(review of Zeno’s conscience, a novel by Italo Svevo – 4*/5*)
The comparison to James Joyce and Kafka frequently made is a kind of throw off – Joyce was author’s tutor alright but both Kafka and Joyce is supposed to be difficult-to-read authors. Italo Svevo presents no such problem; it is actually one of most humorous book I have read in some time. Zeno’s Conscience is a straight forward story – correction, confessions of a man not in any way special. He has his issues – is an extreme smoker, jealous, pervert, infidel, indecisive, hypochondriac, failure in business, egoistic etc; but he doesn’t impress us anywhere. His life story is just too ordinary.
The book begins with a preface from his psychologist who has chosen to publish this confession to revenge on Zeno because later had stopped taking this therapy just when it had started showing results. Now, Zeno was in his very right to stop the therapy and psychologists code of conduct doesn’t allow him/her to publish his/her patient’s private information without later’s approval – the doctor could have lost his practice because of this revenge. This is one thing hard to digest – it was probably to prove to us that Zeno had not window-dressed his thoughts in light of public disclosure. Still he is unreliable enough – and specially in last chapter, some of his lies are discovered. Zeno himself admits to unreliability of these confessions:
“A confession in writing is always a lie.”
For the rest of the book, we hear Zeno – speaking first of all about his smoking addiction and things he did to correct them. His last cigrate syndrome finds many mirror images such as when he turns infidel. The second chapter is about his daddy issues. The third is story of his marriage. Then there is chapter each on his infidelity and the failed business partnership.
We see him making stupid errors – which often determine his life and justifying them in his stupid ways.
“How the spirit is soothed by the knowledge that one has done great wrongs and must make up for them.”
He is always driven by moods and is actually lucky to be rich because he can’t handle any of his business affairs. Some of his self-justifying bias are hilarious with out being improbable – for example, when he ends being engaged to a woman he had found ugly that far; he suddenly start finding her prettier. Then to prove to himself that he is no longer a pervert as his psychiatrist believes; he tries (stupidly enough ) to woe a girl young enough to be his daughter.
The last chapter is about him taking psychoanalysis – the Oedipus complex and all. Now since doctor has showed him his secret; he gets angry with same and even ridicules later’s profession by saying:
“Sorrow and love—life, in other words—cannot be considered a sickness because they hurt.”
The psychiatrist himself is not above Zeno’s criticism:
“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.”
Though at times it sounds like too long, Zeno’s sense of humor makes it an enjoyable ride. Like every other human, he is a philosopher – and is actually a great observer. It amazes one that how much ignorant he can be, despite those abilities. He is even prepared to willingly live in illusions as long as it serves his hedonic purposes:
“It is comfortable to live in the belief that you are
great, though your greatness is latent.”
I can’t help ending with a piece of witty writing here:
“a woman might have a high value at a certain hour of the morning, none at all at noon, and then in the afternoon be worth twice her morning value, only to end in the evening at an actually negative value. I explained the concept of negative value: a woman had that kind of value when a man was calculating how much he’d be willing to pay to send her very far away from himself.”