Italo Svevo was born Aron Hector Schmitz on December 19, 1861, in the multiracial city of Trieste. Trieste was then a territory of the Habsburg Empire, despite its cultural identity with Italy. The pen name Italo Svevo (“The Italian Swabian”) reflects Svevo’s mixed background. His father, Francesco, was descended from German Jews and lived as a youth in Austria, Hungary, and Yugoslavia, but regarded himself as an Italian and married an Italian-speaking Jewish woman, Allegra Moravia. Francesco, who had become successful in the glassware business, sent his sons to a German boarding school to prepare them for commercial careers. In his six years in Germany, Svevo took a greater interest in literature than in commercial studies, and he read, among others, Friedrich Schiller, William Shakespeare, Nikolai Gogol, and Ivan Turgenev. When he returned to Trieste in 1878, he was secretly determined to have a literary career and wanted to study classical Italian literature in Florence. Eager to see Svevo begin his business career, his father refused to send him to Florence but did allow him to enroll at the Istituto Superiore Commerciale Revoltella; here, Svevo again used his time to study literature instead of commerce.
In 1880, Svevo’s father lost much of his money (largely because of generosity to relatives) and degenerated both mentally and physically. Svevo accepted a position as a bank clerk, which he found tedious and demeaning. Meanwhile, he read Italian classics and French novels (byÉmile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, and Alphonse Daudet) in the evenings at a public library; frequented cafés and theaters with his painter friend Umberto Veruda, whose flamboyant bohemian style complemented Svevo’s more timid and bourgeois manner; wrote a few articles for Italian Nationalist periodicals; and attempted to write plays.
After his favorite brother died in 1886, Svevo began his first novel, A Life, which he had published at his own expense. He had an affair with a woman named Giuseppina Zergol and drew on this episode for the material of his second novel, As a Man Grows Older. Svevo’s intentions to remain a bachelor were dispelled during his mother’s final illness, when he was touched by the kindness of his cousin Livia Veneziani. Livia was a practicing Roman Catholic, though a quarter Jewish by descent, and thirteen years Svevo’s junior. Her wealthy family opposed the engagement but eventually relented;...
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