Svevo via Coetzee

In 20th c. Literature on January 5, 2009 at 12:07 pm

Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

J.M. Coetzee’s “Inner Workings,” collects some of the South African novelist’s recent criticism. Coetzee is a generous and sympathetic reader, which, in the end, is what one wants from a reviewer.  This post deals with Coetzee’s essay on Italo Svevo.  Like Tom Townsand in Metropolitan, I am sometimes content to get my literary opinions second hand.  Previously, I began Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno (Zeno’s Conscience), and liked very much what I read.  But, I set it aside at some point.  Coetzee is a fine reviewer; the quality of his work demonstrated by his ability to be fully satisfying on authors about whom one’s own knowledge is thin.

Svevo self-published his work, including Zeno; he was well-off through his wife, and could afford it.  Of Jewish origin, he basically hid this throughout his life.  Though born in Trieste Svevo went to boarding school in Germany, and never learned to write in “literary Italian.” Consequently, his prose has been criticized even by his admirers.  A rough contemporary of Freud, a typical Svevo scene has a man, “Z,” trying to impress four young ladies.  “You find yourself telling risque jokes; your jokes are met with frosty silence {…} You lean nonchalantly on your umbrella; the umbrella snaps in two; everyone laughs” (Coetzee, 1).  This may sound like a fairly normal bad dream, or even a bad day (when my jokes meet with frosty silence I have been known to resort more than once to “that’s funny to me,” which, in turn, is funny to me), but Coetzee sees something else: “Is it possible that both Freud and Svevo belong to an age when pipes and cigars and purses and umbrellas seemed pregnant with secret meaning, whereas to the present age a pipe is just a pipe?” (Coetzee, 2).  The sinuous in-joke here is delicious.

Svevo appears to have been wholly bourgeois, and to have cooperated with the fascist Mussolini government, even to the point of having received a medal from the fascists.  After he married, he worked for his wife’s family’s company which was engaged in preventing barnacles from glomming onto ships.  But, he had his own doubts about his middle-class normality, and his first novel was titled in Italian “Un inetto,” which translates to “the ill-adapted one.”  “In Svevo’s eyes, Schopenhauer was the first philosopher to treat those afflicted with the handicap of reflective thought as a separate species, coexisting warily with healthy, unreflective types, who in Darwinian jargon might be called the fit” (Coetzee, 4).  One must admit that this picture, of the ordinary-looking businessman, the bland bourgeois, consumed by a surfeit of reflection, holds a degree of appeal.

Still, Svevo has been called out on his politics by his biographer, John Gatt-Rutter, who charges that Svevo’s support for Mussolini rested on “perfect bad faith” (Coetzee, 9).  Interesting, Svevo seems to have recognized his own involvement, his own taintedness, while at the same time not making the effort of will necessary to change his station in life or political orientation.  Coetzee comments thusly: “From Socrates to Freud, Western ethical philosophy has subscribed to the Delphic Know yourself.  But what good does it do to know yourself if, taking your lead from Schopenhauer, you believe that character is founded on a substratum of will, and doubt that the will wants to change?” (Coetzee, 10).  If indeed, character finds its roots in will, at some point the excuses for not making a change begin to run a little thin.  But, of course, those living in glass houses should not throws stones, and I, for one, take no comfort in contemplating how I would have comported myself in 1920’s Italy were I, like Svevo, a relatively comfortable bourgeois working for an anti-barnacle firm.

Zeno, Svevo’s best-known book, came out when he was 62, again self-published.  The main character tries to quit smoking, but fears being creatively crippled if he does so (“Svevo’s corrosive yet curiously gay scepticism about whether we can improve ourselves”) (Coetzee, 11). Little by little, Svevo’s fame spread, in Italy and beyond.  Although not fully versed in matters Svevovian, the name plays at least a small part in my own personal mythology.  In Anthony Powell‘s “A Dance to the Music of Time” the main character, Nick Jenkins, makes a faux pas by expressing a lack of sympathy for his commanding general’s favorite writer, Anthony Trollope. The scene unfolds:

“‘You’ve never found Trollope easy to read?’
‘No sir’.
He was clearly unable to credit my words.  This was an unhappy situation.  There was a long pause as he glared at me {…}
‘Whom do you like, if you don’t like Trollope?’

For the moment, I could not remember the name of a single novelist, good or bad, in the whole history of literature.  Who was there?  Then, slowly, a few admired figures came to mind–Choderlos de Laclos–Lermontov–Svevo….Somehow these did not have quite the right sound. The impression given was altogether too recondite, too eclectic” (Powell, The Military Philosophers, 46-47).

Nick ends up going with Balzac.  Were one to bring forth the above names in conversation, today, “recondite” and “eclectic” would be the least of the matter.  Pretentious, unutterably highbrow, conversation-ending, these terms come to mind.  It is, therefore, to Coetzee’s credit that he opens “Inner Workings” with such a recondite writer.

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