Tuesday, February 28, 2017

"In the mind of this idle writer" - Italo Svevo's Senilità

For a striking example of what else was happening in Italian literature contemporary to Gabriele D’Annunzio, one could hardly find a writer more different than Italo Svevo in his 1898 novel Senilità. Though I read the work two months ago, Senilità proved such a knockout that I’m determined to post about it.

I’ll start with the book’s title, which began as Il Carnavale di EmilioEmilio’s Carnival - the choice of translator Beth Archer Brombert (the book has been previously translated as the lifeless As a Man Grows Older). However, Senilità appears parenthetically on cover and title page to acknowledge Svevo’s insistence that this, the book’s original published title, was indispensable. In the book’s introduction, Victor Brombert argues that “carnavale,” with its etymology rooted in “denial of the flesh,” better conveys the work’s central thematic concerns to English readers on whom the nuances of the curious word “senilità” might be lost. Brombert defines the term, in the context of Svevo’s writings, as a kind of “ironic ennui…a permanent premonition of life as disaster, a deep skepticism concerning one’s own potential, a ceaseless mediation on vulnerability and death, a wisdom that can be put to no use…” – well, his catalogue of approximations goes on.

The word’s seemingly endless and ambiguous suggestions sum up the more or less entrenched psychological state of Svevo’s chief character, 35-year-old virgin Emilio Brentani, both office clerk and fiction writer – “two occupations and two objectives that were quite distinct” - just one of many contrarieties that plague Emilio’s life. Primary among these, however, is his pursuit of Angiolina, an alluring young lower class woman about whom, from the novel’s first line, we know Emilio feels conflicted:  “With his first words to her, he wanted to inform her straight away that he had no intention of getting involved in a serious relationship.” Even as Emilio begins courting Angiolina and taking strolls with her about town (we are in Trieste, still a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, late 19th century), he tries to rationalize his desire by pinging back and forth between two extremities. First is a devotional but condescending Pygmalion-like attitude aimed at elevating Angiolina’s coarser manners and simple intellect:

Would it not have been better to make her less honest and more calculating? Once he asked himself the question, he had the brilliant idea of taking upon himself the education of the girl. In exchange for her gift of her love, he could give her only one thing: an understanding of life and the art of enjoying it.

Emilio thinks of Angiolina as “Ange” while in this mode, yet quickly shifts to an opposing pole of moral indignation and jealousy concerning any attention this young allumeuse gives to other men, whose antennae clearly pick up on the glances that go everywhere, perhaps indicating even her availability.

Emilio’s conflict is amplified by his admiration for and envy of a debonair and worldly friend, Balli, a handsome sculptor, who warns Emilio away from the “vulgar” Giolina though is not himself immune from her pull. Finally, Emilio must also navigate the psychological tensions his new relationship creates with Amalia, the lonely, homely sister with whom Emilio has lived and cared for since their parents’ death.

Between this domestic obligation and the thirst for adventure, the duties of office and aspirations of art, and especially between sexual desire and a compulsion to justify it both morally and socially, Emilio inhabits a solipsistic shadow-land of indecision, impulsiveness, and self-absorption. In thrall to Angiolina, he ignores Balli’s advice. He ignores his sister’s needs, with devastating results. Having written one unpublished novel –  “the story of a young artist whose health and talent had been ruined by…a heroine in the style of the time: part woman, part tigress” – he lets his writing languish, turning all of his attention to making headway with Angiolina while alternately condemning her for not being the woman he expects her to be.

250 pages of such indecisiveness and navel-gazing could test any reader’s patience, but Svevo pulls it off through a darkly comic tone, an especially nuanced and humanizing psychological depiction of his characters, and by shifting points of view and indirect narration that permit the reader to observe his creatures, even the duplicitous Angiolina, with sympathy. Unlike those of Svevo’s other principal characters, Angiolina’s thoughts remain hidden from us, underscoring her objectification. Externally, though, we witness her relative poverty, simplicity, and almost poignant inability to refuse the attentions she attracts. Emilio’s first visit to Angiolina’s home reveals her humble station in a manner that divides the reader’s perception between Emilio’s self-absorption and sympathy for Angiolina’s situation. Despite Emilio’s almost intolerable “senilità,” his flashes of self-awareness illuminate the novel’s psychological landscape such that one longs for him to see the daylight he continually extinguishes, often comically: “Emilio then lamented his sorry fate but with so much self-irony that he cleared himself of all ridicule.”

Further engaging the reader’s interest is a complex set of psychological transferences between Emilio, Angiolina, Balli and Amalia as their “elective affinities” attract and repel under Svevo’s obvious interest in Freud. My reference to Goethe is intended. Svevo’s novel fits awkwardly in the context of other Italian literature from the period, as this Trieste native of German-Italian-Jewish origins (real name Ettore Schmitz) seems aligned more with writers from the north (I thought of Theodore Fontaine and Stefan Zweig, as well as Arthur Schnitzler’s erotically-charged La Ronde, which appeared just a year before, but those of you who’ve read more Germanic literature than I will know better). Senilità is so pared down to the bare bones of the relationship’s psychological underpinnings – what little exists in the way of description functions largely as staging – that one can scarcely believe Svevo and D’Annunzio were contemporaries. Far from D’Annunzio’s indulgence in fin-de-siècle decadence, Svevo already anticipates the claustrophobic psychological novels of Alberto Moravia. Even the conquest of Angiolina, when it finally arrives, is reduced, linguistically, to a comically unadorned fact, brutally stripped of romance and anathema to the fantasies that Emilio has nurtured for more than half the novel: “Then she gave herself to him, or more precisely, she took him.”

In fact, Senilità is so deeply introspective, its scope focused so tightly on Emilio’s ruminating psychological state, that little light from anything else gets through, the narrative being notable for what it excludes. A case in point is a scene during Trieste’s annual carnival in which Emilio learns from Balli that Angiolina may be betraying him with a common umbrella vendor. Where a realist like Zola might have leapt at the opportunity to describe the masks, costumes and revelry in the streets, Svevo shoves all that out of sight to focus almost entirely on Emilio's alternately murderous, alternately forgiving anxiety. The chapter plays out in a void as existential as physical, as Emilio wanders the dark streets hoping to catch Angiolina “in flagrante,” the city appearing to the reader as Emilio must see it: empty unless the object of his elusive search seems to come into view:

In the distance he thought he saw her again. A reflection, a shadow, a movement, everything took on the shape and demeanor of the phantasm that eluded him. He started to run, hoping to catch up with her, not calm and ironic as he had been on the slope of via Romagna, but firmly intent on becoming violent with her. Happily, it was not she. In his misfortune, Emilio felt as through all the violence he had been about to unleash on her was now directed to himself, leaving him breathless and without hope of reason or control. He bit his hand like a lunatic.

In a similar manner, the social and historical context of the novel remains in the margins. One does, though, gain an acute sense of male prerogative in Trieste, a manner of behavior in which sexual mores are codified in ways constitutionally unattainable to the emotionally immature and mercuric Emilio. In that first visit to Angiolina’s home, he feels a pang of both jealousy and envy at seeing photographs of numerous men on her bedroom walls, including one whom, he recalls, had once said to him, “The women I deal with are unworthy of constituting an offense to my wife.”

As one might expect, none of this mental tumult ends well for the parties involved. One would be unlikely to want to read the novel Emilio might have constructed from his experience, as the insipidity of so many of his ruminations, by themselves, would be nearly unreadable. But the authorial distance Svevo imposes upon his poor author allows us to see both how Emilio might have written his own story and how he would have gotten it wrong, an ironic detachment and sentimentality that eclipses an ability to see himself as he is. In addition, the patient arc of Svevo’s vision cements Emilio’s tortured thoughts together at this remove, creating an indelible portrait of a soul wrapped up in illusion, aware of it only in intermittent glints and glimmers, yet unable to achieve the action necessary to surmount his own weaknesses.

Fortunately, Svevo’s exquisite novel triumphs in Emilio’s place. It’s small wonder that James Joyce, who promoted the literary career of Svevo after discovering the writer in one of the English classes Joyce taught in Trieste, admired the novel so much that he could recite its final pages from memory. One can imagine a young Emilio serving as the model for the young boy in Joyce’s “Araby,” burning with shame at having his romantic illusions shattered. Yet he is no young boy, and it would be difficult to imagine any epiphany truly taking hold.


  1. This book is kind of a hard sell, since it is so unpleasant, but you answer the "why" question well. I agree, it is in some ways more of an Austrian novel. So is Zeno, some to think of it.

  2. The situation the book describes is unpleasant, but I could not shake the remarkable comic quality of Svevo's writing: neither funny ha-ha nor funny peculiar, but a constant powerful irony that hangs in the air like the ozone smell after lightening. Somewhere I saw the book compared to Schweick. That would never have occurred to me on my own, but I can certainly see it now. The novel is also so carefully put together, so aesthetically pleasing - real literature and not just a case study.

    I expect get to Zeno rather sooner than later.

  3. An old man but still like the boy from "Araby". That was a strikingly unsympathetic portrait alright. I think it requires such novelistic skill to generate interest in stories centered on flawed, unlikeable characters.

    1. It would seem an almost irresistible challenge for a writer, like Svevo, who is so deeply interested in psychology: how to use art to turn a distasteful figure into someone of interest? Svevo even plays with this idea within the novel by having Emilio's sculptor friend Balli create a rather ugly bust of Angiolina's head, as though to underscore that such artistic transformations can be and often are done poorly.

  4. The original "as a man grows older" translation is significantly more enjoyable.

    1. Good to know. This is certainly a novel I plan to read again.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.