Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 554
Zeno Cosini (ZEH-noh koh-SEE-nee), an Italian businessman in Trieste (then part of Austria). The book is supposed to be a narrative that Zeno prepared for Dr. S., his psychoanalyst. Zeno first discusses his attempts to stop smoking, in which he displays his usual pattern of taking a “health-giving bath of good resolutions” that are never carried out. The same irresolution appears in the two most important aspects of Zeno’s life: sex and business. He wins his plain but affectionate wife after proposing in vain to two of her sisters (a third has pronounced him quite mad). Although he comes to love his wife, all of his baths of good intentions cannot keep him from taking a mistress, Carla, a music student. He is generally content to leave his family business in the hands of the manager, Olivi. Even when he joins his brother-in-law, Guido Speier, in a separate venture, he mostly watches passively, until Guido dies, leaving his affairs in a disastrous state; then Zeno steps in and by some lucky speculations recovers part of the losses. When war between Italy and Austria separates him from his family and Olivi, he again asserts himself and proves adept at profiting from wartime shortages. The references to psychoanalysis in the novel invite a Freudian interpretation of Zeno, which is supported by Zeno’s extreme hypochondria and his troubled memories of his father. Zeno himself likes to analyze life in terms of health and disease, especially Basedow’s disease. The name Zeno recalls two Greek philosophers, one a paradoxical skeptic and the other a stoic.
Giovanni Malfenti (jee-oh-VAHN-nee mahl-FEHN-tee), a successful businessman with four daughters. Zeno takes him as a role model and resolves to marry one of his daughters, whom he has never seen.
Guido Speier (GWEE-doh speh-EE-ehr), a young man set up in business by his father in Trieste. Initially, he makes a good impression, especially in contrast with Zeno; he is handsome and plausible and plays the violin very well, whereas Zeno plays it very badly. He wins Ada where Zeno failed. It is after they go into business together that he reveals his depth of incompetence in undertakings far beyond any Zeno would consider; it is Zeno who tries to protect Guido’s father’s interests and who manages to save some of Guido’s estate for Ada. It is Guido’s final folly to feign suicide twice to get money from Ada; the second time, he miscalculates and kills himself.
Ada Malfenti Speier
Ada Malfenti Speier, the eldest and most beautiful daughter, who wisely rejects Zeno and unwisely accepts Guido Speier. She loses her beauty through Basedow’s (Graves’) disease, a form of goiter. After Guido’s death, she goes to live with his relatives in Argentina.
Augusta Malfenti Cosini
Augusta Malfenti Cosini, Zeno’s wife. Although not beautiful, she is patient and understanding.
Alberta Malfenti, an intellectual whom Zeno courts briefly.
Anna Malfenti, the youngest sister, who believes Zeno is completely mad.
Olivi (oh-LEE-vee), the manager who conducts the Cosini business with the prudence and industry that Zeno lacks but without Zeno’s “inspirations.”
Carla, a music student. Zeno is first her patron and somewhat incompetent adviser, then later her lover. Carla deserts him to marry her teacher.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 411
Italo Svevo succeeds in making the reader sympathetic to his characters by exposing their humanity and weaknesses. Despite his neuroses and lies, Zeno triumphs through his sense of humor and irony. He is a hypochondriac because he needs a disease to impose some order on his...
(This entire section contains 411 words.)
rather pointless life: He is in ecstasy when he thinks that he has diabetes. His imaginary illnesses are, in an ironic sense, more serious than the real diseases that plague his father and Ada. His sickness has no cure—regardless of his self-delusion at the end of the narrative. He also thinks that business is a source of form and discipline and resents Olivi for doing the work he could do himself, yet he finds little of the same order at Guido’s office. His quick settling of Guido’s affairs shows that he could force himself to be a good businessman. He is simply too self-indulgent.
Zeno’s motivations are complex and contradictory. He is at first devoted to Guido as a public display of his indifference to losing Ada, but a true affection eventually develops, making Ada’s harsh judgment of him after her husband’s death more painful. While vacationing in Lucinico during the war, Zeno tells a peasant that the fighting will not spread to his village. He does not want the man to worry, but he is also being irresponsible. He has tricked himself into thinking that all of his lies are equally harmless.
Humor and irony come into play most strongly when he tries to explain himself: “Everything I have put down in my notebooks proves quite clearly that I have, and have always had, a strong impulse to become better; this is perhaps my greatest misfortune.” Why, then, does he lie so much? He tells Carla that the then-beautiful Ada is his wife so that she will think twice about leaving him. He habitually exaggerates, claiming, for example, that his father’s striking him “deprived me of all my courage and of all joy in life.” This statement comes from a man who lives for comfort and pleasure. Zeno fluctuates inexplicably between melodramatic despair and what he calls “my usual incurable optimism.”
The other characters in the novel are important only as satellites to this self-centered storyteller. Augusta is the most notable figure; only she recognizes the comic nature of her husband’s life. She loves Zeno uncritically and is the true source of order in his life.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 66
Biasin, Gian-Paolo. “Zeno’s Last Bomb,” in Literary Diseases: Theme and Metaphor in the Italian Novel, 1975.
Furbank, P.N. Italo Svevo: The Man and the Writer, 1966.
Lebowitz, Naomi. Italo Svevo, 1978.
Lucente, Gregory L. “The Genre of Literary Confession and the Mode of Psychological Realism: The Self-consciousness of Zeno,” in Beautiful Fables: Self-consciousness in Italian Narrative from Manzoni to Calvino, 1986.
Moloney, Brian. Italo Svevo: A Critical Introduction, 1974.