Italo Svevo, whose talent was recognized and whose career was partially rescued by Joyce, is not much read nowadays. Joyce’s favorite Svevo novel was not Zeno’s Conscience, which is most well-known, but instead the earlier (1898) As a Man Grows Older (available through New York Review of Books). The novel is easy to classify as charming, sad, a curious blend of the pathetic and ridiculous, comedic in its portrayal of self-deception, lacking tragedy but not pity in its portrayal of a life without past or future, precise in its scrutiny of the heart’s willful deceptions of the mind, and the mind’s unconscious deceptions of the heart.
But it is most immediately striking for its narrative style–a variation on the keyboard of free-indirect discourse; and a variation that liberates narration and the novel as much as the works of Mallarme, Debussy, or Cezanne liberated their respective formal conventions.
Here is the opening of the novel:
At once, with his very first words, he wanted to make it perfectly clear that he had no intention of beginning anything in the nature of a serious flirtation. For this reason he addressed her more or less as follows: ‘I love you very much and it is for your sake that I feel we ought to agree to behave with great prudence.’ His words sounded, indeed, so very cautious that it was hard to believe the sentiment which inspired them altogether disinterested; had he been able to speak a little more frankly he would probably have said something of this sort: ‘I am very much in love with you, but it is impossible that I should ever consider you as more than a plaything. I have other duties in life, my career and my family.’
The exactitude, approaching awkwardness, recalls the opening of a novel by James. But the motive for it is the opposite of James’: for whereas James strains to inhabit, while retaining his own voice, the horizon of a character’s attention and inner life, Svevo strains against the magnetism of free-indirect discourse, while retaining stiflingly near to the perspectives of several characters. He wants to limit his own attention to the ways they, and especially the protagonist Emilio, attend to their own thoughts and desires (he is devotedly a novelist of the inner life) but he does not want to confine himself there. Hence in the opening of the novel: “it was hard to believe the sentiment” might be the perspective of Emilio’s mistress, but she has not yet entered the picture. Instead, it is the perspective of the narrator. “Had he been able to speak a little more frankly” paraphrases the man’s own discomfort with openness of expression, and also assesses his capacities as a man.
At times, where the narration falls towards a paraphrase of thoughts, the effect is not so different from any other writer working in free-indirect discourse; but, as here, the paraphrase of thoughts is often felt to double as the narrator’s overt (as opposed to ironic) diagnosis or description of the character. For instance: The proposal pleased him too. It was one of his essential characteristics to delight in evoking the sentiment of the past. In whose eyes?
Or, differently: They had made her completely drunk. A curious house the Deluigi’s must be! He did not bear Angiolina any grudge because his own pleasure that evening had indeed been perfect.The second sentence is direct paraphrase. The third might be either a description of his state of mind, in the narrator’s eyes, or else his own narration paraphrased.
Or, differently again, because the key phrase has moral freight: So he found himself in the middle of there lad with that latter in his hand, a tangible proof of the basest action he had ever committed in his life, but of which he only became conscious now that Angiolina was no longer sitting beside him. “Basest” might be in the eyes of both the narrator and Emilio.
The remarkable thing is: it doesn’t matter whether we can say for certain–or better yet: it matters that we cannot. It is one of his essential characteristics to delight in evoking the sentiment of the past–maybe he knows and maybe he doesn’t. And his own pleasure that evening had indeed been perfect. And it indeed has valid claim to being the basest action he has committed in his uneventful life. In each of these cases, there is uncertainty as to whether diagnosis, description, and judgment originates with the narrator or with the character, but whether or not it does, there is no irony because either could comfortably take entire possession of the phrase.
Where there is irony, it comes either dramatically, when we are told that a character believes something that is patently delusional–He would devote the rest of his life to Amalia–and require no narrative subtlety to see why; or else through a juxtaposition of facts, afforded by the narrator’s willingness to simply tell us when a character is wrong:
His presence in this room did no one any good, whereas if he went to Angiolina he could bring back with him a sacrifice to lay at Amalia’s feet. Balli, astounded by his words, tried to dissuade him from his plan, but he replied that he was going to the appointment because he wanted to profit by his state of mind to free himself forever from Angiolina. Stefano [Balli] could not believe him; he thought he heard the tones of the old, weak Emilio…
And it is no irony at all when a character’s pathetic self-interest is flagrant on the page: He pictured himself at Amalia’s side, cured, with her reason restored to her, and again become capable of appreciating his affection.
The novel then presents a situation intended for the most sophisticated techniques of free-indirect discourse, susceptible to the most exquisite narratorial ironies–and then resists both, brusquely moving between paraphrase of one character’s thoughts and paraphrase of another’s, and statement of what characters feel and think from a sturdily external vantage point.
In part, it is owing to the psychology of Emilio, the narcissistic sentimentalist, who is not himself sure what he feels, until he finds himself coddling his own feelings, unexpectedly, and who almost never can accurately gauge why he feels what he feels. The narrator can gain no better purchase on a character with so little purchase on himself; Emilio is not even, like Madame Bovary, capable of maintaining a consistent fantasy in which to star.
But the psychology is itself a symptom of society.
The novel takes up the exhaustion and dregs of bourgeois ideals. And as such, it refuses the great achievement of bourgeois prose: the novel’s free-indirect discourse, with its dance of attendant ironies.Without aspiring to return to the past, it finds its way beyond the prose style that, Franco Morretti describes as having “European literature from its didactic function, replacing an all-wise narrator with large doses of free indirect style.”
In its approach, it also rejects satire, comedy, tragedy, history; all of the modes to which the novel had aspired during the reign of the bourgeois novel reader. The nineteenth-century had seen bourgeois novels and anti-bourgeois novels. Here instead is an a-bourgeois novel.
Its form, tone, mood, and timber are determined only the wayward, contradictory, and unanchored hopes, desires, and fears of its subject, and nothing unites these because the novel does not prescribe the nineteenth-century’s account of a coherent self or a conflicted–of a domestic or historical self–of a moral or economic self. The novel emerges from a sliver in intellectual history when the conscious self was being undone, when the mind was opened as a region of unknown and potentially unknowable influences on behavior. Here and now one is drawn to classical art; here and now one drawn to physical gratification; here and now only flirtation; here one obligingly indulges in domestic duties; now an effort at self-cultivation. A life is pushed along through time as situation, opportunity, desire, inclination, purpose, and intent have it, the hold of any one succeeding or interceding in the other without any final foundational cause. Freud would soon intervene in the state of affairs, but Svevo does not seem anxious by the state of affairs; would a description or account help matters anyway, he seems to imply.
What unites situation, opportunity, desire, inclination, purpose, and intent is the bourgeois experience: it bounds the available mentalities, outlets, attitudes, and judgments available to the characters. They turn in and around the elements of their experience with indifference of fish around a dead coral reef.
All of the characters are of course failed bourgeois: we never hear about Emilio’s monotonous job, we do not believe in Balli’s talent, and Amalia’s domestic duties are by rote, too dull for description. They live without conceivable futures and with pasts that have almost no bearing on the novel, or on their lives, except for what was not done in them; Balli’s story of coming up in the world, an Italianate Great Expectations, is airless and inconsequential for the novel and for the man.
And none of it matters: in the novel, nothing is absurd enough to be comic or tragic; there is a sense of futility without a compulsion to blame or forgive. History is not excluded; the unification of Italy could likely be heard in the remarks about incompatible dialects; but history is felt most of all to be the deck that is dealt characters, one that has grown stagnant; there is no sense that characters have been deprived of futures or pasts–just the sense that characters have lost the need to make anything of either.
But the novel is alive, and this by virtue of the author’s strength and energy; his hold over his materials and the ease and sure touch by which he adjusts and orients them as he sees fit; he retains vitality that is absent from his characters’ world; still fixated on the bourgeois world, the novel frees itself from its bourgeois destiny.