As a young man Italo Svevo wrote two novels: Una vita (1892; A Life, 1963) and Senilità (1898; As a Man Grows Older, 1932). Both books were ignored by readers and critics, and Svevo confined himself to writing essays and stories until his novel La coscienza di Zeno (1923; Confessions of Zeno, 1930) won great acclaim and awakened interest in his earlier work.
Although Italo Svevo received little attention until the end of his life, he came to be seen as one of the major modernists of the twentieth century, ranked with such writers as James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Robert Musil, and Franz Kafka.
The major short stories of Italo Svevo (SVAY-voh) have been translated into English, as have the fragments of an incomplete novel, in Further Confessions of Zeno (1969). Eight stories written between 1910 and 1928, only three of which were published in Svevo’s lifetime, were collected under the title Corto viaggio sentimentale, e altri racconti inediti (1949; Short Sentimental Journey, and Other Stories, 1966). The standard Italian edition of Svevo’s work is the four-volume Opera omnia (1966-1969), which includes letters, plays, stories, essays, and novels.
Italo Svevo had few readers and virtually no literary reputation until he reached the age of sixty-four. He published articles, short stories, and a serialization of As a Man Grows Older in the Trieste newspaper L’indipendente (for which he also worked as an editor), brought out book editions of his first two novels at his own expense, and then for twenty-five years published nothing at all. The few local reviews that these works received were sometimes kind, but generally uncomprehending, and they were critical of Svevo’s faulty Italian. These reproaches, according to the biography written by his wife, Livia Veneziani Svevo, and Lina Galli, “wounded him deeply” and increased his lack of trust in himself.
The issue of Svevo’s style has not subsided. It was raised again when, after the publication of Confessions of Zeno, James Joyce, Valéry Larbaud, and Benjamin Crémieux brought Svevo to French attention as a master of the modern novel. Accused of having ignored one of their country’s best writers, some Italian reviewers defended themselves by noting what critic Giulio Caprin called Svevo’s “incredibly poor and confused language.” This debate over Svevo’s language must be understood in the context of his multilingual background and of traditional Italian literary expectations. The Triestine dialect Svevo spoke naturally underlies his own psychological and linguistic patterns and those of his heroes; nevertheless, he wished to be recognized as an Italian writer and thus attempted to write in the Tuscan-based language Alessandro Manzoni had chosen for his I promessi sposi (1840-1842; The Betrothed, 1951). The mature style Svevo developed amid these pressures is an antiliterary one, a kind of business Italian, neither formal nor poetic, that is quite suitable to the private, middle-class atmosphere of his novels.
After the publication of Confessions of Zeno, Svevo was recognized as an important figure in the development of the modern psychological novel, bearing comparison with writers such as Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, and James Joyce. His reputation has grown slowly since his death, and he is now generally credited with taking the Italian novel beyond naturalism and bringing it into the twentieth century.
Furbank, P. N. Italo Svevo: The Man and the Writer. Berkeley, Ca.: University of California Press, 1966. In one of the first major works on Svevo in English, Furbank considers Svevo to be the creator of modern Italian fiction. The book consists of a biography of Svevo, followed by literary analyses of his works, including a chapter largely devoted to his short fiction.
Gatt-Rutter, John. Italo Svevo: A Double Life. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1988. Gatt-Rutter stresses the duality of Svevo’s life: a writer and businessman, an atheist who converted from Judaism to Catholicism, a socialist who was a successful capitalist. While it is short on literary criticism, this is the best work available on the details of Svevo’s life and is based on letters and other primary sources.
Lebowitz, Naomi. Italo Svevo. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1978. In an excellent study that focuses on Svevo’s writing rather than on his life, Lebowitz regards him as the father of modern Italian literature and as one of the great modernists, ranked with James Joyce, Franz Kafka, and William Faulkner.
Moloney, Brian. Italo Svevo: A Critical Introduction. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1974. An excellent short critical introduction to Svevo’s work, which includes chapters on his short fiction.
Svevo, Livia Veneziani. Memoir of Italo Svevo. Marlboro, Vt.: Marlboro Press, 1990. A loving memoir by Svevo’s widow which captures his humor and his gentle nature. It includes many of his letters and an appendix that includes a 1927 lecture by Svevo on James Joyce.
Weiss, Beno. Italo Svevo. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Weiss considers Svevo to be one of the seminal figures in modern European literature. Weiss stresses the divided nature of Svevo’s life and the importance of Judaism to his life and literature. It follows the usual Twayne format, with a brief biographical overview, followed by chapters on Svevo’s major works, including one on his short stories.