Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Confessions Of Zeno by Italo Svevo


Confessions Of Zeno by Italo Svevo
First published in Italian as La coscienza di Zeno by L Cappelli in Italy in 1923. English language translation by Beryl de Zoete published by Putnam in 1930.

A Classics Club read and one of my 2019 COYER Summer Challenge reads

How I got this book:
Swapped for at a book exchange

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


In 1907 novelist James Joyce was engaged as Svevo’s English tutor in Trieste, and in the process they developed a friendship. When Joyce read Svevo’s novel La coscienza di Zeno (Confessions of Zeno), he was so impressed with it that he encouraged the writer to publish it, and later helped to promote it. 

While Joyce became enthralled with the latest novelistic techniques —particularly the stream of consciousness and indirect free style— to get inside the mind of his characters, Svevo accomplished the same thing without the new tools. Zeno’s consciousness is not the flowing of a stream, but the cascading, torrential avalanche of details that is the essence of humanness in all aspects: from low double entry bookkeeping, business, and economics, to manipulations of the Stock Market, to moral dilemmas, and raw passions.

Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno belongs to the comic tradition of Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, though not in the realist manner, but rather in a psychological vein. After a reading a few pages the reader will have no doubt that he is confronting a paradoxical juxtaposition between things of the mind and things themselves. 

Zeno —the narrator and eponymous hero— on the surface is a hypochondriac, neurotic, quirky, solipsistic, self-examining and self-serving bourgeois; deep down, however, he is love and goodness incarnate, not by design but by the whims of life. 


On the face of it, Confessions Of Zeno begins in a similar way to The Savage Detectives in that a young man, relatively incapable yet convinced of his own importance, is running around town to no great purpose whilst trying to catch the eyes of as many young women as he can. In the case of the latter book, I soon got so exasperated by that man's antics that I DNF'd the book. Confessions Of Zeno on the other hand so endeared its narrator to me that I've enjoyed the read and awarded it five stars! I can understand why it is considered a classic of its time.

Zeno is a thoroughly hapless young gentleman on independent means who, despite his frequent and repeated efforts to screw up his life, always manages to land on his feet. His efforts in business inevitably go very wrong, yet right themselves as soon as he stops trying. His dreams of marriage are ground into the dust by the first two women to whom he proposes, yet his third proposal results in a long-lived and happy marriage. He is about as self-involved a narrator as I've ever met and is always complaining of some illness or another, yet I loved spending time in his company. Svevo had the talent to evoke both sympathy and empathy in his readers, and to perfectly tread the line of making his protagonist just believable enough while still bizarrely entertaining. Confessions Of Zeno is 377 pages of small yellowed print and it took me several months to actually embark upon its reading, but I am now glad to have done so!


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Books by Italo Svevo / Historical fiction / Books from Italy

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