History: The novel was self-published in 1923. The original English translation was published under the title Confessions of Zeno. Italo Svevo self-published the novel with his own money when various companies rejected the manuscript.
James Joyce was a friend of Italo Svevo, to whom he gave English lessons. La coscienza di Zeno was not highly regarded in Italy, but through the work of James Joyce, it became extremely popular in France.
Italo Svevo and Zeno Cosini share some common traits such as being bald, cigarette addicts, businessmen, and loving husbands.
Plot: The novel is presented as a diary written by Zeno (who claims that it is full of lies), published by his doctor. The doctor has left a little note in the beginning, saying he had Zeno write an autobiography to help him in his psychoanalysis. The doctor has published the work as revenge for Zeno discontinuing his visits.
The diary, however, does not follow the chronological order; instead, it is structured in large chapters, each one developing a particular theme (The smoke addiction, My father's death, History of my marriage and so on). Only the last chapter is a real diary, with pages related to single dates in the period of the First World War.
Zeno first writes about his cigarette addiction and cites the first times he smoked. In his first few paragraphs, he remembers his life as a child. One of his friends bought cigarettes for his brother and him. Soon, he steals money from his father to buy tobacco, but finally decides not to do this out of shame. Eventually, he starts to smoke his father's half-smoked cigars instead.
The problem with his "last cigarette" starts when he is twenty. He contracts a fever and his doctor tells him that to heal he must abstain from smoking. He decides smoking is bad for him and smokes his "last cigarette" so he can quit. However, this is not his last and he soon becomes plagued with "last cigarettes." He attempts to quit on days of important events in his life and soon obsessively attempts to quit on the basis of the harmony in the numbers of dates. Each time, the cigarette fails to truly be the last. He goes to doctors and asks friends to help him give up the habit, but to no avail. He even commits himself into a clinic, but escapes.
When Zeno reaches middle age, his father's health begins to deteriorate. He starts to live closer to his father in case he passes away. Zeno is very different from his father, who is a serious man, while Zeno likes to joke. For instance, when his father states that Zeno is crazy, Zeno goes to the doctor and gets an official certification that he is sane. He shows this to his father who is hurt by this joke and becomes even more convinced that Zeno must be crazy. His father is also afraid of death, being very uncomfortable with the drafting of his will. One night, his father falls gravely ill and loses consciousness. The doctor comes and works on the patient, who is brought out of the clutches of death momentarily. Over the next few days, his father is able to get up and regains a bit of his self. He is restless and shifts positions for comfort often, even though the doctor says that staying in bed would be good for his circulation. One night, as his father tries to roll out of bed, Zeno blocks him from moving, to do as the doctor wished. His angry father then stands up and accidentally slaps Zeno in the face before dying.
His memoirs then trace how he meets his wife. When he is starting to learn about the business world, he meets his future father-in-law Giovanni Malfenti, an intelligent and successful businessman, whom Zeno admires. Malfenti has four daughters, Ada, Augusta, Alberta, and Anna, and when Zeno meets them, he decides that he wants to court Ada because of her beauty and since Alberta is quite young, while he regards Augusta as too plain, and Anna is only a little girl. He is unsuccessful and the Malfentis think that he is actually trying to court Augusta. He soon meets his rival for Ada's love, who is Guido Speier. Guido speaks perfect Tuscan (while Zeno speaks the dialect of Trieste), is handsome, and has a full head of hair (compared with Zeno's bald head). That evening, while Guido and Zeno both visit the Malfentis, Zeno proposes to Ada and she rejects him for Guido. Zeno then proposes to Alberta, who is not interested in marrying, and he is rejected by her also. Finally, he proposes to Augusta (who knows that Zeno first proposed to the other two) and she accepts, because she loves him.
Very soon, the couples get married and Zeno starts to realize that he can love Augusta. This surprises him as his love for her does not diminish. However, he meets Carla, a poor aspiring singer, and they start an affair, with Carla thinking that Zeno does not love his wife. Meanwhile, Ada and Guido marry and Mr. Malfenti gets sick. Zeno's affection for both Augusta and Carla increases and he has a daughter named Antonia around the time Giovanni passes away. Finally, one day, Carla expresses a sudden whim to see Augusta. Zeno deceives Carla and causes her to meet Ada instead. Carla misrepresents Ada as Zeno's wife, and moved by her beauty and sadness, breaks off the affair.
Zeno goes on to relate the business partnership between him and Guido. The two men set up a merchant business together in Trieste. They hire two workers named Luciano and Carmen (who becomes Guido's mistress) and they attempt to make as much profit as possible. However, due to Guido's obsession with debts and credit as well as with the notion of profit, the company does poorly. Guido and Ada's marriage begins to crumble as does Ada's health and beauty. Guido fakes a suicide attempt to gain Ada's compassion and she asks Zeno to help Guido's failing company. Guido starts playing on the Bourse (stock exchange) and loses even more money. On a fishing trip, he asks Zeno about the differences in effects between sodium veronal and veronal and Zeno answers that sodium veronal is fatal while veronal is not. Guido's gambling on the Bourse becomes very destructive and he finally tries to fake another suicide to gain Ada's compassion. However, he takes a fatal amount of veronal and dies. Soon thereafter, Zeno misses Guido's funeral because he himself gambles Guido's money on the Bourse and recovers three quarters of the losses.
Zeno describes his current life. It is during the Great War and his daughter Antonia (who greatly resembles Ada) and son Alfio have grown up. He spends his time visiting doctors, looking for a cure to his imagined sickness. One of the doctors claims he is suffering from the Oedipus complex, but Zeno does not believe it to be true. All the doctors are not able to treat him. Finally, he realizes that life itself resembles sickness because it has advancements and setbacks and always ends in death. Human advancement has given mankind not more able bodies, but weapons that can be sold, bought, stolen to prolong life. This deviation from natural selection causes more sickness and weakness in humans. Zeno imagines a time when a person will invent a new, powerful weapon of mass destruction and another will steal it and destroy the world, setting it free of sickness.
Review: Italo Svevo was the pen name of Ettore Schmitz, a well-to-do businessman who was educated as an Austrian and a German but who lived in Trieste and wrote in Italian (even though he says the dialect of Trieste was his native tongue and that "with our every Tuscan word, we lie ... by predilection, we recount all the things for which we have the word at hand, and ... avoid those things that would oblige us to turn to the dictionary!"). Zeno's Conscience was published when Svevo was 62 years old, and to his delight, it became much celebrated. He remarked to a friend, "Until last year, I was ... the least ambitious old man in the world. Now I am overcome by ambition. I have become eager for praise. I now live only to manage my own glory."
The novel purports to be the journal of a man undergoing psychoanalysis, written at the behest of the analyst, and then published by the analyst to embarrass his patient and avenge his termination of the analysis. Zeno tells five interrelated stories: the story of his last attempt to quit smoking cigarettes, the story of the death of his father, the story of his marriage, the story of his mistress, and the story of his doomed business partnership with the husband of his wife's sister. Zeno's narrative style is plain and even ingenuous. He tells each story straight-forwardly. But as the novel progresses, its themes, along with Zeno's feelings, get complicated. Zeno acts - the complications do not paralyse him - but he becomes more and more unsure of the meaning and the rightness of his actions until the last chapter, where he contemplates his psychoanalysis and decides that his doctor's very attempt to cure him is wrong-headed and that the images and memories the doctor wants to do away with are the ones Zeno cherishes the most. At one point he remarks, "I believe that he is the only one in this world who, hearing I wanted to go to bed with two beautiful women, would ask himself: Now let's see why this man wants to go to bed with them."
Confessions are difficult to pull off, because, as Zeno himself says, "A confession in writing is always a lie", but a novel that takes the form of a confession doesn't have to be true, it only has to be alluring or intriguing, and Zeno's voice is both. His avowed motives are simple: to tell what happened and why. His actions don't speak well of Zeno. He is deceitful, lustful, envious, impulsive, lazy and easily distracted. But in fact, major sins like these are often acceptable to readers because they make for an interesting narrative. Zeno is honest and generous. He seems to be telling the truth, at least to himself and the reader, even if not to his wife and his friends. And even though he deceives his friends, he almost always speaks well of them. Such generosity in a narrator (who is simultaneously speaking ill of himself) is appealing.
The five stories have some surprising twists. The story of his marriage is the best one - he begins visiting the house of a businessman he is fond of and discovers four daughters, all of whose names begin with "A" and all of whom have reputations for beauty. He promises himself that he will marry one of the beautiful daughters, but one turns out to be too young; one has "a squint" (which I take to mean strabismus); one wants a career instead of a husband; and the fourth one, the eligible one with whom he falls in love, can't stand him. He ends up with the exact sister he vowed never to take, and as soon as they are engaged, he is filled with unexpected happiness. They have a very satisfying marriage, at least in part because he tells her about everything (except the mistress) and she trusts him. Admittedly, by modern standards this is an odd marriage, but in comparison with the other marriages in the novel, it is companionable and mutually loving, and the reader has the feeling that if Augusta, Zeno's wife, withholds judgment, then the reader might as well do so, too.
Another aspect of Zeno's charm is that while he is more than a little feckless, he is also quite observant. Above all, he observes the paradoxes of human behaviour, both his own and that of others. At one point he is asked to help someone he knows cannot be helped because the man won't take responsibility for his own affairs. Zeno says: "If I had been calmer, I would have spoken to her of my inadequacy for the task she was assigning me, but I would have destroyed all the unforgettable emotion of that moment. In my case, I was so moved that I had no sense of my inadequacy. At that moment I thought no inadequacies existed for anyone." Zeno is always doing something unreasonable, quixotic, even self-destructive just because he enjoys the largeness of the feelings involved.
Zeno's retrospection brings him to 1915, in the first world war. He sends his family to Tuscany and waits out the dangers of the war by himself in Trieste. By this time he has told his story in detail and also pondered the requirements of psychoanalysis. He considers introspection, war, memory, health and sickness and comes up with a remarkable peroration that casts a lyrical and reflective light backward over the whole novel and makes something profound of its apparently simple materials. I think it is justly celebrated, and forms, with Kafka's The Trial and Joyce's Ulysses, a trio of orthodox modernism wherein the consciousness of the passage of time and the parsing of consciousness itself are more important than the story or plot elements. Zeno's Conscience is the Italian version, with recognisable Boccaccio-like elements of wives, mistresses, business, speculation, trickery and sex that Ulysses and The Trial have less of, or have in a less shameless way. Perhaps it was inevitable that Boccaccio would meet Freud and that Boccaccio would win.
Opening Line: “When I spoke to my doctor about my weakness for smoking he told me to begin my analysis by tracing the growth of that habit from the beginning.”
Closing Line: “There will be a tremendous explosion, but no one will hear it and the earth will return to its nebulous state and go wandering through the sky, free at last from parasites and disease.”
Quotes: “I have just finished with psychoanalysis. After practicing it assiduously for six whole months I find I am worse than before.”
Rating: Very Good.