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March 31, 2017 | History

Italo Svevo

1861 - 1928

Aron Ettore Schmitz (December 19, 1861 – September 13, 1928), better known by the pseudonym Italo Svevo, was an Italian businessman and author of novels, plays, and short stories.

Born in Trieste (then in Austria-Hungary) to a Jewish family, Italo Svevo (literally swabian Italian) wrote the classic novel La Coscienza di Zeno (rendered as Confessions of Zeno, or Zeno's Conscience) and self-published it in 1923. The work, showing the author's interest in the theories of Sigmund Freud, is written in the form of the memoirs of one Zeno Cosini, who writes them at the insistence of his psychoanalyst. Schmitz's psychoanalyst was Ottocaro Weiss, who had been trained by Freud in Vienna. Schmitz's novel received almost no attention from Italian readers and critics at the time.

The work might have disappeared altogether if it were not for the efforts of James Joyce. Joyce had met Schmitz in 1907, when Joyce tutored him in English while working for Berlitz in Trieste. Joyce read Schmitz's earlier novel Senilità, which had also been largely ignored when published in 1898.

Joyce championed Confessions of Zeno, helping to have it translated into French and then published in Paris, where critics praised it extravagantly. That led Italian critics, including Eugenio Montale, to discover it. Zeno Cosini, the book's hero, mirrored Schmitz, being a businessman fascinated by Freudian theory.

Schmitz was also a model for Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Joyce's Ulysses.

Schmitz was a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of the First World War. He spoke Italian as a second language (as he usually spoke the Triestine dialect, similar to Venetian) and, according to some critics, wrote it badly - though some have pointed out that it is not bad Italian, but rather the official Tuscan dialect in a Triestino mouth.

Confessions of Zeno never looks outside the narrow confines of Trieste, much like Joyce's work, which rarely left Dublin in the last years of Ireland's time as part of the United Kingdom. Schmitz brings a keenly sardonic wit to his observations of Trieste and, in particular, to his hero, an indifferent man who cheats on his wife and lies to his psychoanalyst and who is trying to explain himself to his psychoanalyst by revisiting his memories.

There is a final connection between Schmitz-Svevo and the character Cosini. Cosini sought psychoanalysis, he said, in order to discover why he was addicted to nicotine. As he reveals in his memoirs, each time he had given up smoking, with the iron resolve that this would be the "ultima sigaretta!!", he experienced the exhilarating feeling that he was now beginning life over without the burden of his old habits and mistakes. That feeling was, however, so strong that he found smoking irresistible, if only so that he could stop smoking again in order to experience that thrill once more.

Svevo likewise smoked for all of his life. After being hit by a car while crossing the street, he was brought into hospital at Motta di Livenza, where his health rapidly failed. As death approached he asked one of his visitors for a cigarette, telling everyone that this really would be the last one (the request was denied).

Svevo lived for part of his life in Charlton, south-east London, while working for a family firm. He documented this period in his letters to his wife which highlighted the cultural differences he encountered in Edwardian England. His old home at 67 Charlton Church Lane now carries a blue plaque.

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March 31, 2017 Edited by Clean Up Bot add VIAF and wikidata ID
January 27, 2014 Edited by J R Gibson merge authors
June 24, 2010 Edited by 82.171.181.173 Edited without comment.
June 24, 2010 Edited by 82.171.181.173 Added new photo
April 1, 2008 Created by an anonymous user initial import