The old man, although distinguished and refined, turns out to be not so nice after all. He seduces a woman decades younger than himself when all she wants from him is a job. Money figures largely in their relationship.
This "commonplace adventure" turns out to be a source of great physical and mental agony for the old gentleman. How he falls into his transgression and deals with his guilt ever after is the substance of this novella.
The story takes place in Trieste in 1917, heavy artillery from the battle of Caporetto rumbling in the background. The old man shows little interest in the war, however. His real battles are all with his own desires. The old man is a fascinating case of self-absorption and self-deception. Italo Svevo treats the reader to level upon level of irony in this story.
I found the ending too much of an intellectual joke for my taste. But it may be that the book is a bit dated. The old man is barely sixty. Nowadays, when sixty is the new forty, the man is not even old enough to get a senior discount at the movies! So you can expect a somewhat vintage feeling to the attitudes and behavior of the characters if you read this.
I was uncomfortable at times following the twists and turns of the old man's often-unattractive stream of consciousness, but I admired the writing. Later, thinking about the story, I found new depths in it. So you might say I enjoyed it most in retrospect.
James Joyce was friends with Italo Svevo, who became the model for Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. That adds yet another extra level of interest to Svevo and his work.
on October 26, 2012
From what I can read about Italo Svevo he was about to become a successful writer. His greatest claims to fame was his last book and that he is believed to be a model for Harold Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses. Svevo had just begun to gain recognition as a early writer of psychological realism when he died after an accident. The dust jacket to this volume suggests that his dying words occurred just after refusing a cigarette: " That would definitely have been my last cigarette."
This short story: The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl is as promised, a fair enough way to spend a few hours - 3 at most.
The nice old man is never identified by any other name than the Nice Old Man and the pretty girl is always the Pretty Girl. This would seem to insure that he is Everyman (old guy division ) and she ... Young Woman Generic. I would argue that she is not intended to be Every Woman, as she seems to be a type based on class, education and general social condition.
What complicated this picture is that the Nice Old Man is also fairly well moneyed and unhindered by any pressing responsibilities, a few references to his business aside.
They meet first when her mother is asking for the Nice Old Man to aid her daughter to find paying work. His influence secures for her a position as a trolly car driver and he thinks nothing of her until they meet again on her trolly. What follows is that they have an affair, most discretely described, which he ends as his health begins to fail. For the remainder of the book he deals with his declining health and a belief that he can leave behind some kind of lesson to advantage future old men and nice girls. We never get information on what the girl feels about any of this or what she really thinks of him.
Because we have no reason to believe that the Nice Young Girl has any reservation about having an old man as a lover, I cannot accept that she was some how seduced. Alternately, he has money and power, so she may well have gone along with him for the money and possible access to a better career. In this more contemporary viewpoint, her decision to become an old man's bed mate may have reflected the relative balance of power between them. Staying within the story , the old man does come to believe that he has seduced and thereby occasioned a sin for which he must make good.
Svevo qualifies himself to make any number of positive statements about old men and how they differ from young. I rather wonder upon what these declarations are based. The writing is not spare as in Hemingway. It is fairly straight forward and if there is anything in the way of symbolism - beyond the everyman conceit, it was not that obvious. This is a thinking persons kind of story, but neither too demanding nor particularly light.
What I like most about these neat little "Art of the Novella" selections is that they give me the ability to get a taste of writers I would otherwise be unlikely to sample. The greater good news is that some volumes are available on Amazon for less than $10.00 and the Kindle editions are even more reasonably priced. I will be loading in many more of these smartly published volumes.
on December 11, 2012
I'm slowly but surely making my way through the Melville House collection of novellas. I enjoyed Svevo's sincerity in his characters. He doesn't pull punches and doesn't shy away from effacement, mockery, and guilt--qualities everyone loves in a writer, right?
My full-length reviews are at litbeetle.com.
on August 21, 2012
This is another book that I read while doing research on my new book about age-discrepant relationships and ephebopilia.
In Italo Svevo's The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl, the 60-year-old protagonist felt guilty about seducing the beautiful 20-year-old tram driver when he said, "I was too old for you, and I ought to have known it." But she utterly disagreed. "Old!" she exclaimed in protest. "I loved you because I liked that air of distinction of yours." So, be sure to add "air of distinction" to your list of characteristics that you need to adopt to attract young women.