The narration begins with a pronouncement that the present established by calendars and clocks is merely arbitrary; that the self and the people around the self constitute the true present. The reader is thus introduced to the ensuing interior monologue and its obsession with time.
The narrator’s present is dominated by his retirement from business and an impending inertia. It is also largely dedicated to medicine. In arming himself against disease, the narrator, Zeno, is aided by his nephew Carlo, just out of the university and conversant with the most up-to-date remedies. Guided by Carlo, Zeno is committed to preventive treatments. Having determined that Mother Nature will maintain life in an organism only so long as there is hope that it will reproduce, he prescribes a mistress for himself.
Zeno and the tobacconist, Felicita, to whom he becomes attracted, agree at the outset on a monthly allowance. Felicita rarely neglects to mention the stipend falling due by the twentieth of the month. For his part, Zeno never lets on that his interest in her is primarily medical. Zeno learns, however, that another person is a “complex medicine,” impossible to take in doses. On one of the two days of the week he is scheduled to visit his mistress, he decides that he would be better off listening to Ludwig von Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1823). The next day, however, he determines to take advantage of what is due him. He reminds himself that he must pursue a treatment “with the utmost scientific exactitude” to gage its effectiveness.
After arriving at Felicita’s flat, Zeno is surprised to find there fat old Misceli, a man about his age. Regaining his composure, Zeno orders some cigarettes. Felicita’s scolding of him for visiting her on an unappointed day offends him. He declares an end to their arrangement.
As he starts down the stairs, Misceli appears and announces that he, too, is leaving, having placed his own order with the tobacconist. Zeno takes considerable satisfaction in comparing his fitness favorably to Misceli’s. After a discussion on maintaining health and stability, the two part.
Motivated by a sense of economy, Zeno calls on Felicita once again before the paid-up month is through. She is on her way out, and can only say that she will consider the matter. Zeno’s response is an ineffectual “Ouf!”
Thus Felicita has educated him in his “present role of old man.” Now he attempts to “deceive” Mother Nature simply by following women with his eyes, “trying to discover in their legs something more than a mere motor apparatus.” The story closes with an episode in which Zeno’s gaze at a lovely young girl on a train is met with an accusation of “Old lecher” from an aged maidservant, which he parries with, “Old fool!”
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