On Svevo's Zeno 1

V.S. Pritchett once wrote about the novelist’s knack of “showing how people live in one another’s lives.” This is not only a concise way of talking about what novelists do – it also points to a large economic fact, which is that people do live in one another’s lives. Surprisingly, economists are, for the most part, blind, or at least hesitant, about seeing this fact. They have even systematized this blindness and called it the ‘micro-foundations of the economy.’

Unfortunately, all too often novels, when they are considered from the aspect of economics, are considered to be free zones over which preconceived economic theories and ideas roam. But one can think of two other relations of the novel to economics – one is as a test of economic ideas, and the other is as a source of economic ideas. It might well be that the social interactions involving exchange, the symbolization of value, gifts, scarcity  – are rehearsed in a sophisticated way in certain novels to the extent that the economist should learn from the novel, rather than the other way around.

I’d like to put these consideration in the background  against which I am writing these notes about  Italo Svevo’s novel, Zeno’s Conscience.

Let’s begin with the novel’s premise. In a short note by Dr. S., Zeno’s journal is presented to the reader as an act of malice on the part of Dr. S., and a means of ‘catching’ his former partient. In other words, the novel begins with the breaking of a contract, that of privacy between the doctor and the patient. It begins outside the law, so to speak. Zeno’s own notion is that his memoirs are therapeutic, serving one end: to help him break the habit of smoking.

Thus, on the one hand, we have the broken contract to which the book owes its existence as a published object – and on the other, we have the desire to break a habit to which the book owes its existence in the mind of the narrator. 

Before I begin with the second form of the book’s existence, let’s look at what is implied in Doctor S.’s premise – that a book not only has an inward side of content, but an outward side that objectifies that content. The book is a product of writing. Writing creates an object. And objects are not, contra the economist’s grand model, all the same kind of commodity. If they take on the form of the commodity, they take on that form because their use value for people living in each other’s lives varies not just in terms of some original position in which a preference is expressed, but in the way that preference is lived with. For instance, there is addiction. There is routine.

As Svevo’s novel was translated into French, it began to be noticed in Italy. The poet Montale wrote an enthusiastic review that, to an extent, introduced the Italian intelligentsia to Svevo, this half German Triestian Jew, whose language, according to his English translator, William Weaver, seemed “flat, unaccented, even opaque.”

Svevo wrote Montale a rather extraordinary letter, expressing his thanks and correcting Montale’s assumption that Svevo was a modernist writer linked to Joyce and the literary schools of Paris.  Instead, Svevo took the view that writing was a form of performance and manufacture – and even a form of bad habit.

“I feel the need to tell you that I don’t believe that the difference between Conscience and the two preceeding novels should be searched for in the influence of the most modern literature. I was very unaware of that literature when I was writing, since after the failure of Senilita, I forbade myself literature. I even had a ruse to help myself from falling bak into it: I studied the violin and I conscretated to it, for twenty years, all my free time. I read a lot of Italian novels, and among the French, the greatest authors of our time. I know English, but not enough to easily read Ulysses, which I am now reading slowly with the help of a friend. As to Proust, I am now hurrying to to acquaint myself when, last year, Larbaud told me that in reading Senilita (which, like you, he loves especially), one thinks of that writer.

“It is true that Conscience is a  completely other kind of thing than the preceeding novels. But just think that it is an autobiography and not my own. Much less than Senilita. I put three year into writing it in my free moments. And I proceeded in this way: when I found myself alone, I tried to persuade myself I was Zeno. I walked like him, like him I smoked, and I stuck on my past all of thos of his adventures that resembled my own, for this sole reason: that the evocation of a personal adventure is a reconstruction that easily becomes an entirely new construction, when one succeeds in placing it in a new atmosphere. And it doesn’t lose so much the taste and value of a memory, no more than its sadness. I am sure that you understand me.” [Translated from Ecrits intimes, essais et lettres trans. by Marco Fusco, 1973]

For a reader of Zeno’s Conscience, this is a pretty astonishing letter, since it seems to be both a distancing from Zeno and a usurpation of his style of audacity – the peculiar audacity of the fool that we can see, as well, in the Jewish jokes that Freud loved, and in Kafka’s never-say-die men, who are continually scheming to get into the Castle.Remember, Kafka howled with laughter when he read his own stories to his friends, according to Brod.

In Svevo, that audacity takes the peculiar form of hypochondria and addiction – which are, in turn, exemplary forms of routine. Svevo even takes writing as an addiction that he prevents himself from falling back into by taking up another routine, one that he knows he is bad at – just as a recovering  alcoholic will take up cigarette smoking, and a cigarette smoker, gum.

This, of course, is a whole other dimension of revealed preference.