Wednesday, September 9, 2015

His senses were satisfied and his conscience at rest - Svevo stares into the void

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.


  1. Svevo has been on the periphery of my literary interest for a couple of years now, but whenever I think of him in that straw boater (you know, the most common photo of him) I don't think of a man staring into the void, I think of someone who writes comedy, so this is all enlightening. Have you read Zeno? Supposedly a modernist masterpiece in the vein of Joyce (which incarnation of Joyce I don't know).

    Also, I think you're turning Kipling into a crablike Hesiod: it's The Day's Work, not Days and Works, right?

  2. Oh, this is all comedy. The void is a scream. Italian literature is built on a comedy about going to Hell. Subsequent writers just keep rewriting that book. Comedy = irony + despair. In Italian literature, I mean, in Leopardi and so on.

    Confessions of Zeno is nothing like any version of Joyce. It is really much like this 1898 novel, with three big changes: 1) the author stewed in his juices for 25 years, 2) he entered psychoanalysis, which is a great source of comedy, and 3), this is the big one, he switches to first person. He finds a first-person voice that does a lot of work.

    Honestly, though, only the first chapter is world-class. Worth reading on its own. But piece by piece Zeno is a better novel than As a Man Grows Older. It ends with a deep stare into the void.

    What did I do to Kipling? Look, I have turned into Borges, by accident, inventing imaginary but plausible books.

  3. Thanks so much for posting on this. This has been hovering "near" my TBR pile for so honor which, by itself, is close to a death penalty. Not that it improves greatly moving in the TBR pile. But that's a conversation for my therapist. If I had one.

    I can live with irregularity, as long as I get those flashes.

  4. I know. We - I, but not just me - so often buy books based on rumors. It is good to sometimes be reminded of what is actually in the book. Book blogs a lot of that kind of pleasure - oh yes, I meant to read that.

  5. "oh yes, I meant to read that."...and now I needn't bother, sometimes.
    scott g.f.bailey "got" Svevo, I think: a man in a straw hat staring into the void. It's a generational change, perhaps. The Victorians - Zola, James, Trollope, Verga - didn't "do" staring into the void, personally or artistically.

  6. Roger, yes - I remind myself of a book and can then safely put it off, again, perhaps perpetually.

    I completely agree that there is a shift in sensibility. Now we call identify it with Modernism, but that is hardly how Svevo or Kafka thought about it.

  7. I, for one, never got Svevo. However, "A Perfect Hoax" is a quiet little gem that shows another side of Svevo. Short, worth reading if one can find it.

  8. "A Perfect Hoax" is fairly late, yes? Wait, I have access to the internet. 1929, all right. I have not read it. It does sound appealing.

  9. A late comment which will add nothing, but like your other commenters, I've kept Svevo has waiting on (or off) the shelves, unread. I must get to him one day The reason I'm prompted to comment, though, is your fine Italian literature equation and perception that it's mostly a comedy about going to hell. It's difficult to find a work of Italian literature that doesn't in some way reference the underworld, whether below ground of above it.

  10. I was not expecting a common theme, and certainly not this one. I mean, I knew about Leopardi and Verga, but they just turn out to be extreme points on the continuum, not outliers.