Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431

Svevo is generally considered to have pioneered the use of interior monologue as a narrative technique. Critics write admiringly of the insightful and innovative probing of character in his work. Svevo is also identified as one of the first fiction writers to experiment with psychoanalytic concepts, with which he became acquainted because of cultural ties to Trieste, his hometown, and Vienna, the center of Freudian analysis. From The Confessions of Zeno on, his narratives present two levels of action. The first is a loosely connected series of events linked thematically; the second takes place in the mind of the narrator.

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The irony that suffuses Svevo’s work derives in part from this dual structure. Motives and intentions are contrasted with the stated perceptions of others and also with their end results. Zeno is shocked when told by Felicita that she does not find him repulsive, as he has never imagined himself that way. Instead of protecting him from death and decay, Felicita ends up teaching Zeno that he is an old man. Even Zeno’s ordering of cigarettes as a way of avoiding humiliation backfires: The brand, which is duly delivered to him, is one he despises. Such skillful use of irony enables Svevo to balance humor and pathos in this and other works successfully.

Svevo’s style was denounced by contemporary Italian critics for its lack of polish and luster. They thereby remained loyal to the current cult of literature promoted by the poet, novelist, and dramatist Gabriele D’Annunzio and defined in his phrase, “beauty is all.” Svevo’s bemused and bumbling narratives could scarcely be more antithetical to D’Annunzio’s virtuoso style. Thus began the “Svevo case,” an extended debate among critics on the literary quality of Svevo’s works. Supporters have claimed an appropriateness for his homely prose, given the transparency with which it reflects his characters’ less-than-lofty preoccupations. Nobel Prize-winning poet Eugenio Montale has noted that, in translation, the “sclerosis” of Svevo’s characters tends to be lost.

Svevo’s “pidgin Italian,” as many critics characterize his language, is reflected in his pseudonym, which means “Italus the Swabian.” Here he salutes his mixed linguistic heritage: his father’s in the German Rhineland and his mother’s in Italy. In defense of his idiosyncratic prose style, Svevo wrote in 1925, “For me, growing up in a country where, until seven years ago, our dialect was our true language, my prose could not have been other, unfortunately, than what it is.” With characteristic self-mockery, he added, “and now there is no time to straighten out my crooked legs.”

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