Italo Svevo

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.


His Works

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).


Further Reading on Italo Svevo

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).

Additional Biography Sources

Gatt-Rutter, John, Italo Svevo: a double life, Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Veneziani Svevo, Livia, Memoir of Italo Svevo, Marlboro, Vt.: Marlboro Press, 1990.