Thursday, July 19, 2007

Coetzee on Svevo

I have copied an essay on Italo Svevo by J.M. Coetzee. Written in his usual nuts-and-bolts essay style but it is very informative and a very good introduction to his life and work.

I have finally finished reading Zeno's Conscience. It is really a great masterpiece, a complete laugh-riot and yet the final feeling one ends up with after closing the book is that of an overwhelming melancholia. Like his fellow Austrians (Trieste was then a part of the Austrian Empire) Robert Musil and Thomas Bernhard, Svevo is also dealing with the disease of consciousness. How thought and the habit of rationalising everything, which he says is the same as rational thinking when it comes to subjectivity, not only isolates individual consciousness from the outside world but also alienates one's thoughts and feelings from one's own self. (Thomas Bernhard goes one step further. With him it is madness and self-destruction.) This is the sickness of the soul -- one of the characters in the novel calls it the "imaginary sickness." Obviously it is something that cuts very close to the bone.

Anyway for now, in Coetzee's words:

"Like any good bourgeois of his time, Svevo fretted about his health: What constituted good health, how was it to be acquired, how maintained? In his writings health comes to take on a range of meanings, from the physical and psychic to the social and ethical. Where does the feeling come from, unique to mankind, that we are not well, and what is it that we desire to be cured of? Is cure possible? If cure entails making our peace with the way things are, is it necessarily a good thing to be cured?

To Svevo, Schopenhauer was the first philosopher to treat those afflicted with the disease of reflective thought as a species of their own, coexisting warily with the healthy, unreflective types who in Darwinian jargon might be called the fit. With Darwin— Darwin read through a Schopenhauerian lens—Svevo carried on a dogged lifelong tussle. His first novel was to have carried a Darwinian allusion in its title: Un inetto, the inept or ill-adapted one. But his publisher objected, and he settled for the rather colorless Una vita. In exemplary naturalistic fashion, the book follows the history of a young bank clerk who, when at last he has to face the fact that he is vacant of all drive, desire, or ambition, does the correct evolutionary thing and commits suicide."


ted (myrtias) said...

It appears that the link to the Coetzee piece is dead. I'd be very interested in reading it if you can make it appear without too much trouble.


Anonymous said...


Is this Coetzee essay available anywhere online?


Alok said...

I don't think so. I had copied it on the blog but got a mail from one of the lawyers (!) of some publisher. I don't think I have a copy of it now. You can find it in his essay collection "Inner Workings" or in the paid archives of new york review of books.