Why this turn by so many outstanding writers, and eventually readers, to such unpleasant characters? What motivates Italo Svevo (or Machado de Assis or Luigi Pirandello) to wallow in the blinkered selfishness of a protagonist, Emilio, who provides the narrative motion and ethical meaning of the novel by his complete failure to understand himself, where the irony of the novel is that he is always wrong?
I have many conventional ideas on this subject, and will mention some of them before wallowing a bit myself. First, this is not the social realism of, say, Verga or Zola, who are going to show the world the way it really is, with all of the dirt and the grit. Not that Svevo was not reading Verga and Zola with interest. Nor is this the distant aestheticism of Flaubert, in which the empty amorality of the characters are in the service of the creation of an object of extraordinary beauty, perhaps. Not that Svevo had not absorbed Flaubert.
No, here we see an example of a novel written against or across or within a background of the contemporary philosophy and science of 1898. Nietzsche, Darwin, and perhaps some precursors of Freud, or the actual Freud, just maybe. As a psychologist, Svevo is a peer of Freud. He is studying men, mostly himself, I suppose, who have lost not just their faith in the wake of these big modern ideas, but also their religion, their church. Society no longer even requests that they fake their faith. In the absence of God, what values does man substitute? Svevo has little interest in the religious aspect of this question, but he is interested in the void.
The protagonist of As a Man Grows Older does not do so well in the face of the void – he has even written a novel, for pity’s sake – but other characters do all right. There are sympathetic characters in the novel, but Svevo makes me work for my sympathy. Emilio keeps blocking my view.
In the course of his life he had dreamed of theft, murder, and rape. He had experienced imaginatively the criminal’s courage, strength and perverse desires, he had even dreamed the results of his crime, above all that he should invariably escape punishment. But then he had had the double satisfaction of indulging in his dream and of discovering all the things he had wanted to destroy still intact, so that his senses were satisfied and his conscience at rest. He had committed a crime without any harmful results. (37)
For example. Or even better, one about Emilio’s best friend, a sculptor:
Emilio met him next morning walking behind the cart which took dogs away to be killed, and quite overcome by pity for the poor beasts. He was no doubt genuinely affected, but he admitted that he indulged in the emotion because it increased his artistic sensibility. (133)
Italian literature must be the most comically grim literary tradition of the 19th century. This is the second most important thing I have learned about Italian literature this year. I wrote down some more good ones, but probably not as good as the above, and while reading the most ironic aphorism-packed chapters (5 through 7), I did not take any notes at all. So these will do.