Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Confessions of Zeno is considered to be the first novel to employ Freudian theory extensively. Svevo had read Sigmund Freud’s works and discussed his ideas with a friend who was a psychoanalyst, as well as with James Joyce. (He sent a copy of the book to Freud, who did not acknowledge receiving it.) The influence of Svevo’s friend Joyce may be seen more clearly in the novel’s modernist characteristics. It has been called the first modern Italian novel for its representation of the totality of a person’s social and psychological existence. It is also a notable example of modernism in its treatment of time, as Zeno rearranges the events of his life to support his rationalizations: “Time, for me, is not that unimaginable thing which never stops. For me, but only for me, it comes again.” He also complains that time “is really very ill-ordered!” Zeno is the epitome of the modern person desperately seeking order in a period when chaos is on the rise.

Zeno is in the tradition of Sinclair Lewis’ George Babbitt and Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman: the businessman who, above all else, wants to be well liked. As a self-serving liar, he is one of the best examples of the unreliable narrator. In the Jewish literary tradition, he is also a classic schlemiel, a comic fool who wants his weaknesses to be seen as his strengths. Confessions of Zeno has been widely admired by post-World War II American novelists. Its protagonist resembles the schlemiels in the fiction of Saul Bellow, Bruce Jay Friedman, and Philip Roth. Though Svevo has influenced many Italian writers, including Alberto Moravia, Confessions of Zeno, his masterpiece, has been compared more often with the works of German writers, particularly Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927). This connection is only fitting, given Ettore Schmitz’s German ancestry and his pseudonym, which means “Italo-German.”