Sunday, December 04, 2016

the last book I read

Zeno's Conscience by Italo Svevo.

Zeno Cosini is a middle-aged businessman from Trieste attending a psychoanalyst in order to give up his lifelong smoking habit. In an attempt to break his patient's seemingly intractable addiction, the psychoanalyst suggests that Zeno write a memoir of various key moments from his life.

So we learn of Zeno's relationship with his father, up to and including his father's death. We learn of the rather haphazard method he chose of acquiring a wife: ingratiating himself with the local Malfenti family and then working through the daughters in reverse order of attractiveness, starting with pretty but serious Ada who has no interest in him at all and then finishing with plain but amiable Augusta, with whom, paradoxically, he has a long and happy marriage.

A theme starts to emerge here; Zeno bumbling through life, borne along slightly passively by events, never actively evil or malicious but occasionally thoughtlessly self-centred, and in the end succeeding almost despite himself. We see this in the next section of the novel wherein he describes his exceptionally half-arsed business venture with Guido, husband of Ada, and a man who Zeno simultaneously admires and resents for his successful courtship of her. The venture founders owing to both its founders' comical ineptitude and laziness and Guido's weakness for gambling on the stock market, though after Guido's subsequent suicide Zeno manages to win back most of the losses via some equally ill-advised gambling.

The novel ends in Trieste in 1916 with World War I underway and Zeno reflecting on his completed memoirs and deciding to abandon his psychoanalysis and, presumably, crack back into the fags in a big way.

The back-cover blurb for my Penguin Modern Classics version of Zeno's Conscience includes novelist Paul Bailey's claim for it being "arguably the greatest comic novel of the twentieth century". I don't know about that, but then again I don't know what the criteria are for judging. Actually making me laugh out loud? A tiny tiny handful of books have done that, and if you were making the judgment solely on that criterion I'd probably give the title to Lucky Jim. By far the funniest section of the book is the first bit describing Zeno's repeated failed attempts to give up smoking; given that this is a tiny fraction of the book it's slightly odd that so many descriptions of the book imply that this is what it's about. My copy is no exception: the back cover blurb describes it as a "devilishly funny portrayal of a man's attempt to give up smoking and make sense of his life". It's certainly the latter, indirectly, but the former is really just part of the set-up of the framing device. Nonetheless, as you can see, the designers of the front cover artwork deemed it significant enough to make it the main theme of the image.

So given that I wasn't literally pissing myself laughing throughout, it wasn't completely clear what the purpose of it was, which isn't to say that I didn't enjoy it. And critical opinion seems firmly decided that it's a classic of comic modernist fiction, so I defer to their judgment. I guess maybe the stylistic tricks just don't seem quite as daring and unfamiliar as they would have when it was first published in 1923. Zeno himself is an endearingly unreliable narrator, which means that one certainly shouldn't take his versions of his courtship of the Malfenti girls or his personal and business relationship with Guido at face value. You certainly shouldn't read too much into its having taken me 78 days to read it; it's just that I've been busy with other stuff lately. Nevertheless that's the third-longest reading stint in the history of this blog after Infinite Jest and Midnight's Children (96 and 91 days respectively) and just ahead of Sunset Song at 66 days.

Other notable things: while I was in the process of reading Zeno's Conscience I happened to listen to this year's Reith Lectures on Radio 4 featuring philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, and one of his lectures, on the subject of "Country", coincidentally used the experiences of one Aron Ettore Schmitz aka Italo Svevo to illustrate its central thesis. Svevo was also, during the first decade of the twentieth century, tutored in English by none other than James Joyce, and made use of the connection to get Zeno's Conscience more widely published and distributed. Finally, Trieste during World War I also featured heavily in John Berger's G.

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