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.
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.
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.