Themes and Meanings
As one of five fragments that constitute an unfinished continuation of the novel La coscienza di Zeno (1923; Confessions of Zeno, 1930), “This Indolence of Mine” treats many of the same themes: signs of health and disease, the aging process, preoccupation with death, and human motivation. Much of the narrative deliberates over medical theories and health regimes. Such deliberations dominate not only Zeno’s musings but also his conversation. He even interrupts his narrative to check his blood pressure.
The marking of time is a related concern, as its loss is a reminder that one is approaching death. Zeno unsuccessfully tries to “claim” his due from Felicita before the end of his paid-up month. Following her evasions, his futile attempt to find solace in music reinforces his betrayal by time, the art of music depending on temporal relationships. Instead of the joy and harmony that he expects from listening to the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, he senses only violence.
Presumably influenced by Freudian psychology, Italo Svevo delineates his characters by their drives: Zeno’s thoughts and actions are taken up with “hoodwinking” Mother Nature into allowing him to remain alive; Felicita’s every move is calculated to ensure her material well-being. Svevo also humanizes his characters, however, as he reveals the vulnerability showing through the cracks of their singlemindedness. Zeno, convinced that only surrender to love will prove an adequate health regime, is powerless to explain to Felicita how he wants her to be. Felicita, meanwhile, spoils the treatment that she is to provide by her habit of remarking that, strangely, Zeno does not repulse her.
In the story, as in other works of Svevo’s later period, the author seems reconciled to human helplessness and to the inevitable dualities of character and situation, and ambition and real life. The years following World War I arguably parallel the decline of the Roman Empire, when civilization seemed threatened as much from within as from without, and people feared that the end of the world was near. At that time, both Augustinian Christianity or Stoicism offered compelling visions of the future. Zeno the Stoic characterized the world, every few thousand years, as degenerating into chaos only to rise anew, as a phoenix from its own ashes. Given his portrayal of time as an inveterate prankster, Svevo may very well have been thinking of the Stoic when he named his protagonist.
After the failure of his early novels, Svevo gave up writing for twenty years and became a successful businessman. In the 1920’s, he took up his pen again, encouraged in part by his friendship with James Joyce, who had tutored him in English. In May, 1928, Svevo wrote regarding the “score of pages” he had written of his follow-up to The Confessions of Zeno, “I’m having a whale of a time. It won’t matter if I don’t get to finish it. I’ll at least have one more good laugh in my life.”