December 19, 2017

The time James Joyce was teaching English to an industrial paint merchant who turned out to be one of the greatest writers in the history of Italian literature


Italo Svevo, and Italo Svevo’s hat.

2017 is just about ready to collapse—a couple more days, everyone—but before it does, let’s all take a minute to wish a great big happy birthday to legendary Italian author, businessman, and Team Melville All-Star Italo Svevo, who was born 156 years ago today.

Svevo was born Aron Ettore Schmitz in Trieste—then controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire—in 1861. His output consisted of a few short works, and three novels: A Life in 1892, Old Age in 1898, and The Confessions of Zeno in 1923. None of them made much of an impression on critics at the time.

But attention would be paid, because Svevo had acquired a heavy-hitting literary advocate in the most surprising possible way. For work, Svevo ran his father-in-law’s industrial paint business, and business was good — so good, in fact, that he decided, around the turn of the twentieth century, to open a branch in England, and set about learning English. He enrolled with Berlitz, where his teacher turned out to be none other than… James Joyce. (Yes, and the adjuncts and struggling writers of the world may be heartened to know that, even after Ulysses, Joyce was picking up shifts teaching English to paint salesmen.) The two men became fast friends, and Joyce, whose books had seen more of the world, offered an intuition: French people, he realized, would love this. So he pushed to get his friend’s work published in France, where it quickly became a critical sensation, the appreciation eventually finding its way back to Italy, and, from there, the world.

Lucky for us, because it is today widely acknowledged that Svevo’s writing is in a class by itself. Enthusiastically informed by the thinking of Sigmund Freud, just five years Svevo’s senior, it is witty, warmed by the fires of paradox, periodically sardonic, and always precise. His protagonists tend to be neurotics, caught up in cycles of pleasurable self-doubt and self-defeating compulsion, but not without a certain charm. And all his novels center on Trieste, Svevo’s city. And no one else has ever written anything like them.

Happy birthday of Italy Svevo, everybody! May every cigarette be your last.