Italo Svevo Svevo, Italo - Essay

Aron Hector Schmitz


(Short Story Criticism)

Svevo, Italo 1861-1928

(Pseudonym of Ettore Schmitz) Italian short story writer, novelist, playwright, critic, and essayist.

Italo Svevo is considered the father of the modern Italian novel. He popularized the use of internal monologues as a narrative technique and was one of the first Italian authors to apply Freudian theory to his fiction, developing stories that revolve around psychological and psychoanalytical considerations. Reviewer Gian-Paolo Biasin, in his essay "Zeno's Last Bomb," wrote that "Psychoanalysis .. . provided [Svevo] with the link which he had long sought between positivism and subjectivism, between objectivity and relativity." The author's reputation outside of Italy depends largely on his novel La coscienza di Zeno (1923, Confessions of Zeno), though within his home country he is also recognized as an important playwright and short story writer. Svevo's short fiction cultivates his obsession with old age and death, often through irony and humor.

Biographical Information

Svevo's pen name reflects his dual national heritage: Italian and Austrian (Swabian). Born in Trieste to Jewish parents in 1861, Svevo was educated in a Jewish elementary school. When he was 12, he and his brother attended boarding school in Germany where Svevo grew to love literature. Upon his return home, Svevo was forced to accept a clerking position in the Trieste branch of a Vienese bank because of family financial difficulties. During this period, he became interested in the theater and also began to publish short articles in the local newspaper. Svevo married his Catholic cousin, Livia Veneziani, bowed to her pleas to be baptized into the Catholic church, and took a position in her family's successful maritime commercial painting business. In 1905 Svevo met James Joyce, who became his English tutor; the two spent hours conversing about literature. Svevo eventually became one of Joyce's models for Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. Joyce championed Svevo's novels and helped him obtain recognition outside of Italy. After achieving a late acceptance of his work, Svevo died of complications from a minor accident, leaving behind fragments of a sequel to Confessions of Zeno. On his death bed, he renounced his Catholicism, having long since become an agnostic, and asked to be buried in a traditional, Jewish burial shroud. Svevo is buried in the Catholic Cemetery of Trieste.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Except for a few uncollected pieces, Svevo came to short fiction late in his career. He attempted several plays before writing his first novels Una vita (1893, A Life) and Senilità (1898, As a Man Grows Older). Yet it was not until his third novel, Confessions of Zeno, that Svevo became recognized as an important Italian writer. His two collections of short fiction—La novella del buon vecchio e della bella fanciulla (1930, The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl, and Other Stories) and Corto viaggio sentimentale e altri racconti inediti (1949, Short Sentimental Journey, and Other Stories)—were published only after his death: Svevo's final work, Further Confessions of Zeno (1969), intended as a sequel to Confessions of Zeno, was never completed. The fragments in this volume include five narratives ("The Old, Old Man," "An Old Man's Confessions," "Umbertino," "A Contract," and "This Indolence of Mine), considered short fiction, and a play entitled Regeneration. These titles and many of his earlier short stories focus on old age. Svevo depicts aging men, according to G. M. A. Grube in the Canadian Forum, in "a pitiless picture of futility, the intense egotism, the valetudinarianism, the gradual loss of all liberty due to increasing dependence upon other people, which come upon most people during the last period of a long life." Because of his reading of Freud's psychoanalytic theories, Svevo believed character, and not plot, should determine the trajectory of a story. His witty use of irony has moved some critics to label Svevo a forefather of the Italian absurd.

Critical Reception

Svevo had difficulty gaining acceptance in Italy during his lifetime. His experimentation with language and narrative were in contrast to the fashionable classical modes popularized by D'Annunzio and Croce. Indeed, much of Svevo's success was due to the efforts of Joyce, who sent Svevo's work to T. S. Eliot and Ford Maddox Ford. Eugenio Montale, one of the finest Italian poets of the century, helped elevate Svevo's reputation by initiating the "Svevo Case," an extended public debate on the value of Svevo's work. Montale, who himself won the Nobel prize in 1975, cited "The Hoax" as "the highest point" of Svevo's macabre humor and noted that "A Short Sentimental Journey" and later stories were among the best of Svevo's work. Other critics, however, have cited Svevo's short fiction as inferior to his novels because it tends to be less experimental.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

La novella del buon vecchio e della bella fanciulla [The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl, and Other Stories] 1930

Corto viaggio sentimentale e altri racconti inediti [Short Sentimental Journey, and Other Stories] 1949 Further Confessions of Zeno 1969

Other Major Works

Una vita [A Life] (novel) 1893

Senilità [As a Man Grows Older] (novel) 1898

La coscienza di Zeno [Confessions of Zeno] (novel) 1923

The New York Times Book Review (review date 1930)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mellow Wisdom," in The New York Times Book Review, March 16, 1930, p. 6.

[In the following assessment of "The Hoax, " an anonymous critic commends Svevo's effort, asserting that, "though the story is simple, Svevo has made more of it than most writers can make with formidable and ambitious plots. " ]

Ettore Schmitz, who wrote under the name of Italo Svevo, was for many years an intimate friend of James Joyce; but their work is as different as Scott's is different from Proust's. Yet, for all their dissimilarities, it is easy to understand Joyce's admiration for Svevo; it would only be difficult to understand someone who did not admire him. For here is a little book of authentic charm, full of tender humanity and ironic wisdom, and written, if we may judge by Miss de Zoete's admirable translation, in a pure and delightful Italian.

"The Hoax" tells the simplest of stories. It tells of a middleaged provincial who, when he was very young, wrote one indifferent novel. But all his life, though he worked in an office and never prospered, he held himself different from those around him, considered himself an artist, and remained happy thinking of what he would some day achieve. And then a crude commercial traveler, with a love of practical joking, decided to hoax Mario, to pretend that an affluent German publisher wanted to pay a large sum for the foreign rights of his long-forgotten book. Mario fell into the trap, saw wealth and...

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The Times Literary Supplement (review date 1931)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl, and Other Stories, in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 1510, January 8, 1931, p. 26.

[In the following evaluation of The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl, and Other Stories, an anonymous critic finds important qualities of the Italian edition missing from the English translation.]

The last volume of Italo Svevo's work was published posthumously in Italy in 1929; and from this volume we are now given in English translation by Mr. L. Collison-Morley three short stories and an unfinished fragment of a novel under the title of The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl and Other Stories. Except for...

(The entire section is 729 words.)

Lowry Nelson, Jr. (essay date 1959)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Survey of Svevo," in Italian Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 10, Summer, 1959, pp. 25-28.

[Below, Nelson discusses various themes in Svevo's short fiction, including "canine psychology" (from a dog's point of view), the old in love with the young, and death.]

His reputation as a short story writer must rest chiefly on "La novella del buon vecchio e della bella fanciulla" and "Il mio ozio" (the latter translated as "This Indolence of Mine"). They have the advantages of being completed and excellent. On a slightly lower level of achievement we may place "Una burla riuscita" and "Proditoriamente." Among other fragments of fiction one should mention "Corto viaggio...

(The entire section is 1280 words.)

Tony Tanner (review date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Time for Heroes," in Spectator, Vol. ls 6d, No. 7235, February 24, 1967, p. 230.

[In the following review of Short Sentimental Journey, and Other Stories, Tanner suggests that Svevo has an "unfading fascination for the relationship between mind and body. "]

Literary success came late to Italo Svevo, for it was not until 1925 that Confessions of Zeno (published two years before at his own expense) suddenly earned him recognition and fame as an important modern writer with a quietly ironic-pessimistic vision all his own. This success understandably prompted him to further writing and, at the age of sixty-five, he found no subject more engaging or...

(The entire section is 985 words.)

V. S. Pritchett (review date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Clown," in New Statesman, Vol. 73, No. 1879, March 17, 1967, pp. 364-66.

[In the following review of Short Sentimental Journey, and Other Stories, Pritchett calls Svevo "a natural truth-teller, " adding that even though it may not be apparent in the beginning, every word in Svevo's works has a purpose.]

Svevo is a natural truth-teller who makes the professionals look like monsters of false pretension. They confused truth-telling with a passion for disgust or with personal hatreds. The paradox is that he is an egoist who is, somehow, selfless; but when one looks at his work more closely one sees that his mind hesitates on a frontier. As Ettore Schmidtz...

(The entire section is 905 words.)

John Simon (review date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Short Sentimental Journey, and Other Stories, in The New York Times Book Review, Sec. 7, April 9, 1967, pp. 4, 19.

[In the following review of Short Sentimental Journey, and Other Stories, Simon describes Svevo's writing as both realistic and poetic. He concludes: "Svevo saw life as a joke Mother Nature plays on us, and his fiction laughs at it and helps all of us fellow-victims to laugh. "]

The four best pieces in Svevo's Short Sentimental Journey and Other Stories are those which come from the ambience, in time and sensibility, of that late masterwork, The Confessions of Zeno. Its protagonist is the hero as neurotic, as...

(The entire section is 624 words.)

Walter Guzzardi, Jr. (review date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Obsessed by Death," in Saturday Review, Vol. 50 (L), No. 23, June 10, 1967, pp. 36-7.

[Below, Guzzardi describes the similarities between the works of Svevo and French novelist Marcel Proust, commenting that Svevo's "contribution almost matches Proust's influence on contemporary literary currents, and it is time that Svevo's fame in the U.S. won some new boosters. " In this review of Short Sentimental Journey, and Other Stories, Guzzardi states that the translators showed "considerable ingenuity in putting into decent English Svevo's tortured and turgid prose."]

To call Italo Svevo the Italian Proust is to rob him of his truly original creative...

(The entire section is 1014 words.)

Thomas G. Bergin (review date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Further Confessions of Zeno, in Saturday Review, Vol. Lll, No. 37, September 13, 1969, p. 33.

[Here, Bergin laments that Svevo was not able to complete Further Confessions of Zeno, asserting that "on the evidence of these fragments it might have been Svevo 's finest work. "]

Posterity has been kind to Ettore Schmitz, the disillusioned bourgeois of Trieste who chose to call himself "Swabian Italian"; it has more than atoned for the stony indifference of his contemporaries. With the sole exception of Giovanni Verga there is no other Italian prose writer of the turn of the century who can speak with familiarity and authority to readers of...

(The entire section is 792 words.)

Albert N. Mancini (review date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Short Sentimental Journey, and Other Stories, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 6, No. 5, Fall, 1969, pp. 659-64.

[In the following survey of the writings collected in Short Sentimental Journey, and Other Stories, Mancini concludes that to understand Svevo properly, readers must review all of his fiction, particularly his later short stories.]

Italo Svevo's literary reputation in the English speaking world is solid and well-established. The Triestine writer was first presented with the story "The Hoax," published in 1929 in England and in 1930 in America. Svevo's clear and sparse prose, his strategy and compassion and irony rendered...

(The entire section is 3395 words.)

John Simon (review date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Further Confessions of Zeno, in The New York Times Book Review, Sec. 7, December 28, 1969, pp. 12-13.

[Below, Simon favorably assesses Further Confessions of Zeno, perceiving "a cheerful banter that can swerve as easily into madcap satire as into genuine pathos, but most of the time remains just serenely and profoundly funny. "]

Readers who rightly recognize Italo Svevo's The Confessions of Zeno as one of the most, important novels of the century, might be put off, at first glance, by Further Confessions of Zeno. Bits and pieces of an unfinished novel, they might think, and a sequel at that. Bits and pieces they are, for...

(The entire section is 1343 words.)

Charles Lam Markmann (review date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Merchant of Trieste," in The Nation, Vol. 213, No. 9, September 27, 1971, pp. 277-78.

[In the following favorable review of Further Confessions of Zeno, Markmann discusses the comparisons of Svevo with Marcel Proust, André Gide, James Joyce, and Luigi Pirandello.]

Works left unfinished because of the author's death are always a calculated risk; yet there are writers who in one sense must come out ahead on such gambles, regardless of any seeming short-term loss; the very failings of the fragments drive readers into the rediscovery of the artist at his best. One could hardly assay with any justice this projected variorum of sequels to The...

(The entire section is 1307 words.)

Paula Robison (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Una Burla Riuscita: Irony as Hoax in Svevo," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1972, pp. 65-80.

[In the essay below, Robison suggests that Svevo's view of art is similar to Sigmund Freud's and that "The Hoax" contains three Freudian principles that help readers to understand Svevo's fiction.]

Those who admire Svevo most should be among the first to agree that sincerity is not one of his virtues. His tricky irony, his sly understatement, and his addiction to the witz delight us with the pleasures of indirection. Sincerity in any of his characters, moreover, is almost always presented as a kind of lovable folly; and the reader is...

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Peter E. Bondanella (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Hoax': Svevo on Art and Reality," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. X, No. 3, Summer, 1973, pp. 263-69.

[In the following essay, Bondanella argues that "The Hoax" illustrates why Svevo should be considered a forerunner of the Italian absurd. ]

Though there is no longer any need to introduce Italo Svevo's major novels to informed audiences in Europe or America, few scholars have examined his short fiction in detail. What criticism does exist on the minor works often emphasizes them as autobiographical documents; and while a biographical approach to Svevo's works is often fruitful, such an approach obscures the importance of the minor works in the...

(The entire section is 2865 words.)

Roland A. Champagne (essay date 1975-76)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Displacement of Plato's Pharmakon: A Study of Italo Svevo's Short Fiction," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 21, No. 4, Winter, 1975-76, pp. 564-72.

[In the essay below, Champagne finds the ancient Pharmakon 's dual quality in Svevo's short fiction and discusses the author's use of language as an alternate order to time and space. ]

"Il caso Svevo" bears witness to the displacement of Italo Svevo's corpus in time and place. It has not been until the 1950's, some twenty years after his death, that Svevo's work has begun to receive the attention it is due. This attention has been especially productive in university communities in and out of...

(The entire section is 3929 words.)

Naomi Lebowitz (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Fiction's Climb," in Italo Svevo, Rutgers University Press, 1978, pp. 154-63.

[In the following excerpt, Lebowitz argues that Svevo 's later fiction evolves into a more traditional and less dramatic form.]

It has often been noted that the more traditional narrative modes of Svevo's shorter pieces, in relation to Confessions of Zeno, entail a loss of intimacy between the author and the hero. This is misleading, for there is a compensating intimacy between the favorite meditations of Svevo and the reflections of the last stories uninhibited by distracting fictional mediation. The conventional journey structure of "Short Sentimental Journey," a...

(The entire section is 3298 words.)

Beno Weiss (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Short Stories," in Italo Svevo, Twayne Publishers, 1987, pp. 122-33.

[In the following excerpt, Weiss explores Svevo's short fiction and finds a growing propensity toward literary experimentation.]

It was not until 1888, that the fledgling author [Svevo] made his first appearance as a writer of fiction on the pages of L'Indipendente, which serialized his short story "Una lotta" ("A contest".) His "minor" narrative writings are a potpourri of mainly undated short stories and tales of different lengths, some fragmentary and others sketches of future works never brought to completion. Only seven were ever finished: "Una botta," "L'assassinio di Via...

(The entire section is 4840 words.)

Eduardo Saccone (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Struggles, War, Revolution and Literature in Some Stories by Italo Svevo," in Literature and Revolution, edited by David Bevan, Editions Rodopi, 1989, pp. 63-71.

[In the following essay, Saccone points to the continuous use of dramatic struggle in Svevo's work as a way to illustrate "literature as correction of life. "]

"Una lotta" ("A Struggle") is the title of the first story by Italo Svevo, a text of 1888, more exactly a text published in the issues of January 6, 7, and 8 of L'In-dipendente, a Triestine newspaper. It is appropriate, and almost emblematic, that the long and very consistent discourse carried on by this writer for almost forty years...

(The entire section is 3094 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Bloodgood, Francis C, and Van Voorhis, John W. "Criticism of Italo Svevo: A Selected Checklist." Modern Fiction Studies 18, No. 1 (Spring 1972): 119-29.

Covers the significant scholarship on all of Svevo's works; certain important items in foreign languages.


Furbank, P. N. Italo Svevo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966, 232 p.

A well-received English-language biography of Svevo that helped Modernists in Britain and the United States present Svevo's importance in the canon.

Gatt-Rutter, John. Italo Svevo: A Double Life. Oxford: Clarendon...

(The entire section is 306 words.)