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Zeno's Conscience: A Novel
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98 of 102 people found the following review helpful
on March 6, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This book is so wonderfully inventive and the character of Zeno Cosini so lovably comic, that I often wonder why it's not more widely read and loved. It was first published in Italy as La coscienza di Zeno, and James Joyce, no less, championed its cause and helped the English translation come into being. Still, the English speaking world, for some unknown reason, continues to ignore this wonderful book.
The protagonist of the book, Zeno Cosini, is a man at odds with himself. Hilarious odds. He loves analysis, but hates his analyst. He's neurotic to the core, but his desire to rid himself of his neuroses seems to be superseded by his amazing, and very funny, ability to rationalize things away.
When Zeno's despised analyst encourages him to keep a journal (write a memoir), Zeno does so even though he is lazy and fools himself into believing exactly what it is he wants to believe. A passionate smoker, who passionately wants to quit (naturally, since this pits him against his own worst enemy, himself), he begins his journal by recounting his various attempts at quitting smoking.
For Zeno, the quitting is the thing. He doesn't care how many days he goes without smoking. He doesn't care how many times he's failed in his attempts to quit. What exhilarates him, is the feeling he gets when he smokes, what he tells himself, will be his last cigarette. The problem is, Zeno needs to feel that exhilararion again. And again. And the only way to feel it again, is to quit smoking again, which necessitates taking up smoking yet again. You get my drift.
Smoking isn't Zeno's only problem in this book. Far from it. As a man who needs to be perpetually backsliding, Zeno wavers between a law degree versus a chemistry degree, then decides to join his family's business instead. He pines for the beautiful Ada, but marries her homely sister, Augusta, instead, simply to prove to himself that Ada no longer tempts him. Naturally, he proves no such thing.
Svevo's writing, at least in this translation from the original Italian is elliptical and convoluted. Zeno will begin a sentence telling us he still loves Ada very much and then end it by saying he feels nothing for her at all. But it's not confusing. Not in the slightest. Zeno's contradictions and Svevo's convolutions make for high hilarity and a comic character that is both lovable and memorable. Italian was Svevo's third language (after the Trieste dialect and German) and some contend that his choppy style is due to this fact. I don't think so. I think he deliberately wrote this way for maximum comic effect. And it works. Beautifully.
Zeno Cosini is a liar. He lies both to himself and to others. His lies to his doctors are some of the most hilarious passages in the book. But even though he's a liar, Zeno Cosini is one very wise and wonderful man. By the time World War I is approaching, Zeno is an elderly man who seems to have found the recipe for inner peace and la dolce vita: "Sorrow," he says, "and love--life, in other words--cannot be considered a sickness because they hurt." Zeno Cosini may have lied to himself about the pain of life, but he never ran away from it. This is definitely a book everyone should read. It's a classic, not only of Italian, but of world, literature.
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43 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on October 30, 2008
Format: Paperback
Having just finished the novel, I have come to understand why the French lauded Svevo so, and why the Italians remained thoroughly ambivalent towards him until the mid 20th century. He is, in so many senses, a thoroughly French novelist- overly introspective, morally lacerated, solipsistic (in a Sartrean sense), morbidly self-conscious, brimming with weltschmerz, nauseatingly sensitive. This is, for all its supposed 'modernism' and invention, also a bit of an anachronism, a decadent novel of the highest order, one that belongs alongside the likes of Huysmans, Verlaine, Mallarme and other such lachrymose types. Yet, this has none of the rococo refinement of the symbolists and dandies- as many have said before me, the prose is often callous and awkward, a far cry from the mannered elegance of Lampedusa, Pavese, Moravia. Svevo is no cane-flailing aesthete, and his haphazard craftmanship adds to the off-balance strangeness of the book.

It is true that Zeno's Conscience is, on a cosmetic level, a very funny book, but the comedy (which is of an acerbic, bile-encrusted, jet-black sort, think Baudelaire, who is perhaps much closer to Svevo than any other writer I can think of) can hardly obscure the fact that this is one of the most disquieting books in existence. It has all the apocalyptic gravity of Hamsun's best work, all the soul-searing pathos/self-pity of "A Rebours", all the sulphurous savagery of Lautreamont, all the anguished desperation of Sade's finest work. Forget about the Joyce and Kafka comparisons- there is absolutely nothing affirmative about this book whatsoever. French literature is studded with world-weary types, but beneath the feverish execrations of Beckett and Celine (two writers who share Svevo's love for slapstick comedy) is a tortured love for humanity, an insuppressible faith in the value of existence. Be warned, for you will find little of this in "Zeno's Conscience". Its greatest achievement is its profound ambivalence- I am still unsure of whether I should laugh at zeno's imbecility or shudder at his unremitting rancor and resentment.

What, then, is there to recommend about this much-lauded novel? Simply put, this book encapsulates the 'Mal Du Siecle' better than almost any novel I can name. Yes, this book should be shelved next to "Sentimental Education", "The Red and Black", "A Rebours", "Notes From The Underground", "Death In Venice", "Flowers Of Evil" and "A Man Without Qualities" as one of the definitive documents of modernity. If Deleuze is correct in saying that literature is symptomatology, this novel diagnoses and elaborates upon a condition that we are still convalescing from. It is a novel of pure inwardness, gratuitous, effusive and excruciatingly frank. As a confession, it shares many traits with two illustrious forbears, the confessions of Rousseau and Augustine. Like the former, it is pregnant with effusive self-aggrandizement, affected sentiment and perverse rationality, like the latter it juxtaposes this with masochistic self-abasement and thoroughgoing pessimism. I cannot share the view that Zeno is an 'adorable' character- I find him diseased, the harbinger of (post)modern exhaustion and vacuity. It is known that Svevo could recite entire passages of Schopenhauer by heart--I believe that tells you more about what to expect from "Zeno's Conscience" than any review you could read. Svevo is, unwittingly, an oracle, and the book is an augury- it heralds the arrival of Nietzsche's Last Men, those who walk among us.

Beyond this, "Zeno's Conscience" is also an extraordinarily profound book about conversation. Indeed, the entire novel is about speech acts and the realities that they construct- Zeno spends much of the novel lamenting a lie that he cannot retract (and which subsequently engenders more and more lies, until he is deluged by a torrent of dishonesties) or pondering a torturously impenetrable sentence spoken by his beloved. Many of the guffaws in the novel are aroused by the multifarious snares that words create- Zeno's irrepressible mouth generates disaster upon disaster, and his haplessness before his hamartia is uncomfortably funny.

This is something he shares with Proust and Kafka, a fascination with the gesture and the spoken word. Like Proust, Zeno is obsessed with posture/imposture, simulation/dissimulation, social procedures and proprieties, awed by pomp and hauteur. Unlike Proust's narrator, though, he is hilariously inept at producing the appropriate signs for the occasion and utterly incapable of interpreting the signs of others.

For all the commonalities he shares with Proust, though, I can't help but feel as though the comparisons with the writer of the Recherche are absurdly injudicious. It is true that Svevo shares similar concerns with Proust- the instability of the Cogito, time and age, memory, the value of writing as a penitential/salvational exercise, the insatiability of desire, the incongruity of perception and fact, the utter inscrutability of other people, the fallacy of objectivism, etcetera. Yet this novel has little of Proust's tenderness, even less of his lovably mawkish lyricism and none of his bittersweet joy. Beyond this, Zeno cannot lay claim to the two characteristics that are more Proustian than any others- naivete and innocence. Instead, in its dismaying descriptions of fin-de-siecle burgher life and modern decadence, "Zeno's Conscience" is somewhat closer in ambition (though not in structure and scope) to Mann's "Buddenbrooks".

Also, it is quite strange that so many psychoanalysts fail to take Zeno at his word. It is clear that Svevo was thoroughly conversant with the theories of Freud, and this familarity is evident throughout the novel, as he lampoons the practice with abandon. This is one of the clearest messages throughout the novel- we might be sick and tired of ourselves, but psychoanalysis is certainly not the deliverance we're waiting for. Zeno is absolutely unwilling to trade his disease for Oedipus, and that unwavering honesty is one of the few things we can commend him for.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on May 14, 2006
Format: Hardcover
The confessions of Zeno is an amazingly insightful novel about the folly of humanity, our amazing capacity for self delusion and our lack of understanding of our place in the great drama that is life.

Zeno is an elderly merchant in Trieste before World War One, who owes his success and money more to inheritance than to ability, who approaching the end of his life consults with a psychiatrist to cure his long term debilitating illnesses. As an exercise his Freudian psychiatrist asks Zeno to write a journal reviewing the major events of his life.

These journals form the basis for the confessions of Zeno and reveal a weak and shallow man. Zeno is subject to self delusions, he is almost totally lacking in self control, he is a man who plays at business while living of his inheritance, a man who marries because he feels that it is required of him, with little consideration of love, a man who blunders through life with little empathy causing harm to all around him. Yet what makes this novel fascinating is the authors ability to make Zeno despite all of his faults and weaknesses a likable and understandable human being.

Overall, an amazing book from a largely forgotten master.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
*Zeno's Conscience* is, by some estimation, one of the `unknown' and unheralded classics of the modern novel. In it, the title character, at the behest of his psychoanalyst, records the story of his life as part of his treatment.

Zeno manages this massive task by recalling his life's most defining epochs: his failed courtship of one woman and marriage to another, his adulterous relations, his failed business venture with a brother-in-law, the traumatizing death of his father. And, most humorously and characteristically, his sincere and repeatedly renewed pledge to quit smoking......after `one last cigarette.'

Bookending this catalog of misadventures there is a short preface by Zeno's hostile analyst and an epilog by Zeno himself poking fun of this very same analyst and his failed treatment. The overriding message? Psychoanalysis is pure bunk.

At the time *Zeno's Conscience* was written, psychoanalysis was coming into its own and Svevo's mocking parody of its claims to "cure" the analysand could very well have struck a reactionary chord with the progressive intelligentsia of his day. I wonder if that played a role in condemning *Zeno's Conscience* to relative obscurity? Today, however, Svevo sounds like a prophet. After a century-plus of psychoanalysis, it's become a standard joke: Does anyone *ever* get better? It may have once been intellectually unfashionable to knock psychoanalysis, Freudian theory, and Oedipal complexes--but nowadays it's hard to even find a psychiatrist who believes in the efficacy of `talk-therapy,' without, that is, pharmaceutical accompaniment.

Supposedly championed by no less a literary luminary than James Joyce, Italo Svevo writes with a conventional crystal clarity very different from Joyce himself, unless youre thinking the Joyce of *A Portrait of the Artist* or *Dubliners.* As the voice of Zeno, Svevo's meticulous and incisive psychological portraits of self and other manage to be both devastating and touching. Here we are--warts and all. But Zeno--a sort of neurotic Zorba with a lot less energy--doesn't lose his enthusiasm for life or his affection for mankind. As he memorably argues, to `cure' us of illness would be like trying to stop up the holes of our bodies: it'd surely and quickly kill us. These `holes,' these `imperfections,' this `sickness,' is what keeps us alive--and what makes life enjoyable.

On the surface, *Zeno's Conscience* is a long-winded book narrated by an old guy looking back on a rather ordinary and largely uneventful life. A guy who failed at just about everything he ever put his hand to. A guy who, in spite of his relentless introspection, self-absorption, and self-analysis still deludes--and eludes--himself. A bundle of contradictions and impossible desires, caught on every side by double-binds and unwinnable predicaments largely of his own making, Zeno is a clown of the loftiest variety--one whose pratfalls tell a story as tragically symbolic as the climb to Golgotha, but with a lot more laughs along the way. Because in the end *Zeno's Conscience* is a very funny novel--the way life is very funny, through a veil of tears.

Well worth your time.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on December 28, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Zeno's conscience is best described as the biography of a mollusc, but a very interesting mollusc. It is considered to be one of the first psycho-analytical novels and a classic. It is hilarious and sad at the same time, but above all very well written.
Zeno Cosini is a rich man from Trieste, but his wealth is inherited. He himself is not really good in anything, except making up evasions. He is never really capable of making decisions what he wants to do with his life. The book is a description of his life which he has to write as part of his psychotherapy because he wants to quit smoke in which he does not succeed. Every day he decides to quit, but then takes a last cigarette to celebrate his decision. And that is the way his life goes: he falls in love with a daughter of a merchant, but than in the end marries her sister, he start a relationship with a poor girl but does not want to cheat his wife, he works as a volunteer in the merchant business of his brother in law, sees that things go terribly wrong but is too weak to act.
And still Zeno is not an annoying man: you can feel his desire to be like the other people, he knows what he is doing and at the end we see that he can act, but only when the stimuli are strong enough. A must.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on January 8, 2012
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
When reading this book I could not help thinking "will I become a character in a Thomas Bernhard novel?". Would simply reading in the first person an account of a wildly off kilter person somehow make me a just a little bit crazy?

Italo Svevo's Zeno Cosini is such an odd, interesting, self obsessed character. He is completely oblivious to his own awkwardness. He is a big square peg that thinks he's fitting into a round hole worold when it is completely and utterly untrue. The genius in the writing is that it all comes from Zeno's perspective and still we can gather from the reactions and dialogue with his friends and family, particularly his in-laws that he's more than a strange bird. The writing is so intense that one might feel we're a little too close to Zeno's strange logic and easy self deceptions.

Zeno is not a very good guy. In fact in many ways he is entirely unlikeable. But at the same time so much of what he's thinking has a hint or ring of truth that left me frequently uncomfortable.

And then there are points of almost burst out loud hilarity. After a competitor for the hand of one of lovely women that he's obsessed with has completed a stirring violin solo at the Malfenti household it is Zeno that breaks the silence and crushes the moment with an obtuse technical question on how Guido played that last several notes. It was the classic Woody Allen or Larry David perfectly mistimed and inappropriate line that draws raging stares and leaves Zeno perplexed that his wit and intelligence were not fully welcome and appreciated. There are so many of these finely timed or ill-timed treats where Zeno has either lied, exaggerated or interjected. Depending on reaction he's either caught backtracking, digging a deeper hole or otherwise taking an unpredictable course to recover. But never just the truth, a mea culpa or in any other way taking the humble path. It is filled with painful, awkward and often hilarious vignettes that then come with unexpected consequences of every kind.

The novel takes place sometime before the Great War in Trieste. It's depiction of life, love and work are surprisingly modern. It's not a casual read. I found myself drifting and needing to go back and re-read portions. Although this is a reasonably long book the writing is economic in that you really don't want to miss what Zeno is saying, thinking or doing. There is something worthwhile in each passage.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on May 8, 2007
Format: Paperback
Psychoanalysis usually does not make a good basis for fiction writing. There is, to my knowledge, one unique and very bright exception which is this book. The previous novels of Italo Svevo were showing real litterary talent but nothing like the genius he displayed in this one. At some point in his life, this man who must have considered himself a failed writer was encouraged to try it again by a totally unknown young Irishman who was giving him English lessons, one James Joyce. He created the funniest of the great masterpieces of modern litterature. Thinking about it, Ulysses and A la recherche du temps perdu can also be seen as essentially comical works. My personal preference goes to Zeno's Conscience.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on July 29, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This is really a strange book: the characters are not that likable, there is practically no plot, and still it is attractive. This is the story of a man that does nothing in his life, except to procrastinate, cheat and waste his time. But he's not unlikable. I think that, in the end, he's even wise.
Zeno Cosini is the heir to a prosperous merchant, and so he has no need to work. He has a bad habit of smoking and he's always trying to quit although in his heart he doesn't really want to. He undertakes therapy to get rid of the habit and his analyst advises him to write down his memoirs, which end up being this book. Zeno tells us about his father's death, the story of his courtship of Ada and his marriage to Ada's ugly (cross-eyed)sister Augusta, a wonderful woman who loves Zeno very much, although he cheats on her constantly. Then we read the story of Zeno's association with Guido, the man Ada finally marries. This is the funniest part of the book.
It is funny without being "comical". Zeno is really a puzzle: sometimes he's despicable, sometimes he's noble and wise. On the whole it is a good novel with a believable story, vivid characters and a sense of humor. But it is strange.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on December 17, 2006
Format: Paperback
As André Gide once said: "Toute chose appartient à qui sait en jouir." Alas, those of us who do not possess this happy faculty, still have to somehow come to terms with life. This is the main problem in Svevo's novel, concisely summarized by its hero: "Simply recalling everything we humans expected from life sufficed for us to see how strange it was, and to arrive at the conclusion that perhaps mankind is located in its midst by mistake and doesn't belong there."

Of course, the theme of being out of place in life is not new in literature. "Exotopic" men can be found earlier in Thomas Mann's "Buddenbrooks", Flaubert's "L' Éducation sentimentale", and, ultimately, some sixty years before, in Goncharov's "Oblomov". So, perhaps thematically the only peculiar novelty of "Zeno's Conscience" is in the incorporation of certain Freudian elements in main hero's self-analysis. Nevertheless, the originality of this work is striking in the context of the fact, that even though Svevo is often compared to Joyce or Proust, he hasn't read any of their novels until after the publication of "Zeno's Conscience" (though he knew Joyce personally for many years since 1904, when Joyce was his English tutor in Trieste).

Full of humor, irony, and astute aphorisms, this book is an honest confession of its main hero, who fails to immerse himself in life. If you liked Proust, Joyce, or Musil, this book is for you.
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11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on January 23, 2010
Format: Paperback
I bought this novel because Svevo was often compared along with Proust, Joyce, and Musil (according to the short review inside of Musil's The Man without Qualities). Proust and Joyce are well known, but Musil is not. After reading Musil's The Man without Qualities, which extremely impressed me (for me, it is THE best 20th-century novel), I tried Svevo, because I expected to find another hidden diamond like Musil. To my disappointment, however, the novel is not very interesting at all (I almost forced my way through 2/3 of it, but that was all. I couldn't even finish it). For me, Svevo is not an underrated writer as Musil or Gombrowicz is.
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