Never connect, or The conscience of Italo Svevo

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An edited version of this essay appeared in L’Atelier du Roman, Paris, no.21, spring 2000


The population of Trieste today is the same as it was in Italo Svevo’s time, about 300,000. Driving on the elevated expressway that leads eventually to the Slovenian frontier, one experiences the once great southern port of Austria-Hungary as an idle dazzle, black cranes and jetties against a silver Adriatic. The dock area is not without activity, but it is not busy. At ground level, you drive beside old factory and warehouse walls without interiors or roofs. The smashed, dusty window panes resemble Warholian repeated images of dereliction in an art gallery:  busted frames containing a shining sea. These sights and other indicators, like the half-emptiness of the borgo Teresiano, the monumental part of the city laid out to gratify the Empress Maria Theresa, leave an impression of Trieste as a patient, surviving on one lung.

The city has been like this since it became Italian after the First World War and Italy decided that it had little need for another port on Trieste’s scale. It continues to exist, thanks to three things: marine insurance, a literary reputation as the city of Svevo (and Joyce and Burton and Rilke), and the Illy coffee factory. (To stand at the gates of the Illy plant at the south docks is to make expressway and cars vaporise in a swoon of torrefying arabica.) But many young Triestini leave, far more than in the traditional sea port’s division between those who leave and those who stay (they used to run away to sea, now they catch the train to Bologna and Milan). One of the city’s oddities is the Museo Morpurgo, a museum only in the sense that the plutocratic Giuseppe de Morpurgo’s family apartments still contain the furniture they held 100 years ago when he bequeathed them to the city. The untouched rooms, with their laid tables and made beds, feel as though they were lived in until yesterday. As though, at the end of a life as Trieste’s wealthiest insurer, Morpurgo wanted to leave the impression that he too had escaped.

I visited Trieste because I had had it in my head for years. Its name was nearly French for ‘sad’. Proust assumed it was and talked of ‘Trieste, où les couchers de soleil sont tristes’ without ever going there. The more time I spent in the city, the more it seemed to be about a certain set of opposites. You can pass from the known to the unknown as rapidly as its moods change – as moods do in coastal towns. You can rise biblically out of the city on the tranvia and ascend to the Carso, to the stunning heights of Opicina; or travel the length of a magnificent, underpopulated riviera. In the city, walking almost anywhere, you can experience its odd mixture of stone and flesh. Returning recently, it struck me how much it had remained a business city. The streets and cafés are filled with the overcoats and hats of a conservative bourgeoisie: paper business remains healthy. The palazzi housing the two main marine insurance companies, Lloyd Triestino and Assicurazioni Generali, continue to show the outward signs of inward profit.

Mercantile Trieste is the city Svevo was born and grew up in. He first worked in a bank, then taught at commercial school. To be a writer who was mistaken every day for a businessman, and a businessman who was sometimes asked if he was an author (‘No, no, no! That was a brother of mine’), wasn’t the greatest of the opposites he set up for himself. Turning off the expressway into the grey and brown streets of the zona industriale, I asked the taxi driver to stop at the gates of the Veneziani paint factory. The wound of the public silence that greeted the publication of his second novel Senilità (As A Man Grows Older) in 1898 led Svevo to enter the family firm of his wife Livia Veneziani as a full-time manager. There followed the famous twenty years of silence – writing set aside in favour of business and the consolations of fatherhood, travel and playing the violin. The Venetian novelist Daniele del Giudice has remarked that Ettore Schmitz – the name on Svevo’s birth certificate – didn’t invent Italo Svevo; Italo Svevo invented Ettore Schmitz.

When, later, Svevo wrote The Confessions of Zeno, the first and funniest of the great battles between fiction and psychoanalysis for the right to define the importance of the human act, Trieste’s Austro-Hungarian identity played its part. It is a neglected fact that Freud and Jung both originated in landlocked territories of middle Europe; deficient in identity and room to manoeuvre, the tendency of such countries is to turn their intelligence inwards, to calculation and an analytical cast of mind. Svevo lived in that world, of coffee houses and overcoats and men scurrying with their heads down against the whipping of the bora. But Trieste also had the opposite quality: as Austria-Hungary’s southern port, at the head of a glittering sea (Valery Larbaud called Trieste, not Venice, ‘the true capital of the Adriatic’), it defied such inwardness. The stone fingers of several jetties reach out into the bay of Trieste. Money-minded Triestini still have the habit of strolling the length of them at the fall of night, immersing themselves in the horizon and the spell of nature, in what Claudio Magris calls ‘the uncertainty of evening’. The businessman’s city, atrociously ventilated, barbarously baroque, is full of the introspection of money-making; but, open to the sea, all ghosts and historical fragments, it is also beautiful – and romantic in the struggle of its opposites. Psychoanalysis, as a closed system, cannot cope with such ambivalence; only the discipline of writing can weld these opposites together in fiction where, as John Gatt-Rutter writes, the writer ‘is protected by complex ironies’. Trieste, as Svevo’s first muse, was a city that refused and still refuses the analyst’s couch, offering instead the struggle between enervation and escape, bourgeois caution and the fight to be free, immobile stone and the pull of the stars at the end of the molo.

There is a Triestine saying about freedom: the second son may run away to sea, but the eldest may only run as far as Lloyd Triestino. In his youth, the artistically-minded Ettore had a further problem. He lacked the will to oppose his father, and to pursue at all costs his longing to be a writer. Suffering from Francesco Schmitz’s authoritarian influence, Ettore’s jobs, first in the Union Bank of Vienna, later as director of Veneziani, infected him with a streak of melancholy, to the point where one might have expected him to turn to the talking cure at some stage of his life. His refusal was categorical. ‘A neurotic friend of mine went to Vienna to undergo treatment,’ he wrote; ‘the only good that came out of it was the warning it gave to me. He had himself psychoanalysed and returned from the cure destroyed, as lacking in will-power as before, but with his feebleness aggravated by the conviction that, being as he was, he could not behave otherwise. It was he who convinced me how dangerous it was to explain to a man how he was made.’

Before Freud, Zeno Cosini, like the most minor character in a novel, would have existed in God’s eye; but Svevo, I think, understood that Freud was the mechanism by which we began to consider only ourselves. His retort, in The Confessions, was Shakespearian. There is more than a little of Sir John Falstaff in the bourgeois, muddled, mistaken comic genius of Zeno.

The adult Svevo was no coward, however. Outside the modern Veneziani paint factory I thought of how he had resisted the Austrian officers who beat at the doors of the factory in 1915, demanding the formula for Veneziani’s underwater paint, and given them (at risk to himself) a useless substitute. As businessman, husband and father, his courage lay in his endurance, supported by his friendship with Joyce. As a novelist, it lay in his refusal entirely to extinguish his flame; then came the day in 1925 when as his wife wrote, ‘unexpectedly and suddenly, the sun rose gloriously and lit up his life’, with the letter from Larbaud (‘Egregio Signore e Maestro!’) that was the beginning of the years of recognition as ‘the Italian Proust’. At his death all too soon afterwards, as a result of the car accident of 1928, he also showed courage. ‘Don’t cry,’ he said to Letizia, his daughter. ‘Dying is nothing.’

Someone, it might have been Renato Poggioli, wrote that Svevo ‘tasted, too shortly, the wine of success’. But the wines of Friuli are sharp, fruit of the Carso limestone, and it occurs to me that Svevo’s reaction to success – and temperament is largely a matter of reaction – was as neurasthenic a blend of geography and personality as his reaction to his early life had been. In this he was being entirely authentic. Apart from his periods of residence in England between 1903 and 1913 at 27 Charlton Church Lane, south London – selling paint to, among others, His Majesty’s Navy – he spent his life in Trieste. John Gatt-Rutter has written that ‘Ettore Schmitz lives in that same world which the irony of Italo Svevo dismantles. He lives in it but does not belong to it’. Yet I am not sure this is true. Svevo, like Trieste – city of merchants, neither northern nor southern European, neither Latin nor Austro-Hungarian, neither easy nor soulful – gave himself to the struggle of opposites.

Was this a kind of schizophrenia? The evening before I stood at the gates of the Veneziani factory, Claudio Magris had told me: ‘There were two typical jobs in Trieste. There was the work of sailor or captain, and that brought this dimension of opening, this epic dimension. The other was insurance. My father was in insurance, his brother was a captain all over the world. Insurance was the typical mitteleuropean, analytical job, a closed world, the world of Kafka. One way of life is to do with taking off your shoes, the other to do with wearing a lot of coats, a lot of defences against history, against life. Keeping up defences is easy. You have to fight to be free, to swim away.’

How curious that Schmitz the businessman was a part of that closed world, but that the products of the Veneziani factory (like the books of Svevo the novelist, eventually) went all over the world on ships. Svevo’s dislocation was a Triestine characteristic, and the inability of his heroes Alfonso and Emilio to act with vitality, and of Zeno to quit his cigarettes, to grab the woman he loves, or to prosper except by mistake, are the marvellous comic fruits of that dislocation.

For Svevo himself, caught between these closed and open worlds, dislocation was a harbinger of systematic anxiety and bitterness. In his early years it may even have been a decisive influence in making him afraid of success at the one activity – writing – at which he wanted to excel. (Remember Freud’s essay, ‘Those Wrecked by Success’, in which he argues that the forces of conscience that induce illness in consequence of success are closely connected with the Oedipus complex.) The deep wound produced by the failure of his first two novels is understandable. But we know, from his wife Livia, that it was after his success, not before – after the belated applause and celebrity – that ‘something in [Svevo] weakened… he thought constantly about illness and death, listening to his body with intense attention’. These were his themes. ‘Sometimes he raised his right arm with his fist clenched, as if to ward off an invisible enemy, and said, in a breathless voice: “I can hear him coming, I can hear him coming.” And if I asked him “What can you hear?” he would answer, “The blow.” This is the word [“il colpo”] used in our dialect to mean a stroke.’ It was the writer’s high blood pressure that led to the fatal journey to Bormio for a cure. It was on the return journey that the car crashed, injuring Svevo’s leg, though the injury was not the cause of his death. The last blow came from his weak heart.

Would it be too much to say that success killed the creator of Zeno? Perhaps not too much to say that death, the great simplifier, was an escape from the equation of opposites that had held him for too long. Not too much to say that his obsession with failure, which had sustained him comically and heroically and driven him to pursue commercial respectability, simultaneously allowing him to lead his double life and to unify his two identities, was a pact with himself that was broken by fame. Eros is never completely free of Thanatos. Don’t we sometimes long for the dead in preference to the living, for memory and the past in preference to the unkind, familiar now? Don’t we live by an effort of will, by the terrific effort to construct and struggle, to defend our voice against the noise of the world, to break things as we go in order to make (we believe) better things? Maybe beyond Zeno Cosini, beyond Ettore Schmitz, beyond Italo Svevo, in the farthest, dimmest recesses where Triestine ghosts walk, many-coated, well-defended, shoes tightly laced, there was another character, another force who did not want the fulfilment of that wish. Would that be too psychoanalytical?


© Julian Evans 2000

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