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Italo Svevo: La coscienza di Zeno (Confessions of Zeno; Zeno’s Conscience)

By the time he came to write this novel, Svevo was a mature writer, having learned from his earlier mistakes. He had also read his Freud and learned from his former teacher, James Joyce. When he did publish the novel – at his own expense, as with his previous novels – Joyce, who was now becoming famous, helped promote the novel and persuaded French critics to take it up. In Italy, it was Eugenio Montale who gave it a favourable review. It was the first important experimental novel in Italian and had considerable influence on subsequent Italian novels.

The story is nominally about a man – Zeno – who is trying to quit smoking. His doctor told him, when he was ill, that he had to quit but he is unable to do so, always promising himself that the next cigarette will be the last one. He tries various doctors but to no avail. He even has himself admitted to a sanatorium where he cannot get cigarettes but bribes a guard to let him out to buy cigarettes. Finally he goes to a doctor who advises him to write down his thoughts in a diary. This diary is the novel we are reading but, in good modernist form, the doctor has published it, without Zeno’s permission, as a revenge for Zeno’s discontinuing his course of treatment, but Zeno gets his revenge by saying that it is full of lies. So is what we are reading”true” or not? The unreliable narrator was not new in fiction but almost certainly was in Italian fiction. We learn about Zeno’s career, his love life and marriage, his relationship with his father and his father’s death and his business life. He meets his future father-in-law before he meets his wife. There are four daughters (compare with Prisco‘s Gli eredi del vento (Heirs of the Wind)) and he is rejected by the first two, finally marrying the third (and ends up having a more or less happy marriage though, of course, he does have an affair).

The strength of this work is not just the clever unreliable narrator technique and Svevo’s use of emerging Freudian psychology to propel his story. The novel is seemingly a mess, as Zeno has been jotting down his thoughts and what happens almost at random but, behind all, with great wit and skill, Zeno portrays a person more or less unravelling, all against the background of the impending World War I.

Publishing history

First published 1923 by Cappelli
First English translation 1930 by Putnam