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Italo Svevo

SVEVO, ITALO (pen name of Ettore Schmitz; 1861–1928), Italian novelist. Svevo's mother was an Italian, his father an Austrian. He was educated in Germany, and on returning to his native Trieste worked as a bank clerk. From 1889 he was a partner in an industrial concern which he managed until his death, carefully separating his business from his literary life. After publishing two unsuccessful novels, Una vita (1892; A Life, 1963) and Senilità (1898; As a Man Grows Older, 1932), Svevo immersed himself in commerce for over 20 years. His talent was first discovered by the Irish writer James Joyce, who spent some time in Trieste from 1903 onward. Their friendship was mutually fruitful, and the correspondence between the two novelists, Carteggio inedito Italo Svevo-James Joyce, was published in 1949. It was as a result of the favorable attention it attracted in England and France that Svevo's masterpiece, La Coscienza di Zeno (1923; The Confessions of Zeno, 1930), came to be recognized in Italy itself as a classic of modern Italian literature. Partly autobiographical, the book is in effect an extended monologue, self-analytical and deeply introspective, telling the story of a man's life as he observes it from the outside. A member of a middle-class mercantile family, the hero regards his life as empty of meaning, a succession of failures. Caught up in dreams and visions and beset by psychological complexes, he becomes a melancholic and ironical spokesman of the absurdity of the human condition. Like the people in similar condition with whom he comes in contact, he finds life full of irremediable disappointments. Svevo's own rejection of the unremitting flow of life is thus projected onto his hero. In spite of the fact that Svevo never explicitly related to Jews or to a Jewish milieu in his literary works, some scholars have considered them crypto-Jewish. This thesis appeared in the late 1920s in an article by Giacomo Debenedetti, one of the outstanding Italian literary critics of the last century (a Jew himself), and since then it has been proposed many times in several different versions. According to Debenedetti, Svevo symbolically describes in his works the uneasiness of the emancipated Jew not completely belonging to European Christian society, and his approach to Judaism is in some way close to the negative attitude of the Jewish-born philosopher Otto Weininger.

Svevo's colloquial style was something of an innovation in Italian writing. His cosmopolitan background and education undoubtedly contributed to his unique position in his country's literature. Immediately before and after his death in an automobile accident some of his short novellas were published. They include Una burla riuscita (1928; The Hoax, 1929) and La novella del buon vecchio e della bella fanciulla (1929; The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl, 1930), both successfully combining pessimism with humor and gentle irony. Two other posthumous publications are his Corto viaggio sentimentale (1949; Short Sentimental Journey and Other Stories, 1967), a collection of novellas; and a volume of essays, Saggi e pagine sparse (1954). His collected works, edited by B. Maier, appeared in 1954 (in English, 1962ff.).


M. Penter, Italo Svevo (It., 1936); G. Spagnoletti, La Giovinezza e la formazione letteraria di Italo Stevo (1953); B. Maier, Profilo della critica su Italo Svevo (1954); E. Levi, in: Scritti… Sally Mayer (1956), 122–38; idem, Opere di Italo Svevo (1958), preface; L. Veneziani Svevo, Vita di mio marito (19582); A.L. de Castris, Italo Svevo (It., 1959); R. Ellman, James Joyce (Eng., 1959), index; G. Luti, Italo Svevo (It., 1961); Roditi, in: Svevo, Confessions of Zeno (1962), 7–25; M. Forti, Svevo romanziere (1966); P.N. Furbank, Italo Svevo (Eng., 1966). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: G. Voghera, Gli anni della psicanalisi (1980), 45–51 and passim; H. Stuart Hughes, Prisoners of Hope (1983), 33–42; P. Puppa, "Italo Svevo. La scrittura in scena," in: M. Carlà and L. De Angelis, L'ebraismo nella letteratura italiana del Novecento (1995), 33–42; L. De Angelis, "La reticenza di Aron. Letteratura e antisemitismo in Italo Svevo," in: ibid., 43–85.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.