Sunday, July 22, 2007

James Wood on Svevo

I will probably try to write in some detail about my own thoughts on Zeno's Conscience. For now I am trying to read what wise men have to say about it. Here's an essay by James Wood. Some excerpts from the essay I liked:

Svevo's temperament has affinities with Chekhov's: a gentle voyeurism which perhaps masked an intense sensitivity to human and animal suffering; an unwillingness to act or think like an 'intellectual', combined with an aversion to the high-flown, the poetic ('Why so many words for such few ideas?' Svevo said of poetry); a hostility to religion; and an eye for the subtly comic. [...]

Svevo's hostility to the perceived lack of ideas in poetry is significant, because he is one of the most thoroughly philosophical of modern novelists. He could recite many passages of Schopenhauer from memory. Clearly, the idea, central to Confessions of Zeno, of life as a sickness, is indebted to Schopenhauer (to whom Freud in turn admitted his debts); but Svevo, I suspect, was also enthralled by the jaunty paradoxical wit of Schopenhauer, who, for example, writes in The World as Will and Representation that walking is just a constantly prevented falling, just as the life of our body is a constantly prevented dying. Schopenhauer, who kept poodles, liked to say that he abused his dog with the epithet 'man' only when it was especially badly behaved; Svevo, who loved cats and dogs, wrote animal fables all his life. The gist of them was that animals can never fathom the mysterious wickedness of humans.


Living only in preparation for death: but not wanting to die. What is this but an essentially religious vision, without the consolation of religion? Again and again, Svevo returns us first of all to the pure death-diligence of the ancients (and Zeno's name alone should do that), and then to the great medieval and Renaissance philosophers and writers. His novel reverberates with a grave religious wit, not unlike that of Sir Thomas Browne, who wrote that 'the long habit of living indisposeth us for dying,' and very close to the 17th-century divine Jeremy Taylor, who tells us in Holy Living that balding is merely man's early preparation for death. Svevo would have loved that.

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