Sympathists

Posts Tagged ‘J.M. Coetzee’

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.

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