Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Confessions of Zeno, Italo Svevo

Why I read it: Western Canon A Lifetime's Reading

Podcasts: None

Brow: While Zeno himself may be quite lowbrow, reading this book sets you apart as one of the highbrow set. Reading it in the original Italian just makes you smug.

Summary: Zeno enters into psychoanalysis to cure his smoking habit, and his therapist recommends keeping a diary. The long chapters are not linear. The first documents his attempts to quit smoking. The next part is about his father's death many years later. The third part recounts how he met his wife and her three sisters. He immediately falls in love with the most beautiful sister Ada, but is rejected in favour of a handsome businessman named Guido who speaks Tuscan. Zeno himself is bald and only speaks the dialect of Trieste. He then proposes marriage to a second sister, who rejects him because she's only 17 and has intellectual plans. The third sister is only 9, so he skips over her in favour of the 4th sister Augusta, who he considers boring and plain, but who loves him. Zeno surprises himself in the next part by actually falling in love with his wife. However when a poor but pretty singer moves in downstairs he quickly acquires a mistress who demands to meet his wife. He leads her to believe that Ada is his wife, and on seeing her, the mistress breaks off the affair because of how lovely yet sad Ada is. In the fifth part, Zeno has gone into business with Guido. He quickly realises that Guido's obsession with profits combined with his affair with one of the employees is driving the company, and Ada, to ruin. Ada asks Zeno for help and Zeno takes Guido on a fishing trip, where Guido starts asking him about various suicide methods. Soon after, Guido dies. Zeno misses his funeral because he's busy gambling on the stock market and winning back most of Guido's losses. The final section is set in WWI Italy. Zeno is still seeking a cure to his imagined sickness and finally concludes that the problem is natural selection has been subverted, causing more weaknesses in humans. He envisions a time when weapons of mass destruction will wipe out illness.

What I liked about it: Zeno is actually hilarious, as are the situations he keeps getting himself into. For example, the scene where he is running around the house of his in-laws proposing to their various daughters and being rejected on all fronts is a classic farce.

What I didn't like about it: After 300-odd pages of comic relief, the last part of the book suddenly takes a turn for the serious and Zeno find himself contemplating the serious questions facing people early in the 20th century: war, illness, scientific advancement. It's a jarring shift and the build-up doesn't fit the payoff.

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