Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Adopting an ironic tone which it often amused him to assume towards himself… - Italo Svevo's As a Man Grows Older

The book at hand is When a Man Grows Older (not a great title) aka Emilio’s Carnival (terrible title) aka Senilità (actual Italian title), by Aron Ettore Schmitz aka Italo Svevo, published in 1898.  It’s Svevo’s second novel.  I haven’t read the first, A Life (1892).  Svevo was so disgusted by the failures of these two novels that his third did not appear for twenty-five years, and even then it took the encouragement of James Joyce, who had been Svevo’s English tutor in Trieste, which is an unlikely story but I guess true.

When a Man Grows Older is not as good as The Confessions of Zeno / Zeno’s Conscience (1923) – why Svevo’s titles cause so much trouble I do not understand – or at least not as good as the later novel’s amazing first chapter, the “last cigarette” chapter.

The reason Senilità did not sell is that it was a hideously ugly book, judging by the photo at Wikipedia.  The other reason is that the interior of the book is also quite ugly in a way that modern literature has trained us to endure but was apparently not so easily digested in 1898.  Now we – some of us – are used to it.

Emilio, who per the title is a man and who is growing older in the sense that we all are – he is thirty-five when the novel begins – picks up a young woman, Angiolina, on the street, a new adventure for him but not so much for her.  Eventually their love affair is destroyed by Emilio’s jealousy and disgust at Angiolina’s lies about her sexual behavior.  Sometimes it is all quite a lot like the “Swann in Love” part of Swann’s Way.  But Emilio is a much smaller man than Swann.

The novel’s subplots are about depression, betrayal, and death.  Angiolina in some sense represents a life lived rather than delayed, impeded or destroyed. 

Her figure even became a symbol…

That lofty, splendid symbol sometimes seemed on the point of coming to life again as a warm-blooded woman, but always stayed a sad and thoughtful one.  (235)

These corrosively ironic lines are practically the last of the novel.  From the point of view of Emilio, which occupies most of the book, Angiolina has always been more of a symbol than a person.  The ingenuity of the novel is that it lets me see Angiolina’s warm-bloodedness through the distorted perspective of Emilio.   Angiolina has always been alive; Emilio in some more abstract state.  “[I]n his emotion he had gone in search of images and metaphor” (218).  The novel is a masterpiece of subtle and less subtle ironies.

Quotations and page numbers from the NYRB Classics edition, translated by Beryl de Zoete.  The title quotation, which describes the novel perfectly, is on p. 18.


  1. Love the Joyce story. Svevo has long been on my radar but never on my shelves. Hopefully I'll get to him before I go a little senile.

  2. It cracks me up that the character is 35. Ancient.

    I forgot to mention that Svevo needed an English tutor so he could go to England to sell naval paint. Somehow that is my favorite part of the story. It should be in a novel, not somehow lead to the writing of novels.

    1. Was he a success at paint selling? Joyce opened Ireland's first cinema so an entrepreneurial streak was/is clearly part of many novelists natures.

    2. Yes, a success - but Svevo married into the role. It was his father-in-law's company.