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Zeno's Conscience (Everyman's Library Contemporary Classics Series) Hardcover – November 6, 2001
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“Italo Svevo remains, with Joyce, Proust, and Kafka, one of the four unrivaled figures of twentieth-century literature. An accomplished ironist, a complex visionary of the modern soul, an anatomist whose scalpel is as fierce as it is compassionate, Svevo is without a doubt Italy’s most serious modern novelist. From the self-deceived protagonist who forswears each of his attempts to give up cigarettes, to the final detonation which seems uncannily prescient of our atomic age, Zeno’s Conscience, in the expert hands of William Weaver’s elegant and vigorous translation, reminds us ever again that if there is one phrase we should confer on Svevo it would be this: Svevo, our contemporary.” – André Aciman
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Italian
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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.
So, having decided what Svevo is NOT, what IS he? What to make of this book, which would have never seen publication had it not been for Joyce? I don't quite buy the bit about it being all about Freud and psychoanalysis, or contra Freud and psychoanalysis. - There is that comic apercu in the last chapter, a jibe at his analyst, which I found exceedingly droll - "I believe, however, that he is the only one in the world who, hearing I wanted to go to bed with two beautiful women, would ask himself: Now let's see why this man wants to go to bed with them."
I think what Zeno thinks of himself and his life is that he is a "sick" man. ---But this is question-begging. - "Sick" in what way? I don't think it has much to do with Freud, but rather with Darwin w/ perhaps a bit of Nietzsche's "last man" thrown in. I'm surprised that not one of these reviews mentions Darwin, whose Survival of the Fittest theory Zeno is constantly meditating upon, including the famously gruesome example of the wasp paralyzing its prey so that its young can have live flesh to feast upon.
Here is what Zeno himself has to say about his "sick" state:
"How much more beautiful my life had been than that of the so-called healthy, those who beat or would like to beat their women every day, except at certain moments. I, on the contrary, had been accompanied always by love. When I hadn't thought of my woman for a while, I then called her to mind again, to win forgiveness for thinking of other women. Other men abandoned their women, disappointed and despairing of life. I had never stripped life of desire, and illusion was immediately, totally reborn after every shipwreck, in the dream of limb, of voices, of more-perfect attitudes." P.419
But his judgment on his type is what other reviewers call "presciently" damning. It is found in the last paragraph of the book in which a sick man like himself invents an "incomparable explosive" and another "sicker man" effects the book's last sentence: There will be an enormous explosion that no one will hear, and the earth, once again a nebula, will wander through the heavens, free of parasites and sickness."-That is, of course, of humans.
An interesting book - but, au fond, none too cheery.