Written in 1923 by Italian author Italo Svevo, Zeno’s Conscience is a wonderful modernist novel. It is a rather engaging and meandering story of psychological insight, and starts out about a man trying to quit smoking while keeping a journal of his thoughts for his psychoanalyst. The first 20 pages are Zeno’s humorous ramblings about his ‘last cigarette’ and the hilarity ensures among many other pursuits.
Throughout this story, we learn of Zeno’s other passion (women) and how he comes to terms with guilt. Zeno is always aware of feeling some kind of sickness, and I feel like sickness or physical ailments are often metaphors for or even psychosomatic consequences of his guilt. One example of this is when he ends his relationship with his mistress Carla; he is depressed that their relationship ended but also guilty of being unfaithful to his wife, Augusta:
“I arrived quite late for lunch, but I was so sweet to Augusta that she was immediately happy. But I wasn’t able to kiss my child, and for several hours I couldn’t eat, either. I felt very soiled! I feigned no sickness as I had done other times to conceal and attenuate guilt and remorse. I couldn’t seem to find solace in any resolved for the future, and for the first time I made none at all. It took many hours for me to return to the usual rhythm that drew me from the gloomy present to the luminous future.”
There is imagery following this section where Zeno feels he must cleanse himself of his guilt, and I liked Svevo’s language here:
“I spent the afternoon and also the evening with Augusta. She was very occupied, and I remained beside her, inert. I felt that, inert, I was being carried along by a current, a current of clear water: the honest life of my house. I abandoned myself to that current that carried me but didn’t cleanse me. Far from it! It emphasized my filth.”
This connects to another passage several dozens of pages earlier, when Zeno describes taking a bath in order to feel both physically and morally clean, where the metaphor of sickness/guilt is again present. Also, Svevo’s language of ‘dissolving’ ‘devoid’ ‘vanished’ is reminiscent of the later passage where Zeno feels inert:
“At a late hour, knowing nothing better to do, I took a bath. I felt my body was defiled and I wanted to wash it. But when I was in the water I thought: ‘to be clean, I would have to dissolve completely in this water.’ Then I dressed, so devoid of willpower that I didn’t even dry myself properly. The day vanished, and I remained at the window looking at the new green leaves on the trees in my garden. I suddenly started shivering, and with a certain satisfaction I thought I had a fever. It was not death I desired, but sickness, a sickness that would serve me as a pretext to do what I wanted, or that would prevent me from doing it.”
One other thing I liked in this novel were the little details about names. Our main character is named Zeno, and he determines himself to marry one of four daughters of a business colleague, whose names all begin with A. It’s funny that their connection is A-Z. Zeno’s brother-in-law is a man named Guido (basically just a “guy”) and both he and Guido have mistresses whose names begin with C (Carla and Carmen). Zeno itself is a very interesting name, whose origin or reputation is from an Ancient Greek philosopher. It is also one letter off from ‘zero.’ There is an interesting parallel regarding his name and what it means to his two loves- his wife Augusta and his mistress Carla.
At first, his wife:
“It was then that she told me how she had loved me before she ever met me. She had loved me from the moment she heard my name, uttered by her father in this form: Zeno Cosini, an ingenuous fellow who widened his eyes when he heard any kind of commercial stratagem mentioned…”
In compassion to his mistress Carla, it is noted about 80 pages later:
“Inspired by love, Carla had told me that the ugly name of Zeno, foisted on me by my parents, was certainly not what my appearance would lead anyone to imagine. She wanted me to be called Dario, and there, in the darkness, she said goodbye to me, calling me by that name.”
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel; I was engaged right from the beginning but the last quarter stated to slow down a little. I’m looking forward to reading more from this author in the future.