Italo Svevo Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1275

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 continues to write for his own amusement. Mario’s life and personality reflect that of Svevo, and this story can be read as the author gently poking fun at his alter ego, businessman Ettore Schmitz.

The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl, and Other Stories

This early collection of Svevo’s short fiction contains four stories, including the appropriately titled “The Old, Old Man.” It also includes an introductory note by Eugenio Montale, Italy’s foremost poet, who encouraged his countrymen to recognize that Svevo was the greatest Italian fiction writer of his time. The stories display Svevo’s brilliance at characterization, his acute psychological insight, and his understanding of the inner displacement experienced by many modern individuals, thrust into a life that no longer feels natural to them. Svevo confronts his aging antiheroes with the confusing present that contains an array of challenges and tragedies. Age does not seem to bring them wisdom, but it often does bring the serenity that comes through resigned acceptance of life’s surprises.

In the title story, an elderly businessman meets a beautiful young tram driver, and, when she solicits him for a better job, he invites her to his house and begins planning her seduction. He is torn by his ambivalent feelings, since this is his first romantic adventure following his wife’s death: An “old man is a lover out of gear,” he thinks; the “lovemaking machine within him is at least one little wheel short.” He is not troubled by considerations of morality, as he would have been in youth; he feels rejuvenated and youthfully vigorous. As usual with Svevo characters, second guessing gets in the way of action, and he thinks that perhaps instead of seducing the young girl he should act as a philanthropist and help her get a good start in life. He finally does make her his mistress, giving her money after each visit, but he tries to maintain the fiction that their relationship is based on love. After the old man suffers a physical collapse, he is convinced that sin ruined his health. He decides to atone by writing a book for the moral edification of the young girl. He dies with his pen in his mouth. The theme is at the center of Svevo’s chosen terrain: an elderly man separated from a past that exists only in his failing memory and too old to have a future, leaving him stranded in the bewildering present.

Short Sentimental Journey, and Other Stories

This collection contains eight stories, three published during Svevo’s lifetime. It includes “The Hoax,” along with one of Svevo’s most beautifully written stories, “Generous Wine.” The title story traces the journey of an elderly businessman, Signor Aghios, on a train trip from Milan to Trieste. The story quickly draws the reader into Signor Aghios’s fantasies about the lives of his fellow travelers and into his relentless psychological self-examination. He feels old and rusty and enjoys the feeling of youth that floods him when he sees a beautiful young woman. He feels put upon by the demands of his family and friends. He is torn between his generous responses to those around him and his selfish feeling that everyone is out to use him. He responds generously to a young man on the train who is in obvious despair, but while Signor Aghios falls asleep, the young man robs him. The manuscript, unfinished at Svevo’s death, breaks off in midword, but it is a wonderful example of his mastery of the modern psyche.

Further Confessions of Zeno

Confessions of Zeno is a novel in the form of an autobiography that the character Zeno writes at the suggestion of his psychiatrist. Zeno is a gentle man who bumbled through the confusing turns of life, usually finding some way to turn defeat into victory. The novel brought Svevo his long-delayed recognition, and he died before he completed Further Confessions of Zeno.

Further Confessions of Zeno contains five stories and a long play, which together show Svevo’s conception of the unfinished novel. Zeno is now seventy, and after having feared old age all of his life, he finds that his fears were well founded; old age does not bring a period of peaceful golden years. Life, however, is simpler in some ways: “I continue to struggle between the present and past; but at least hope—anxious hope for the future—does not come crowding in between.”

Zeno faces death with the hard-won serenity that comes from the one gift that aging has given him: the ability to accept life with its unending array of often unpleasant surprises, which calls forth resignation as an appropriate substitute for wisdom.

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Italo Svevo Long Fiction Analysis