reception of Svevo’s work in Italy seems to have been his use of language. The prose of a writer whose native tongue was the Triestine dialect struck some critics as too far from the classic Tuscan to be literary, and his style was disparaged as unpolished and dull.

Now Zeno wants his “confessions” back from the doctor so that he can rewrite them, but, as we already know, Doctor S. had other ideas. In any case, while the doctor claims that analysis has cured Zeno, Zeno insists that it has only made him more “unbalanced and sicker than ever.”

But what exactly is this sickness that Zeno is so morbidly obsessed with, and whose painstaking analysis takes up such a large part of his story? Smoking and infidelity, for which he is supposedly in search of cures (so long as those cures don’t involve actually ceasing those activities), are only symptoms of a deeper malaise. Sickness afflicts his body as well as his mind, though some of his various physical disorders—like the limp he develops after learning that fifty-four different muscles are involved each time a person takes a step—are clearly those of a hypochondriac.

Everyone can see that he is neurotic, but some suspect worse. Little Anna Malfenti demands straight out: “Is it true you’re crazy? Completely crazy?” Zeno’s father is so convinced of his son’s mental instability that he takes steps to ensure that the administration of the family business will remain in the hands of its manager, Olivi, after his death. In the opening story of A Very Old Man, Zeno relates the aftermath of that decision. Deluding himself into thinking that he’d done a fine job running the firm during the Great War (as an Italian citizen Olivi had been forced to leave Trieste), Zeno proposes that he be allowed to continue as boss now that the war is over. Instead, after old Olivi dies of the flu, control of the firm is seized by young Olivi, a hardened veteran of the trenches and highly competent businessman who has nothing but contempt for his buffoonish employer. Zeno soon stops going to the office—and thus is his company saved.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the many advantages of his bourgeois background, Zeno has accomplished little in his fifty-seven years. He studied chemistry and law as a young man, but pursued neither as a profession. He learned to play the violin, but (unlike Guido) is not very good. Inept and purposeless, a man with more than a touch of Oblomov about him, Zeno has no idea what to do with himself—except ponder his own consciousness. A craving for adventure leads him to such undertakings as his affair with Carla and his partnership with Guido, but these engender complications and adverse consequences, which in turn are followed by bouts of guilt and self-reproach.

In a preamble to his manuscript, Zeno suggests that it is “a good idea to memorize your life, even the large part of it that will revolt you.” What might be most revolting about his own history are not his many moral failures, but his often byzantine rationalizations for them (though, it must be said, these are also some of the most entertaining parts of the book). Still smarting from the loss of Carla to a rival, Zeno’s lascivious thoughts turn to Carmen, the hot new secretary Guido has hired precisely in order to make her his mistress:

A mistress shared is the least compromising mistress. . . . Becoming Carmen’s lover, I would have contributed to Ada’s well-being and I wouldn’t have harmed Augusta too much. Both would have been betrayed far less than if Guido and I had had a whole woman each.

In A Very Old Man, Zeno, now seventy, recounts his most recent affair, which took place when he was sixty-seven, “not yet a very old man.” His mistress then is the twenty-four-year-old owner of a tobacco stall to whom he pays a monthly stipend for biweekly trysts. Of course, he would not be Zeno if he didn’t have some rich explanation: reasoning that Mother Nature will “keep an organism alive so long as there’s hope it will reproduce,” Zeno decides to trick her into thinking he’s still fit for reproduction by taking a lover. “I didn’t consider it a transgression, or a betrayal of Augusta,” he says. “That would have been peculiar: to my mind, acquiring a mistress felt like a decision akin to entering a pharmacy.

“But then of course,” as always with Zeno, “the matter grew slightly more complicated.”

Zeno is as anxious as ever about his bodily health, and most of his waking hours are still filled with obsessive introspection. He is still gripped by an overwhelming need to examine his memories, and to keep revising them: “The truth is, my thoughts always turn to the past, as if to correct it—well, falsify it.” He has been reading that “batch of written tales set aside for a doctor” and feels an urgent need to pick up the pen again. (It seems he was also stimulated to write by a surgical procedure involving monkey glands that was intended to rejuvenate him physically but only left him with a bad case of boils.) But whereas the first time around he wrote as a middle-aged man with a past, a present, and a future—the tense, he tells us, that used to cause him the most angst—now he has only his past and present to think about.

Zeno’s relationship with Augusta has remained steadfast, though these days, we are told, she prefers “her large company of dogs, cats, and birds.” Apparently, the animals are an escape from the tension surrounding Zeno’s troubled relations with his children, and in particular with his son, Alfio.

Zeno had vowed long ago that any relationship with any son he might have would never resemble the one he had with his own father: “To this end I intended to avoid great shows of affection between myself and my son, and also shy away from playing the patriarch.” The result is that he is no father to Alfio at all. Though he appears mystified as to why Alfio holds a grudge against him, the reader knows better. Alfio is a dedicated painter, and Zeno—sometimes innocently, sometimes not—tramples all over his son’s “incomprehensible” art. Zeno recalls a day when, as the family was lunching with a guest, he couldn’t resist using a painting he’d bought from Alfio as the butt of a joke. Thus, he confesses, “I offended my poor Alfio quite irreparably.” But why? As Zeno blithely explains, “I just wanted to laugh, and any topic would do.”

He describes his daughter, Antonia, as suffering from such virtue as to be a bore. He has even harsher things to say about her husband, Valentino, another bore, an insufferable bureaucrat, and a weakling to boot, whose ugly looks offend Zeno (“worsening my stock, I felt”). After Valentino dies at forty from what is simply called “premature aging,” it’s Antonia’s mourning that irks Zeno, who finds her grief so extreme that he can hardly stand to be near her.

Antonia’s habit of exaggeration is all the more irksome to Zeno because he believes she has inherited it from him—just as she has inherited the quality of virtuousness from her mother: “I saw myself in my daughter, twisted as she was, and not very lovable.” Similarly, Alfio’s neophyte stage in his artistic development reminds Zeno of his own early attempts to play the violin. His lifelong proclivity for self-loathing now extending to include his offspring, Zeno cannot bear the fact that “those two fools” have descended from him. He is wrung with self-pity: “It was terribly cruel, intolerable, having to see my worst defects reborn in my children.”

For all his flaws, Zeno has always seemed to be an essentially kind person, and it is unsettling to see how his own children whet his mean side. But Svevo’s treatment of the father-child relationship is so comically deft that the reader can’t help laughing—and thus being implicated in that meanness. To make things more unseemly, Zeno positively gushes about another family member: his nephew Carlo, the son of Ada and Guido. As usual, he has an excuse: “My great affection for Carlo is partly due, certainly, to how alone my two children leave me feeling.”

Zeno praises Carlo’s gracefulness and self-assurance, his success as a doctor, and above all his zest for life. He insists that Carlo is the only person with whom he has ever been able to be honest. (“And honesty is marvelously relaxing.”) It pleases him that Carlo is another womanizer, and when the topic is women, “the two of us, naughty boys, laugh a lot.” It’s a May-December bromance, the way Zeno tells it, and he is as forgiving of Carlo’s faults—which include the arrogance and callousness that characterized Carlo’s father—as he is unforgiving of the faults of Alfio and Antonia.

Given the troubling portrait of Zeno as father, it is a relief to hear him expound on the great love he has always felt for his grandson, Umbertino. The boy’s childish imagination and appetite for fun uplift Zeno, and their hours spent walking together—“the young dreamer and the old dreamer”—are portrayed as the sweetest moments of his old age.

Selfish, feckless, self-deluded, weak-willed yet childishly willful, manipulative, slothful, and mendacious: How can such a despicable character also be such a likable one?

To begin with, Zeno possesses—in abundance—three of the most desirable human qualities: intelligence, curiosity, and a sense of humor. It helps also that he is so good at being the kind of person Henry James thought a writer must try to be—one on whom nothing is lost. Certainly he is self-absorbed, but Zeno is no malignant narcissist. He knows that other people exist and have their own lives, and he is genuinely interested in them. And, more often than not, other people’s suffering arouses his compassion.

Like Kafka, whose work he revered, Svevo is a genius at inventing stories that combine the absurd with the most precise and convincing psychological realism. If one has never met anyone in real life quite like the eccentric Zeno, I can’t imagine any honest reader who won’t find in him aspects of her own revolting frailties, meticulously dissected and analyzed—and, in the end, forgiven. That is what makes reading Svevo such a prickly, and yet comforting, experience.

For Svevo, life itself is a fatal pathology, the human condition a sickness for which there is no cure. There exists a treatment, however: laughter. Though the miseries of old age and fear of death are central to his late stories, a huge amount of laughter occurs in A Very Old Man. “A good laugh, now there’s something that doesn’t wear out,” Zeno reminds us. It is above all his marvelous sense of humor, along with his willingness to have us laugh at him as much as with him, that makes Zeno such lively and sympathetic company.

“An easy-going disposition and a deep, good-natured laugh” is how Stanislaus Joyce described Svevo. The Soviet-Jewish writer Ilya Ehrenburg recalled that when he met Svevo for the first time, at a dinner in his honor, Svevo was laughing—and, alas, chain-smoking. He struck Ehrenburg as “a man who was in love with life” and “an authentic living human” who “could make fun of things with kindness.”

Had he been able to quit smoking, Svevo might have been strong enough to recover from the shock of his car accident. He might have finished his novel in progress, and gone on to write more books. Had he lived to be what we would consider a very old man, he might have enjoyed another thirty years of fame and glory. But then he would not have been spared the calamity visited upon his family in the Second World War: the brutal deaths of the three very young men who were his grandsons.