Italo Svevo Essay - Critical Essays

Aron Hector Schmitz

Italo Svevo Short Fiction Analysis

Italo Svevo’s writings possessed the happy quality of becoming fresher and ever more relevant as the decades passed following his death. He was attuned to the intellectual currents that shaped twentieth century thought, mastering the work of such figures as Charles Darwin, Arthur Schopenhauer, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud. He used them to enrich his portrait of people living in urban, industrial society, characterized by huge institutions that order everyday life and overwhelm the individual.

His stories always deal with a similar set of characters facing the same set of problems. He invented the antihero, before that figure became central to modern literature. Svevo’s central characters are ordinary people trying to cope with modern life, so self-absorbed and self-analytical that they become paralyzed and impotent. While they are often inept bunglers, they are endearing figures, who learn to accept the buffeting of existence with humor and resignation, bringing to mind Charlie Chaplin’s little clown character. Svevo offers naturalistic descriptions of modern social and economic life, but when he begins his masterful character development, he becomes subjective and psychological, sketching a Kafkaesque world of anxiety, angst, and ambiguity. Alienation is his theme, as it is with most modernist writers. His generation’s destiny, Svevo wrote, “will be that of studying life without understanding it because we shall not have known how to live it.”

Svevo experienced personally the ambiguity that paralyzes his characters. He was a divided personality: a businessman and writer, a socialist in belief and a capitalist in practice, an atheist who converted to Catholicism, a Jew whose conversion to Catholicism never felt right, a gentle and humorous man who never for a moment lost sight of life’s tragedy.

The Hoax

In The Hoax, a novella written in 1929, Svevo explores the themes that concerned him throughout his career: writing, the business world, the maladjusted antihero, often elderly, trying to make sense of a life which seems endlessly challenging and puzzling, often enticing even old and supposedly wise individuals into self-deception.

Mario Samigli is a sixty-year-old businessman, who published a novel forty years before the time of the story. Although he still fantasizes about achieving literary fame, his novel was greeted with silence at the time of its publication and sank into oblivion, although as a published author he still has a literary reputation among his friends.

One of these, Enrico Gaia, a failed poet, jealous of the literary aura that clings to Mario, stages an elaborate practical joke. He tells Mario that a representative of a major publishing firm is in Trieste and wants to republish Mario’s novel, promising him a huge sum of money and, more important, the literary fame that has eluded him. When Mario, a gentle and happy man, finds he has been the victim of a public and embarrassing hoax, he beats Enrico. Mario soon recovers his equilibrium, regarding the humiliation as another of life’s many setbacks, and...

(The entire section is 1275 words.)