Saturday, May 20, 2006

Italo Svevo's "Zeno's Conscience"

I like it when a trustworthy reader warns me off a book I might have considered. I like it even better when she enthusiastically recommends a title and gives me detailed reasons for its appeal. Such is the case with the current installment of Jane Smiley's adventure in reading.

She takes up and promotes Italo Svevo's Zeno's Conscience, which first appeared in 1923.

The gist of the story, according to Smiley:
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."
Smiley adds:
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.
Click here to read the entire Smiley article. To read earlier entries in this series, click here, here, here, here, and here.

--Marshal Zeringue