September 23, 2016
The Art of the Novella Challenge 51: The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl
by Jonathan Gibbs
Title: The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl
Author: Italo Svevo
First published: 1926 (in translation 1929)
Page count: 92
First line: There was a prelude to the adventure of the nice old man, but it developed almost without his being aware of it.
Published in 1926 (1929 in English translation), this is by a comfortable margin the latest, or most recent, of the Art of the Novella series (not counting the Contemporary Art of the Novella series) and, perhaps fortuitously for this column, it harks back to a far older literary form.
I say fortuitously, because my general approach in these posts has been look for the novella’s roots in oral traditions that predate the novel itself. The novella, to my mind, is how the tale tried to grow up in the age of the novel — taking us into territory where the likes of Melville and Conrad were able to shine, while the likes of Henry James and Woolf turned in excellent work that seemed to offer no real reason why it shouldn’t have been longer. This could point us to why novella is, in terms of the current literary landscape, where the novel still reigns supreme, in commercial if not critical terms, a rather dubious designation. Why not simply call it a short novel? Or, after Richard Ford, a long story?
The form that Svevo’s novella looks back to, and updates, and plays with, is the fable, which my dictionary of literary terms defines as “a short narrative in prose or verse that points to a moral,” adding that “non-human creatures or inanimate things are normally the characters” and that “the presentation of human beings as animals is the characteristic of the literary fable.”
Hm, well. Svevo’s nice old man and pretty girl are clearly humans, rather than animals, or humans-as-animals, but their namelessness, and the further generalisation introduced by those adjectives, all point to allegory. The pretty girl is all women of a certain age and charm — and in fact what a damning adjective pretty is, in this context: damning not for her, but for anyone who would choose to have “an adventure” with someone like her, someone pretty. The old man is all old men who are nice, and who like pretty girls.
In presenting us with such generic figures, Svevo is effectively laying out a series of Rorschach cards. A title that could, essentially, be cut and pasted onto the poster for any number of Woody Allen films is always going to raise eyebrows. Oh yeah, you think, pretty girl, old man, let’s see where you’re going with this!
As it happens, I’m writing a short story at the moment inspired by watching a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull, with its May-to-September romance between nineteen-year-old actor Nina and the twice-her-age writer Trigorin, and it got me thinking: when did trans-generational love affairs really become an issue? It’s not there in Shakespeare, I thought — unless I’m missing something. (There’s Othello and Desdemona, but the age gap is unclear and not much is made of it.) It’s there in Molière (The Miser) and in commedia dell’arte, but here the social conventions of marriage pretty much tied up pretty girls and old men, whether they liked it or not, and I’m sure some did more than others. The canon must be full of genuine love affairs across significant age gaps, but right now Chekhov seems to be inaugurating something. And Svevo complicating it.
As he says at one point, “The old man of classical comedy who is convinced that he can rival youth must be very rare today, if indeed he still exists” — but then the point of old men who have affairs with pretty girls, today, is that they are definitely not a stock comic character, or not in Western culture anyway: think Woody Allen, Philip Roth, Bogart and Bacall, practically every second Hollywood movie. These guys don’t think they can rival youth. They do rival youth. They get the girls — they are allowed to. If they don’t write the rules, they certainly inherit them.
Svevo writes his story in as faux-naive a manner as the title would suggest. Girls are simply pretty, even when driving trams for a living and wearing old clothes (“which made her great beauty look as if disguised”) and old men are simply nice (“He was dressed with great care, but in a sober style suited to his age. His appearance was really well bred and pleasing to the eye”). It all seems a world away from the psychological depths that I expected from the author of Confessions of Zeno, the bigger, earlier novel championed by Joyce — a copy of which has sat on my shelf for years, with maybe a single failed attempt to read it.
In this novella, all is surface, even the complications:
Not that love is simple, even for old men. For them its motives are complicated. They know that they must make excuses.
Then the old man thought that it was the childlike eye of the girl that had conquered him. Old men, when they fall in love, always pass through a stage of paternity and each embrace is an act of incest, carrying with it the bitter savour of incest.
It’s difficult to know how to respond to this, never myself having experienced the bitter savour of incest, but the devious candor of Svevo’s narration—his avoidance of the trappings of realism, of any attempt to evoke in the reader any of those sensations he describes, to show the characters as ambiguous, contingent creatures—is disarming. He challenges us to know what he means. And the preternatural authority of his telling, the fable-ishness of the narration, tempts us into thinking that there will, in the end, be a moral: the nice old man will, when all is said and done, either be nice, or he won’t be, and we shall know him as such, and discreetly adjust our preconceptions accordingly.
As such, the story proceeds not just allegorically, but aphoristically. The quality of the writing seems to be predicated on the truth of what it’s saying. “The proffer of love is a very high compliment and pleases even when we don’t know what to do with it” is like the moral to an in-the-end-not-very-useful fable by Aesop. As for the pretty girl, we are given very limited insight into her view of the whole affair.
She told him, but without any intention of being tragic, that he was her first lover. And he believed it. In fact the nice old man had to put restraint on himself to prevent himself from offering her money for the third time. So willingly did he yield to the pleasure she gave him that he felt hurt when she told him that she did not like young men, and preferred old ones.
Svevo is being very sly here. All that we know is what she says, and that he believes her. For why shouldn’t he — when he is giving her money, and she is honest, and pretty? Later, he gives us this:
“Was it not you who seduced me?” asked the poor girl, doubtless carrying out the instructions she had been given.
Doubtless? Don’t you know, Italo? And who might it be that is giving the instructions?
Even when she is stirring things up, as she is here, the book seems to suggest that the identity, and motives, of the pretty girl are entirely by-the-bye. In the latter part of the story, the nice old man, perhaps tiring of the love affair, turns to philosophy (post coitum omne animal philosophus est), and starts writing a treatise on the question of what youth owes to age. (Or, alternatively, on whether nice old men should shag pretty girls, just because society is constructed in such a way that they get the opportunity to do so.)
The pretty girl, in this reading, is a mere agent of chance, a natural occurrence, an animatronic sex doll in increasingly smart clothes who can suffer no hurt or harm, and will do precisely what the old man wants, even before he can think to desire it. And yet still he will trip, and still he will stumble, and still he will fall, despite his best intentions, despite his vow to leave the pretty girl/animatronic doll in peace (Svevo does use the word doll at one point), for her and their and our own sakes.
“How would it be possible for him to convince old men that it was their duty to look after like daughters, girls whom, if they were allowed, they would take as lovers?” the old man wonders. It is quite the question for a nice old man to ask on the far side of an affair with just such a girl.
The title of that other novel comes back to mind: in the Italian, it is not strictly Confessions of Zeno, but Zeno’s Conscience. Here, it is the old man’s conscience that impels him to tie himself up in knots over the rights and wrongs of what he has done, what he has enjoyed. Irony is a terrible master. And an ironical fable is a ferocious monster indeed, offering the sense that a moral is there for taking, but threatening to judge you on whether and how you take it. Imagine Aesop, but written for animals — for the wolves and lions and eagles that reap the moral benefits of his tales. Now imagine Aesop, too, is a wolf, or a lion, or an eagle. That’s how tricksy this book is.