Italo Svevo had few readers and virtually no literary reputation until he reached the age of sixty-four. He published articles, short stories, and a serialization of As a Man Grows Older in the Trieste newspaper L’indipendente (for which he also worked as an editor), brought out book editions of his first two novels at his own expense, and then for twenty-five years published nothing at all. The few local reviews that these works received were sometimes kind, but generally uncomprehending, and they were critical of Svevo’s faulty Italian. These reproaches, according to the biography written by his wife, Livia Veneziani Svevo, and Lina Galli, “wounded him deeply” and increased his lack of trust in himself.
The issue of Svevo’s style has not subsided. It was raised again when, after the publication of Confessions of Zeno, James Joyce, Valéry Larbaud, and Benjamin Crémieux brought Svevo to French attention as a master of the modern novel. Accused of having ignored one of their country’s best writers, some Italian reviewers defended themselves by noting what critic Giulio Caprin called Svevo’s “incredibly poor and confused language.” This debate over Svevo’s language must be understood in the context of his multilingual background and of traditional Italian literary expectations. The Triestine dialect Svevo spoke naturally underlies his own psychological and linguistic patterns and those of his heroes; nevertheless, he wished to be recognized as an Italian writer and thus attempted to write in the Tuscan-based language Alessandro Manzoni had chosen for his I promessi sposi (1840-1842; The Betrothed, 1951). The mature style Svevo developed amid these pressures is an antiliterary one, a kind of business Italian, neither formal nor poetic, that is quite suitable to the private, middle-class atmosphere of his novels.
After the publication of Confessions of Zeno, Svevo was recognized as an important figure in the development of the modern psychological novel, bearing comparison with writers such as Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, and James Joyce. His reputation has grown slowly since his death, and he is now generally credited with taking the Italian novel beyond naturalism and bringing it into the twentieth century.