Celebrating 100 years of Zeno’s Conscience with a new translation
No novel captures the sprit of the city of Trieste like Italo Svevo’s masterpiece, La Coscienza di Zeno. I grew up in the city, and walked through the very streets Svevo mentions, sat down to have coffee in the cafes where he sat and discussed literature with his friend and English teacher, James Joyce. I walked past the building where the author was born thousands of times. And when I read the novel for the first time, I immediately recognized the familiar rhythm of our dialect (disguised as “proper” Italian — Tuscan, as Zeno would call it).
The novel kept calling me back. And when I read it a second time I knew I was meant to translate it to recreate Svevo’s humor, irony, and uniquely Triestine outlook for English-speaking audiences.
Here’s the introduction to my 100-year Anniversary Edition of Zeno’s Conscience, which includes annotations on the history and culture of the city of Trieste, and the first translation into English of the passages in dialect.
Italo Svevo and Trieste: introduction by Peter Palmieri — translator
Italo Svevo was the pen name of Hector Aron Schmitz, born of a German father and an Italian mother in the city of Trieste in 1861. The pseudonym can be translated to “Italian Swabian” (Swabia being a region in southern Germany) which perfectly sums up the ambiguity over his self-identity. The year of his birth was an important one in the history of Italy because it marked the country’s unification. But it was a unification that did not include the city of Trieste, which had been part of the Habsburg monarchy since 1382.
Trieste was the fourth largest city of the Austro-Hungarian empire (after Vienna, Prague, and Budapest) and its most important port. It was a lively center of business where three different cultures met and blended: the Italian, the German, and the Slavic.
Svevo’s father was a successful businessman whose wish was to prepare his oldest son to carry on the management of the family firm. Svevo went to boarding school in Germany before returning to Trieste to finish his studies. Tragedy struck the family when young Hector returned to his natal city: his father’s business suffered financial ruin, and the previously privileged young lad was forced to get a job.
He was able to get a position as a correspondence clerk at the local branch of the Unionbank — a job he’d keep for eighteen years, dreading every single workday according to his accounts. By now, Hector had discovered his true passion, literature, and would spend his free time reading at the public library. And he began to write stories, articles, and plays under various pseudonyms (when asked why he didn’t use his own name, he said he couldn’t stand to see that single lonely vowel in his last name, oppressed by no less than six consonants).
His writing brought him modest local success but he couldn’t penetrate the larger Italian market. Svevo’s first language was the Triestine dialect , his second German, and Italian was only a third language which he was forced to remediate at school following his return to Trieste from Germany. His writing style differed quite a bit from the lyrical Italian literature of the day, being more pragmatic, less stuffy, more… Triestine. It was largely looked down on in the elitist Italian literary circles. Svevo’s retort was that Italian writers, with their fancy Tuscan dialect, were unable to write without a dictionary open by their side.
He published two novels at his expense, A Life, and As a Man Grows Older, neither of which received much notice. He was quite pleased when he received a negative review because he felt it was an improvement over being utterly ignored.
Discouraged, Svevo stopped writing. He “tossed his pen into the poison ivy” and would not publish any work for twenty-five years — what some critics consider to be the longest writing hiatus in the history of literature. Writing was a complete waste of time, Svevo claimed, but when pressed, he’d admit that writing was a fine activity; it was publishing one must avoid at all costs!
By now, Hector Schmitz married Livia Veneziani: one of several daughters of a man who had invented a special marine varnish that prevented rust and barnacle build-up on ships. He went to work for his father-in-law, who dispatched him to England, where Svevo was able to secure an incredibly lucrative contract to re-varnish every vessel in the English navy.
His frequent trips to England required Svevo to improve his rather rudimentary English. So he went to the Berlitz language school of Trieste to secure a tutor. His new tutor was a very bright twenty-four-year-old Irishman with whom he’d develop a strong and long-lasting friendship, in large part due to their mutual love of literature. The teacher’s name was James Joyce.
After they had grown to know each other, they mutually revealed they were writers and exchanged pieces they had written. Joyce quickly read both of Svevo’s novels and thought they were brilliant. In return, Svevo read and critiqued the first three chapters of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, providing the necessary encouragement to continue the project that had been plaguing him.
It was Joyce who convinced Svevo to retrieve his pen from that bush of poison ivy. Then, World War 1 broke out. Being a British subject, James Joyce would be forced to leave the city of Trieste, but the two friends would maintain an active correspondence.
Joyce was living in Paris when Zeno’s Conscience was published. Like Svevo’s prior two novels, the book received little attention in Italy. But James Joyce loved it. He began sharing it with all his literary friends in France. The book was translated to French and soon became a success on the continent. In fact, Zeno’s Conscience is the first, and perhaps only Italian novel to have enjoyed success abroad before in its own homeland.
As Svevo was toiling on Zeno’s Conscience, Joyce was working on his own novel, the book that would become his masterpiece: Ulysses. He kept a photograph of his friend Hector Schmitz in front of him on his desk, the inspiration for his most memorable character, Leopold Bloom.
Zeno’s Conscience would not have existed were it not for James Joyce, but perhaps, Ulysses would not have been written were it not for Italo Svevo.
Italo Svevo did finally gain the recognition in Italy he had so yearned for, and it was said that no one ever enjoyed his success more than he did. He carried his head and shoulders high and straight as he frequented the elegant literary coffee shops of the city, many of which are still in business to this day. When he was complimented for being the author of the first modernist novel in the Italian tongue, Svevo accepted the compliment, then rushed to a bookstore where he asked the bookseller to give him half a dozen modernist books so that he could find out what was meant by “modernism”.
Tragically, his success was not long-lived. In September of 1928, Hector Schmitz was a passenger in an automobile involved in an accident outside the city of Treviso. At first, the accident did not appear too serious, but Schmitz suffered respiratory complications, possibly due to his life-long smoking addiction. As he lay in his hospital bed, he asked for a cigarette. The doctor would not let him have one. “Too bad,” Svevo said. And then, borrowing a line from Zeno Cosini, his best known protagonist, he said, “It would have been my last.” He died shortly thereafter.
Zeno’s Conscience is largely autobiographical, though it’s so imaginative that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish the fine line between fact and fiction. One hundred years after its original publication, it remains hilarious, insightful, provocative, and eerily prescient.
I am deeply honored to help celebrate the centenary of the publication of this novel with a new translation. I feel a special bond with this novel. I grew up in the city of Trieste, less than a mile away from where Svevo lived with his family and his in-laws. James Joyce’s younger brother, Stanislaus, was one of my mother’s English teachers at the University of Trieste (my aunt attended the lectures in the standing-room-only lecture hall too, though she wasn’t registered as a university student). Whenever I go back to visit, I walk the streets of my childhood, which are the very streets Zeno walks in this masterpiece, and I get to sit in the same cafe’s where Joyce and Svevo sat to discuss literature and life.
I once listened to a lecture by an Italian professor of literature who claimed that Zeno’s Conscience is a novel that could be set in any Italian city, because Svevo does not spend much time describing the city’s architecture or panorama. I think Svevo would agree with me that nothing could be farther from the truth. Zeno’s Conscience could only be set in Trieste. The spirit of the city shines through in every scene and in every character, through their humor, melancholy, deep irony, and unique perspective on life. I think that Italian literature professor, just like the literary critics of Svevo’s time, simply didn’t get the joke. But I think that, with this new translation, you will.
August 9 2022