Saturday, July 14, 2007

Italo Svevo: Zeno's Conscience

Italo Svevo's Zeno's Conscience (The Confessions of Zeno in an earlier translation) is considered a modernist masterpiece in the same tradition as Joyce, Proust and others. (Indeed it was Joyce who helped Svevo find a publisher and audience in France.) Though so far, and I have read around 200 pages, less than half, it reads more like Woody Allen than Proust or Joyce. It is rip-roaringly funny and very entertaining. Sentences like, "I looked at the Stars as if I had just conquered them," are littered on every page. The introductory chapter in which the narrator tells the story of his nicotine-addiction is a small classic in itself. Even better is the chapter where he recounts the story of his disastrous courtship, unrequited love and an ill-advised marriage. All really funny.

Beneath all the farcical comedy, however, there are of course lots of serious things too. In common with the standard works of European modernism it takes a critical look at human consciousness too, how it can become a prison, how the process of thought itself results in self-alienation and how self-awareness is often a "crippling burden" inhibiting meaningful action and how close in general it is to rationalisation and self-delusion. This is definitely not a very uplifting subject for a book. Indeed reading Proust's novel or The Man Without Qualities can be really gloomy experiences, even though they are very funny at places, specially Musil. Unlike those books here the mood is very light overall even though the ultimate "message" is somewhat dark. Will write in more detail about it once I have finished it. It is quite long, almost 500 pages! More than half is still left.

4 comments:

tom said...

I always loved the part where father is about to reveal the meaning of life, but it turned out to be just a brain tumor.

Alok said...

Haha, yes. That one is great too.

tom said...

by the way, if he isn't already on your list, you might add Elias Canetti (Auto da Fe was his one great novel, but I especially love his 'Earwitness' and his autobiographies) - he fits right in there with many of your usual suspects (Kafka, Musil, Kraus, etc ...)

Alok said...

I havent read anything by him yet though I have heard about him. He does sound like someone I would like. Thanks for reminding. Will definitely be on a lookout.